Bull’s Horn asks the question: Can a dive bar be preserved?

Crispy chicken gizzards: Spicy and ideal for the daring

Crispy chicken gizzards: Spicy and ideal for the daring Alma Guzman

It had been nine months since I’d been to the Sunrise Inn, the city’s penultimate 3.2 bar, and as I approached its former home at the corner of 46th Street and 34th Avenue, it seemed at first like nothing had changed.

An old man leaned by the back door, smoking a cigarette. In sweatpants, a gray winter hat, and a dirty coat, sporting an unruly beard, he looked exactly like the regulars who were always at the old Sunrise, one of south Minneapolis’ most well-worn dives.

But when he went through the door and into the brightly lit Bull’s Horn, the bar’s new-and-improved incarnation, he and his equally disheveled companion stuck out like thumbs through fingerless gloves. As the line of well-dressed couples and families began clustering in the doorway and the waitlist grew, the grimy couple didn’t linger long.

First, a quick booze primer. The city of Minneapolis has a long and tortured relationship with its liquor, and way back in 1874, city fathers declared south Minneapolis to be mostly off-limits. Any place south of Franklin Avenue could only serve 3.2 beer, with a precious few exceptions. For almost a hundred years, weak beer was the law of the land in this quiet part of town.

It’s a fact that 3.2 beer is objectively bad, that the old Sunrise Inn had many problems, and that its octogenarian owner had offered to sell it to me more than once. (Lacking any money, I declined.) So when the husband-and-wife team of Doug Flicker (Esker Grove) and Amy Greely bought the building earlier this year, they were putting the old joint out of its misery.

Yet the question remained: What do you get when you combine the scruffiest bar in town with a pedigreed chef and a design team with great taste? I’d call it a dive bar transplant, and it has to be one of the most challenging of urban surgeries. The results raise some important questions about who belongs and who is left out of the new Minneapolis landscape—and the different ideas of progress that proliferate throughout the city.

Where classic beers (Old Style) meet current favorites (Fulton)

Where classic beers (Old Style) meet current favorites (Fulton) Alma Guzman

Let’s get the big stuff out of the way first. Both bathrooms have been obliterated, replaced with a brand new set of unisex stalls. That’s important, because the old Sunrise Inn had the worst bathroom in the city—a cramped hole at the bottom of a dank staircase—and going in there was as pleasant as licking the sidewalk. (I once saw a small hand-written sign wedged above the toilet that summed it up perfectly: “No Smoking No Kissing.”)

Speaking of holes, the one in the floor is gone, too. Back in the Sunrise days, there was a round opening in the floor, just larger than a beer can, the last remnant of an old 19th-century dive bar tradition where bartenders simply tossed empty bottles—and any other crap they didn’t like—through said holes. When the basements filled up with broken glass, whiskey drips, and other garbage, they’d clear it all out and start the process again. (Of the Sunrise basement, one manager admitted, “I had to clean that floor, and it was disgusting.”)

In fact, the whole floor of the bar has been replaced with stylish vintage tiles, arranged in five shades of gray. It’s just one of the ever-so-elegant touches in the remodel, along with nostalgia props like the bubble hockey game and 1971 jukebox (three plays for a quarter!) that entertain the anxiously waiting throngs.

But for all the changes, plenty has stayed the same. Most importantly: The bad beer is still the same price. Beer at the old Sunrise was as cheap as you’ll find this side of the Wisconsin border: $10 for a pitcher of Old Style, or $2.50 for a pint. At Bull’s Horn? Old Style is still $2.50 for a small or $3.50 for a large. What’s more, they’ve added some choice craft taps to round out the American lagers. There’s no better place to enjoy a Fulton Standard, which is to an Old Style what Bull’s Horn is to the Sunrise: both an homage and a vast improvement.

The big draw, though, is the food. The Sunrise had decent grub for a place with holes in the upholstery, and certainly it was priced well below the going rate. My staple was the plain grilled cheese sandwich—perfectly plated on styrofoam with a pair of pickle slices.

At Bull’s Horn, the food is improved without being obnoxious about it, and though the pickles remain, the rest of the ingredients have gotten a massive upgrade. The quality of the beef is better, of course, but it’s really the perfect St. Agnes buns and bread for which I’m wildly grateful. The chicken gizzard appetizer is spicy and ideal for the daring. There’s a “daily tray” featuring old-school foods like bologna and fish fry, all twists on supper-club classics. The roast beef sandwich really does remind me of the roast beef at Jimmy’s Bar in Northeast, for example, only far, far better. And the “gourmet Heggies” are pure Instagram fodder.

The true test of any dive bar’s authenticity is the pull tabs, and it’s here the question hinges. The Sunrise Inn’s old machine has been replaced with a real life pull-tab booth—minus the unaesthetic plexiglass—replete with a pull-tab lady playing Candy Crush next to a pack of Marlboros.

Still, the largest pile of pull tabs at Bull’s Horn sat next to an Askov-Finlayson “North” hat and belonged to a pair of hipsters holding court in a booth on a slow day. Where are the addicts? At a real dive, you expect people to be consumed by gambling, trading wads for twenties of hope, tossing tabs on the floor, celebrating a big winner by buying a round of beers.

What happens to a dive bar when the dive bar patrons are gone? If the only trucker hats are worn not by guys who drive trucks, but by creatives?

It’s undeniable, sitting on a stool next to the vintage jukebox, sipping beer from retro glasses, watching the crowd of people wait for a barstool, that the dive has changed forever. In the old days of the Sunrise, seemingly every inch of the wall was covered in handwritten signs, kitsch, and paraphernalia. Today, there’s some symbolic taxidermy and a curated collection of family photos arranged on a windowsill. Next to a “real” dive, the vibe feels flat, like a half-empty keg of Grain Belt that needs to be pumped.

And yet, I wonder if any of this matters. The “3.2 bar” was aways an uneasy compromise. I imagine that in its early days, the Sunrise Inn was more of a family-friendly place. Maybe today’s church basement aesthetic is true to the old spirit, and the new Bull’s Horn is returning the joint to its pre-lapsarian roots?

Bull’s Horn is important because, all throughout south Minneapolis, the old bars are disappearing. As branded apartments rise along alleys and tastes for both beer and burgers inexorably improve, the crusty ways are dying out. Unpretentious dives like Lyndale Avenue’s Country Bar or Minnehaha’s Rail Station keep getting fixed up, and if you’re into tradition, the improvements are often for the worse. Half the time, all traces of the past are erased. Nobody even seems apologetic about it.

Compared to the fates of those other lost dives, Bull’s Horn is something of a miracle. Here, the owners have some appreciation for the better qualities of a Minneapolis dive bar. Crappy beer is still available, for better or for worse, and the food remains simple—just elevated. Meanwhile, the bathroom no longer resembles a superfund site, and lingering until close doesn’t leave you depressed about the state of humanity.

So check it out, put your name on the waitlist, take a picture for Instagram, run your hands along the inscrutably scarred wood. Give it 10 years, and this place might have some stories of its own to tell. For now, as long as the beer’s cheap, whether it’s “real” or not doesn’t much matter. The sun rises on a new era, and Bull’s Horn hints at a future both tasteful and welcoming.

Bull’s Horn
4563 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis;