I often worry that dive bars are a dying breed.
The closure of another dingy hole—or worse, its improvement!—haunts my dreams. Without the dive, the last refuge of the urban working class, Minneapolis would be another bourgeois utopia full of shiny brass and Belgian tripel tulips.
Exactly what constitutes a dive bar is a matter of great debate, as it should be. Some hew to hard criteria: the lack of quality food or a “cash only” sign. Others rely on subtler signifiers: few employees and even fewer windows, menus scrawled by hand on a wall, a lax attitude toward hygiene, general seediness or languor. Proper dives are places where people plant themselves all day, and when you walk inside, heads turn to meet you with an unimpressed gaze.
So I tend to think of dives on a spectrum. There’s no litmus test. Dive bars mostly inhabit a gray area, swimming around in the space between family-friendly neighborhood bars, sports bars swirling with TVs, and a few other alcoholic sub-genres.
With that in mind, where are the purest dives of all, the places that best represent the genre? After systematically visiting every candidate in the city, I’ve devised the following short list of the most authentic dive bars within Minneapolis city boundaries, organized, naturally, by neighborhood.
West Bank: Palmer’s
If you want to understand what dive bars were like back in the 1890s, the kinds of places that spurred moralistic leaders to install draconian anti-booze laws in the first place, pick an evening and head down to Palmer’s on Cedar Avenue. Today Palmer’s has the rarest of combinations: a true adherence to the principles of the dive, and an impossibly thriving social scene. If Big John the bouncer lets you in, you’ll enter a kaleidoscope of race, class, and culture. A tiny stage that fills late at night with punk or blues musicians is wedged into the apex of the triangular room, while on Wednesday afternoons, the last remnants of the West Bank hippies still gather around a table to play folk songs. The back patio, awkwardly pressed against the edge of a massive ’70s housing project, is built on the ruins of modernism.
Northeast/Central: The Terminal Bar
The Otter Bar might give it a run for its money, but the purest dive in this rapidly changing part of Northeast is the Terminal Bar. These days it’s a literal museum to its longtime owner, Flem, who ran the joint without changing a thing since 1965, before he died last year. The dark nook is stacked with odd paraphernalia like your grandparents’ basement. This is what dives were like in the 1960s, only without many customers these days. The bar is being kept alive by Flem’s wife, so go see it while it lasts, because this neighborhood is changing fast.
Northeast/Riverfront: Jimmy’s Bar
There are a great many pure dive bars in this sliver of Northeast, like Tony Jaros’ River Garden and the Knight Cap. They are all remnants of the 1883 liquor limits that pushed the booze up against the industrial waterfront. But Jimmy’s Bar reigns supreme as a thriving dive on Fourth Street, named for its longtime owner and still overflowing with regulars. The bar once had a second story that was destroyed by a fire, and inside the wood-paneled walls, you’ll find meat raffles and pull tabs galore, simple sandwiches served on styrofoam plates, and lots of folks having fun around the curved wooden bar. Fun fact: “Chicken or beef TV dinners” appears on the wall-mounted menu. The story behind that item is too long and curious to get into here, so ask an old-timer if you go.
Downtown Minneapolis: Cuzzy’s Bar
Downtown used to be home to hundreds of divy booze halls, but they are almost all gone, victims of nearly a century of urban renewal. Moby Dick’s was the most recent famous victim, exiled from the city in the 1980s. Today, despite the decent food, Cuzzy’s Bar on Washington has to bear the torch of the old Gateway dive. Its walls are covered in old dollar bills, and the floor is more slanted than a Breitbart article. North Loop bros, Twins fans, and everyone else wandering downtown hold court around the church-basement tables.
North Minneapolis: The T-Shoppe
The last 3.2 ABV dive in town, the T-Shoppe sits far north on Fremont. Nobody really knows how it got its name, though rumors persist that it sold alcohol in tea cups during Prohibition. Today the T-Shoppe plies weak Schells in frosty mugs from an old fridge, and boasts a log cabin feel straight from the north woods. Neighbors from the upstairs apartments routinely pop in. A true dive, despite the weak drink!
South Minneapolis: Schooner Tavern
For a century, south Minneapolis has been zoned and carefully guarded against dive bars and booze. The few exceptions to the rule have been disappearing fast. Once the Sunrise Inn closed last year, for remodeling and upgrades, the truest remaining dive has to be the Schooner Tavern. It sits at the bottom of an old “single-room occupancy” hotel, a brand of once-ubiquitous housing that has almost disappeared from the city. This part of town, by the old rail yard, was once called “the Hub of Hell,” and was riddled with dive bars. Most of the old places are gone, replaced by boring low-slung offices or surface parking. And yet the Schooner stands tall on 27th Avenue next to the abandoned Rainbow Foods like living history.
The fate of the unironic dive is unclear. Outside of rock and punk lore, dive bars are rarely celebrated. At best, politicians ignore them. At worst, city policies actively erase these historical refuges. In 1883, Minneapolis Mayor George Pillsbury instituted liquor patrol limits, which drew lines around downtown, Northeast, and the West Bank. Beyond these havens of vice, liquor was not allowed. (There were lucrative exceptions, of course.) The limits had the perverse effect of concentrating dive bars within certain zones, where they still sit today, making Minneapolis into a city polarized by alcohol. Long the scapegoats of moralistic crusades, our remaining dive bars are survivors of a century of class warfare fought through the subtle gloves of zoning codes and liquor laws.
The remodeling of south Minneapolis’ Sunrise Inn may be a bellwether for the future. The unglamourous hole had no pretensions, but it did have regulars and a jar of peanuts for sale by the scoop. It was finally sold last fall when its old owners found willing buyers, who are fixing up the place by adding such improvements as floors without holes in them and palatable bathrooms. It won’t be the same, at least not to old dive patrons with nowhere else to go. Elsewhere in South, the Rail Station changed its name to the Howe and added granite countertops, the Country Bar is fancy now, and the Hexagon upgraded its taps. Meanwhile, the land around the Cardinal Bar, next to the Blue Line, is finally being developed. That’s good news for the city, but bad for fans of awkwardly painted murals.
The future of dives has always been precarious, thanks to their noisome clientele, but especially in a city like Minneapolis, dives were built on thin ice. Now, stuck between the rock of gentrification and the hard place of economic decline, their future is cloudier than ever. Drink up while you can.
Stay tuned for the list of the most authentic dive bars in St. Paul, in next week’s issue of City Pages.