It's about as simple as this: If you hated the original Country Bar, you will probably love it now. If you loved it, well, you won't recognize it, and you just might hate it.
The old: A dank but benevolent dive, the Country Bar was comfortingly dark and clammy. It was frayed at the edges, often pungent with the musk of old fryer grease and urinal cakes. They had an excellent jukebox and a heavy pour on hard liquor at drinking man's prices. This was one of the last vestiges of a more diverse Uptown — black, white, young, old, boozy and boozier, with the inevitable, intermittent ne'er-do-well. It wasn't homogenous and it wasn't boring. Famous Shorty & Wags fried chicken, cooked right behind the bar, were your best bet for sopping up whatever you were sipping.
The new: This Country Bar is bright, clean, designed within an inch of Pottery Barn, and smells of new wood and freshly shampooed hair. Good bottles of wine have pushed cheap cans of Lone Star beer to the margins, and the emphasis is on Mezcal and good bourbon. We're also somewhat saddened to report that there is mixology, involving things like agave, kombucha, and bitters. Prices are relatively fair ($8 a drink) except for a cheekily named "Good Old Pal," VO Canadian Whiskey and Diet Coke, for $6, which seems a bit steep. The antlers and wagon wheels remain. There are purse hooks.
One obvious non-negotiable was reintroducing the famous Shorty & Wags fried chicken wings (now coming out of a proper kitchen). So far keeping up with these has been a tall order to manage. But general manager Scott Hurlbut says that they're working very hard on these wings, and if they "serve them to seven different people, they'll get seven different opinions." Our opinion is to avoid any possibility of consternation and instead choose the far superior spiced vinegar wing — tangy, sour, hot — sort of a Buffalo wing without the mess.
Food was never the point at the Country Bar, and it's a relief to see that they haven't gone full-flung foodist here. Aside from the wings, the ubiquitous burger is there, with cheese options and add-ons like bacon, egg, and ham. The California Burger didn't stand up to the superiority of the many, many great burgers in town, but we're kind of okay with that. Think of it as a take on the small-town dive bar burger that you house because you are drunk, and in that moment, it is the most magical thing in the world. And for that, it's pretty charming. Next to a decent frozen fry, it's good enough. Extra kudos for good tomatoes and excellent pickles.
Other gut-bomb booze absorbers include a variety of nachos with house-made potato chips as the base, an oddball tuna melt with peanut butter, and a smattering of deep-fried stuff: sweet potato fries, fried green beans, a pile of fries with sauces, etc. And it's all good enough.
Gone are the sweaty dark walls and in their place are exposed brick, track lighting, antler chandeliers, and ceiling frescoes! The space is worth a look for the transformation alone.
But the question we arrive at is this: If the new Country Bar is not about the food, and it's no longer a place to swill cheap booze, and it's a pretty space, which Uptown is rife with— then what will we use it for?
The homogenization of the "old" Uptown is way too tired a lament to get into here. The metamorphosis is all but complete. If you want live music, grit, or diversity of almost any kind, it would be best to get yourself to another part of the city. Or, at least down to the corner of Franklin and Lyndale, where uber-dive Mortimer's and 40-year BBQ institution Rudolph's hunker staunchly, relics from another era.
So, love the new Country Bar, or leave it alone. Nostalgia will get you nothing but heartbreak, and crying in your beer is more expensive these days.
The Country Bar
3006 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis