The Unofficial Dive Bar & Grill in St. Anthony begs the question: Can a place that’s been open less than six months (in a former IHOP, no less) really be a bona fide dive bar?
Dive bars have a gritty patina and enticingly unsavory reputation acquired over years of spilt beer, cooking grease, and in the case of older establishments, cigarette smoke. There are regulars at the bar and long-time bartenders behind it.
Those looking for a sanitized, family-friendly version of a dive bar will feel at home at the Unofficial. There’s an entire wall of windows, which eliminates that dingy, it’s-always-midnight-in-here vibe. There’s a bar along the opposite wall, but also plenty of booths, tables, and high tops.
While only time can create the appropriate, shall we say, ambience of a dive, the food should be easy to nail. At a dive bar, you don’t expect anything fancy. The food is carbo-loaded and fried, there mostly to soak up the beer you’re slamming back. The menu doesn’t aim for any gastronomic heights, but it does satisfy the munchies, whether at happy hour or late into the night.
The Unofficial aims for a slightly elevated version of bar food. Everything is made from scratch, no frozen French fries or pre-formed burger patties here. The effort pays off in some dishes more than others.
The homemade tater tots represent bar food at its best. They’re fried, cheesy golf ball-size nuggets that are nothing like the ones from your school cafeteria. You can get them with Cajun or Parmesan seasoning, which sounds like an extra burst of flavor, but which is actually a too-thick coating of fake-tasting powder. Think an overabundance of powdered sugar on a donut hole and you get the idea. Also, it costs an extra 50 cents. Forgo it. You’ll also pay for your dipping sauce: $1 for seasoned sour cream or roasted garlic mayo, $3 for other choices, including a bacon blue cheese sauce.
On the full meal side of the menu, the burgers are a good choice. Weighing in at 1/3 pound, the patties are cooked on flat-top grill, and emerge juicy on the inside, with a nice crispiness around the edges.
Go old school, with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and mustard, or for the non-purists, go crazy with one of the many variations like the Face Melter. Definitely not for the faint of heart or fans of "Minnesota spicy," the burger’s fiery toppings include pepper Jack cheese, diced green chiles, and ghost chile aioli.
Less successful was the taco salad, a Tex-Mex staple that relies on a few basic ingredients, none of which hit the mark. The taco shell was not freshly fried, and had the tough texture of a stale fortune cookie instead of a delicate crunch. The ground beef was under seasoned, and there wasn’t much of it; the accompanying salsa was as bland as the beef. Oddest of all, however, was the lettuce. Instead of opting for the divey original of shredded iceberg, the taco shell was filled with a spring lettuce mix. The jalapenos the server offered were the only thing that spiced up the salad.
The servers were a class act, functioning as a tag team, taking orders, delivering food, and refreshing drinks regardless of who the table belonged to. The service was casual and familiar in the best way, with everyone treated as a regular, even first-timers. One server, who should be auditioning for a spot on The Voice, sang along with the tunes on the sound system, eliciting smiles from everyone within earshot.
If a singing server isn’t enough diversion, the back of the restaurant houses a pinball machine, a shooting game, and a skee-ball machine. During dinner, some of the youngest guests took full advantage of the skee-ball. At the risk of sounding crotchety, the noise — and a few errant balls — were a little nerve-wracking.
The Unofficial features a full bar, as well as a large beer selection in cans, bottles, and on tap. The restaurant’s 3-4-5 happy hour let’s you choose your price point: For $3 you get the cheapest beer and single rail pour drinks, plus a choice of appetizers; go up to $4 and you get better beer and fancier apps; go crazy and spend $5 for premium beers and happy hour entrees like braised pork fried rice.
Chris Christopherson, owner of the Unofficial, says he wants to “create a place where people of every stripe can hang out.” During a recent visit, the dinner crowd included couples young and old, a few families, people enjoying a drink after work, and two guys at the bar who knew the servers by name, and vice versa – the first of the regulars, perhaps?
The Unofficial Dive Bar & Grill
3701 Stinson Blvd., St. Anthony
Monday - Friday, 11 a.m. - 1 a.m.
Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. - 1 a.m. (brunch from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. both days)
Happy hour 3 p.m. - 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. - midnight daily