What a relief to stroll into the Viking Bar in the middle of the day last Wednesday, its first day back in business after a decade hiatus, and see that not too much has changed. An almost full house of regulars were there in full effect, occupying bar stools and drinking as hale and heartily as they were ten years ago.
The fabled West Bank bar and live music venue has a long and storied (and sometimes grisly) history. Indeed, as I walked in, an old regular was pointing to a photo and telling a companion: "That's the old owner. He got stabbed. To death. Right there," indicating a spot in the bar. (In 1996, Viking owner Scott Dennis Nelson tried to make a patron named Jorge Munoz leave the bar. Munoz pulled a knife on Nelson, then stabbed and killed him).
Somber though the story is, we hope it won't reflect on the new Viking, its ownership, or their plans. The refurbished bar is already doing much to add vibrance to its prominent corner of the neighborhood. Check out the small outdoor patio, complete with landscaping and table service.
Owners Patrick Johnston and Aaron and Amy Britt finally took on the renovation that so many had considered, then re-considered, during the bar's long vacancy. Johnston said it was only after he signed the lease that he learned he'd have to build a brand new kitchen into the space to adhere to the city's food-to-liquor ratio ordinances. As a result, the space now sports an all-new basement kitchen, and they're currently serving simple sandwiches, brats, and dogs with a menu that boasts only humanely raised and local meats. This year's sandwich darling, the fried bologna, takes a prominent place.
This flourish is one of the few that could be construed as contemporary or precious — but the trio have managed to keep the soul of the beloved dive intact. They haven't succumbed to any temptations to over-design the place or get cute with embellishments or quirks. Instead, it got a good scrub, they removed the drop ceiling to reveal a gorgeous corrugated antique one, and the restrooms are new and spotless with the additional illumination of skylights.
The only overt observable misstep we could detect was an over-abundance of flat-screen TVs, the scourge of all modern-day drinking and eating civilization. But Johnston says he plans on hosting a lot of tailgating parties at the bar, and the screens will be necessary for the all-important games.
If your sport of choice is drinking, know that the menu is made up of a few specialty cocktails, some cheap cans of beer, and a tight list of drafts dominated by local brews. There are even eight good wines by the glass, so wine drinkers needn't resort to that one bottle that was opened sometime in the '80s with the peeling label and the aroma of old gasoline. Rejoice.
Johnston and the Britts are all avid music lovers, and the live music legacy of the bar will live on. They'll have bands about five nights weekly, and you can keep an eye on their music calendar here. They're also paying a great deal of attention to their jukebox, which will be curated with help from Electric Fetus clerks, local musicians, and regulars.
"We're letting so many people put discs in the juke that our own picks keep narrowing," Aaron said. But he doesn't mind. He wants people to think of the place as their home away from home. Everything from the tunes to the drinks to the food should be relaxed, yet high-quality.
"Everything that goes in your body here is quality."
1829 Riverside Ave., Minneapolis