Oh, man, who wants a drink? Some nights call for a darker than average drinking spot. Somewhere that serves stiff drinks without an attitude. A place where jeans are invited and dirty-sloganed T-shirts are plentiful. A joint with a great jukebox, beers on tap that don't have any ironic advertising, and a little peace and quiet from the Man. We need a dive bar.
Dive bars to us mean a neighborhood joint without pretention. A great burger and a pull-tab booth don't hurt. Every great neighborhood in this city has its own. We've collected a few of our favorites here.
10. Kelly's Depot Bar
After years of hanging onto a name that seemed superfluous due to the empty, paved-over railroad tracks, the Depot is finally set to be a stop-off for thirsty rail travelers once the light rail is done. With luck it will hang in there through the construction. This is a great neighborhood joint that's a little light on the neighborhood. It's no-frills, just a quick pour on a tap or a stiff cocktail. It's got a full kitchen as well, an added dive bar bonus, and makes a great cheeseburger. (241 Kellogg Blvd. E, St. Paul; 651.298.0099)
9. Red Dragon
When selecting a dive bar for an evening of debauchery, several criteria must be met. First, you want sketchy decor. Second, you want to be surrounded by interesting characters. Third, you want to get ripped for cheap. The Red Dragon gets a gold star for all three. The ambiance is seedy but not overwhelmingly so. The interior is a pleasant cross between an opium den and a pizza joint from the '80s. The outside is white concrete. By the doorway you'll find drunken smokers chatting with people on their way to the liquor store, gas station, or bus top. Inside you'll discover friendly barhoppers putting quarters in the jukebox for songs they will never hear. It doesn't matter anyway; they're going to sing along to whatever tune comes on. The drinks are insane. For $6 to $8 you can order a cocktail that will have you crawling home in less than an hour.(2116 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis; 612.874.8870)
8. The Rail Station
There's a disturbing lack of real bars around this Longfellow neighborhood. Most spots only carry a liquor license for wine and beer. While the Rail Station has the full liquor license, it also has all the accoutrements of a great neighborhood dive. It's got an extensive menu, pool tables, a designated and heavily populated smoker's spot, and meat raffles. Although the recent updates to the room make it considerably less divey than it used to be, the neighborhood regulars and an occasional gallivanting misanthrope bring it down to our level. (3675 Minnehaha Avenue, Minneapolis; 612.729.3663 website)
7. The Spot
A bar has occupied the northeast corner of Randolph and Victoria since 1885, and it's safe to say little but the name has changed in those 117 years. Then it was Wittmer's Saloon and Tobacco Shop; now it's the Spot. Michael O'Toole, the current proprietor, took over with a fellow bartender in 1983. "I was tired of working for crazy saloon owners," O'Toole explains. Most drinks cost $1.95, no matter if you want a whiskey and water or a pint of MGD. If you really want to unload some dough, order a pint of Guinness for $3.70. There's no happy hour, because it jacks up insurance costs. Like most St. Paul bars, the Spot used to be a union shop. Stan "Killer" Kowalski, the professional wrestler, was the bar's union rep. Every month he'd come by and hit up the bartenders for their dues. On Friday mornings back then, the Spot would be packed to overflowing with overnight workers from the nearby Univac plant. Nowadays there's still a steady run of 8 a.m. drinkers. It's a good bar to sit and watch baseball in--O'Toole is a big Twins fan. There are dartboards and a jukebox but no pool table (again, drives up the insurance). On the back wall are pictures of other Spot Bars around the world from Staples, Minnestoa, to London, England. "It all started with the one in Bangkok," O'Toole says. "Some lady was stumbling down an alley and found a Spot Bar." This Spot, however, seems bound to remain exactly where it is. (859 Randolph Ave, St. Paul; 651.224.7433)
6. Christiensen's Big V's Saloon
The thirtysomething knit-hat-topped guy returned from outside and announced, as if declaring the sky is blue, that it's 50 degrees out, and, oh, by the way, "Hey, that hooker was just peeing in the doorway." Like many bars, the smoking ban found Big V's setting up an area for huffing butts outside the door. Unlike most, theirs consists of that one little folding char and a coffee can on University Avenue. It wears its diveyness with punk rock pride, pulling in great (and sometimes not-so-great) lesser known bands every day of the week. During the lighter hours, the University habitues finds solace at the bar, quaffing vodka drinks from the plastic bottles preferred by hardcore drinkers on the go. (1567 University Ave, St Paul; 651.645.8472)
5. Tony Jaros'
The entire room is a bar. It's just not a large bar and a small room--it's an entire room barely able to accommodate the big ol' bar in the center. At this bar, untouched by the hand of time since it opened in the '60s, they serve your average run-of-the-mill crazy-strong cocktails that drinkers who get around have come to expect from Nordeast Minneapolis, but that's not what they're known for. Jaros' is about two drinks: the Greenie and the Pinky. These lighter-fluid-like concoctions are made from a secret mix, but as far as we can tell it's powdered Jell-O and vodka. Before you begin cringing, go with us on this--sugar, lime, almost flavorless and likely potato-based vodka in a clear plastic cup creates more lost memories than any other drink poured in all the land. No matter how old and dignified you are, you'll soon find yourself hooting at the top of your lungs, "Woo!" Don't bother with cards, checks, or anything other than cold, hard cash inside Jaros'. Beyond the ridiculous drinks, Jaros' is a great space to sit back, have a couple and enjoy the hard-working crew that gathers for the fried pork tenderloin sandwiches. Because, if we haven't mentioned this already, the whole room is a bar. (2500 Marshall St NE, Minneapolis; 612.789.9728)
4. Shaw's Bar & Grill
A little bit rock 'n' roll, a little bit down and dirty, Shaw's Bar and Grill has walls bedecked with rock posters from the masters, guitar demi-god Clapton and the Stones. Two nights a week it brings in live music with that roadhouse-blues-influenced rock 'n' roll. On off nights the bar is mixed with colorful, highly opinionated and friendly regulars and folks just coming in for the burger. The Shaw burger is advertised as a three-napkin affair, but that might be generous. A fantastic mess of cheese, onions, condiments, and meat, it's not first-date food. Knock it back with an ice cold pint of Nordeast and don't be afraid to participate in that nearby, ongoing debate that somehow includes talk of both scrapbooking and legal driving limits. (1528 University Ave NE, Minneapolis; 612. 781.4405,website)
3. Tapper's Pub
A great neighborhood bar serves the neighborhood's residents well. Tapper's is a perfect example of how well that works when the bar is in as diverse a neighborhood as this St. Paul pocket. The collection of souls on any given evening is likely to be of different ethnic origin and income brackets, all sharing a few pints or a couple of properly stiff cocktails. The mood is jovial and about as welcoming as St. Paul gets. Pull up a stool, play a little bar bingo, and take a quick breather from the outside world. Shelter, sustenance by way of Hegie's pizza, and soul-affirming beverages are always available inside this off-the-beaten path corner of the world. (879 Stryker Ave, St Paul; 651.457.6784)
2. Skinner's Pub & Eatery
St. Paul's West Seventh neighborhood is a delightful smorgasbord of dive bar delights. A lot of bars have their bingo nights, pull tabs, and fried taco mornings, but Skinner's has a couple of attributes that stand out. It's a favorite for those in search of cheap, stiff drinks and a decent bite to eat. With a menu boasting some of the best square-cut pizza and fried chicken around, it's easy to drink your fill and not wake up drowning in regret the next day. The prices can't be beat: Top-shelf drinks max out at $4.50. Just don't go craving a martini, since there are no martini glasses (or maybe just one, but it's been sitting there like a barkeep's spinster sister for years). Grab a tallboy or a pint of the Beer of the Month Baby for only a couple of bucks and save your change for the jukebox. (919 Randolph Ave, St. Paul; 651.291.0146, website)
1. Country Bar and Grill
Sometimes one wants to drink with the dead. Bellied up to the bar inside this Lyn/Lake institution, you'll find yourself surrounded by animal hides and ghosts of drunkyards past. The thick smell of hot grease permeates the bar, now that the smoking ban passed from news into normal. Order cheese curds and a brew, but don't come expecting to see the pretty people. Those youngsters just finding their well-accessorized way through Uptown won't be passing through these doors. This is for the gnarly, unkept crew, those who remember the early days of complaining about the unending gentrification of this funky 'hood. The jukebox is likely to spin some old Johnny or Waylon tunes, songs about men accustomed to strong drinks and hard women, as timelessly weary and cool as the Country Bar itself. (3006 Lyndale Ave, Minneapolis; 612.824.7859)