Why big name chefs are opening neighborhood bars

Bar Brigade aims to be honest, and not about "gamesmanship." In other words, it's a bar.

Bar Brigade aims to be honest, and not about "gamesmanship." In other words, it's a bar. Photo courtesy of Bar Brigade Facebook Page

It’d be easy to miss Bar Brigade if you didn't know what you’re looking for.

On an unassuming block of an unassuming stretch of Cleveland Avenue, an illuminated “Sportsman’s Barber Shop” sign with a jaunty aqua blue fishing lure at its edge brightens the sidewalk. Above that, there’s a standard-issue PBR sign.

Emblazoned under it, one word: “Brigade.”

Inside, the space is small, and every inch of it is being used. A drink rail at the window creates a few more seats, and tables are wedged in where you may have thought no table could go. It feels vaguely European with the affordable wine list and smattering of snacks for sipping. At its heart, Bar Brigade is without doubt a St. Paul neighborhood bar.

On the heels of his exiting Strip Club, east St. Paul’s beloved steakhouse/Minnesota-centric restaurant, chef J.D. Fratzke has partnered with longtime restaurateur Matty O’Reilly to open this little casual bar with a little casual menu. The pair are not alone. Some of the biggest culinary names in town are switching gears from fine cuisine destination to modest drinking place. 

Across the river, lauded chef Doug Flicker and his spouse and partner Amy Greely have purchased an old 3.2 bar, Sunrise Inn, and will re-name it Bull's Horn. They’re lovingly restoring the space, expanding the glass blocks around the door, and putting in a full commercial kitchen. But as with Brigade, they don’t want to change too much about its character.

Flicker is known for his nationally acclaimed former restaurant Piccolo, and he’s currently leading the kitchen at the Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove, where the food is as creative and pretty as the art in the galleries. Having just closed on the Sunrise Inn building, he’s now also contemplating taxidermy, a pool table, and jukebox selections.

Meanwhile, Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston, the partners behind celebrated Uptown lounge Nightingale, are revitalizing two beloved existing neighborhood drinking institutions: Mortimer’s in Uptown and Dusty’s in Northeast. They’ve also just opened their own pinball bar, TILT, where hot dogs will make up most of the menu.

What’s going on? Why should fancy chefs, known for expert ways with complex ingredients and experience in award-winning restaurants, bother with selling brewskis at the corner watering hole?

For Matty O’Reilly, it’s a matter of recognizing what the city needs at a given time. And what the city needs now is the neighborhood tavern, a place where “you’re cool if you’re in jeans, you’re cool if you’re dressed up, where if you lived in the neighborhood you would just land there.”

O'Reilly recalls a trip he took to Paris. “We wound up at this one tavern three nights in a row. We didn’t eat at any super fancy restaurants. In France, French food is presented in these everyday places.” He called this favorite Parisian place a “taverny dive bar.”

While Bar Brigade doesn’t have any TV screens, a hamburger (or even any beef, for that matter), or French fries on the menu, the place still gives off that tavern feel.

“Everyone should just feel welcome to pop in and feel good,” O’Reilly added. Judging by the crowds that wedge into the mere 44 seats nightly since they opened, they do.

The trend hasn’t been without its detractors. When Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston announced that they would be taking over operations at beloved dive Mortimer’s Uptown, a small corner of the internet went ballistic. The same corner went twice as wild when the couple announced a few weeks later that they’d brokered a similar deal with Dusty’s Bar, the Northeast dive with the infamous sandwich name “Dago” emblazoned on the facade.

“We've lost too many ‘dive’ bars in the last few years. Not everyone wants fancy all the time. You need a place that you can go with dirty hair every once in awhile,” one commenter quipped.

This response was more reasoned than the frowny faces and “thumbs down” emojis from others. Much of the angst seemed centered on the notion that the Nightingale owners were going to bring their “hipster” influence, and the dive bar would die.

But a little-known fact is that Jasha Johnston has tended bar at Mortimer’s for more than 20 years, which includes the full duration of his ownership at Nightingale. It’s quite possible that he knows that dive bar as well as anyone, if not better.

Photo courtesy Bull's Horn Facebook Page 

“Everybody wants to own a bar,” says Flicker, who just closed on the building that will be his own and is looking at a late summer opening. His family spent a lot of time in his aunt and uncle’s Pierz, Minnesota bar, Flicker’s Liquors, while he was growing up.

“At Flicker’s Liquors they did this thing called ‘Baloney Tuesdays’ where all the guys would sit around and eat freshly smoked ring baloney [from nearby Thielen Meats] on white bread and then smoke stogies. If you went in there, you were instant royalty. As kids, we got a roll of quarters. Bars are like that, right?”

They should be. At least some of them.

Flicker’s nostalgia around the simple, everyday neighborhood bar contrasts with past efforts to reinvent fine dining, in the hopes of wooing customers once, maybe twice a year.

“I’m just not that interested in the dining that was Piccolo right now, with just the birthday and just the anniversary. It doesn’t have the same weight anymore. It’s not a huge draw.”

Fratzke mirrors that sentiment.

“I want this to be the least ego-driiven endeavor of my life. I want this to be a place where your family can come and sit, or where you can have a date with your wife, and not make you re-evaluate how you feel about a certain cuisine. I want this to be honest, and not about gamesmanship.”

When I suggest to each of them that there’s a trend a-brewin’, they sort of shrug their shoulders. Flicker says, yeah, maybe there is a collective consciousness about such matters.

Says Fratzke: “Maybe we all do want something a little more homey, while everyone is feeling a little lost in the world.”

Whatever the reasons, the Twin Cities is currently graced by a handful of these new homes away from home, with more on the way. 

Bar Brigade and TILT are now open. Mortimer's and Dusty's are transitioning to ownership by Johnston and McCabe-Johnston, and Bull's Horn is hoping to open in August.

Bar Brigade 
470 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul

TILT Pinball Bar
113 E. 26th St., Minneapolis

2001 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis

Dusty’s Bar
1319 Marshall St. NE, Minneapolis

Bull’s Horn  
4543 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis