What Makes a Minnesota Bar a Dive?
Beyond a stool, a cheap drink, and a barkeep who chews the fat, it depends on who you ask
Bull’s Horn Food and Drink
photo by David J. Turner
What qualifies as a dive bar? “Dive” used to be reserved for shady, time-honored establishments, but has evolved into a descriptor for classic, no-frills neighborhood bars where you can sidle up to a well-worn bar, slouch over a pint, and, if you’re lucky, get some grub to wash down the alcohol. What about spots that have the aesthetic, but lack the history? Are those dives in the making? Out of dozens of places around Minnesota that might fit into one or the other group, we compare an old standby and a relative newcomer.
St. Paul’s Spot Bar, which has operated since 1885, squarely falls into the “always-dark local haunt” category, and as the oldest bar in Minnesota, its dive authenticity is unquestionable. “We’re not going to pretend to be anything else; we’re not going to try anything else,” says Meridith O’Toole, who co-owns The Spot with her daughter, Emilie. Over the years, The Spot has rarely undergone any changes because, as O’Toole says, change is hard. People don’t come to a dive because it has the latest updates or trends. They come because they want a corner of the world that’s theirs, unchanging and unwavering.
Instead of a business growing up in a neighborhood, The Spot is old enough that the neighborhood seems to have grown up around it. With a barn-like shape and faded, all-wood exterior, it’s like the last remnant of small-town history amid today’s white houses and chain-link fences. Inside, the second hand basically stops.
“We have all walks of life, and as long as they behave, they’re welcome and befriended,” says Cary Armstead, Spot bartender for over 25 years. “We don’t have to worry a lot about things like manners. Anybody could come in here, and I would hope they feel comfortable, or if they didn’t, that they’d tell the bartender. ”
Bull's Horn Food and Drink
photo by David J. Turner
Food is usually frozen-burrito quality, according to Armstead, but there’s a yearly hotdish cook-off and occasional freebie crockpot and chili-dog snacks. Add cribbage days and the Tie Guy selling vintage clothing every month, and the space feels community-driven with a sprinkling of eccentric, like the old-timer on the job who knows all and has well-established quirks.
On the other end of the dive spectrum is Bull’s Horn Food and Drink, which opened last fall where classic bar Sunrise Inn used to reside in south Minneapolis. “I consider us a dive bar,” says co-owner Amy Greeley. “However, I fully understand and take the criticism of the people who walk in and say you can’t be a dive bar yet because, again, I agree that it’s about history and time…We’ll build it.”
When customers came back after its reopening, they marveled at how familiar it felt within its wood-paneled walls. “Our space had been a bar for about 70 years,” says Bull’s Horn co-owner Doug Flicker. “The bar itself has gouges in it from people fussing with it, burn marks from cigarettes burning into the wood.” According to Greeley, the dark interior and opaque windows let you walk in and leave the world behind for a different place and time. Sound familiar?
photo by David J. Turner
The bathrooms and the food received an update, though. James Beard Award semifinalist Flicker kept the menu accessible, inexpensive, and in baskets with the red and yellow condiment squirters on the table—with some updates to the quality. If you want to give him the ultimate tip of the hat, play a song on his record jukebox while munching on a burger with American cheese. (That’s the only cheese Flicker thinks belongs on a burger, and Bull’s Horn makes it in house.)
Even if Bull’s Horn dated back to 1885, its dive nuances would be its own. Dives are more about what they aren’t—stuffy, overpriced, exclusive—than exactly what they are. They beat to the pulse of their individual communities, and that’s something you can’t replicate.
Find Your Dive
The metro itself could take up this whole roundup. To fire off a few: 19 Bar, CC Club, Palmer’s, Vegas Lounge, and Tony Jaros’ River Garden in Minneapolis. Kelly’s Depot Bar & Grill, Hat Trick Lounge, and Half Time Rec in St. Paul. Shantytown Grill in Bloomington. Corner Bar in St. Michael. Frenchman’s Pub in Richfield. Whitey’s Bar in Stillwater. Southern Rail in Centerville. Babe’s Place in Shakopee. This’ll keep you busy for a while.
In Brainerd, a good handful of watering holes include Yesterday’s Gone Bar & Grill and The Pit Stop. The first’s exterior doesn’t have much to brag about (not that it’s an anomaly in that sense), but once you get inside, you can treat yourself to one of the best burgers in Minnesota. The Pit Stop is a classic bar with a billiards table, but the local vibe and the bartenders stand out. Other central Minnesota spots are Johnny C’s Sports Bar in Little Falls, Z103 Bar & Grill in Fergus Falls if you don’t mind some college kids in the mix, and Beaudreau’s Bar and MC’s Dugout in St. Cloud. Just outside the metro, go for Elk River’s Sunshine Depot, the city’s oldest sports bar, for pizza and cold beer.
Mankato has Oleander Saloon in its old scenic district, and NaKato Bar & Grill allegedly has one of the state’s largest whiskey, bourbon, and scotch selections. Rochester has the North Star Bar, among others, Zumbrota has Neptune Bar, and even quaint, artistic Red Wing has places like Andy’s Sports Bar & Grill. During your trip to New Ulm, make sure to stop at Mowan’s Bar, which may be a little more local-centric and a little less dive, but it sure nails the alcohol basics. While Winona has many bars to choose from, hit the 500 Club to watch sports.
There’s a slew of dive bars along Highway 61 (Atkinson’s Elmwood Inn, Two Harbors’ Carmody 61, Carlton’s Streetcar Kitchen & Pub, and more), but to cover your bases, swing by Duluth for Curly’s Bar, Reef Bar, R.T. Quinlan’s, plus Anchor Bar & Grill in Superior, Wisconsin, nearby. A little farther north is Ely with Dee’s Bar & Lounge and Zaverl’s Bar, and Virginia, Minnesota, has Pauly G’s with its gold jello shots.
photo by Jon Forness
The city of Ada has Pub 21, complete with trivia and Grain Belt lamps, whereas the nearby Detroit Lakes has Bleachers Bar & Grill and an outdoor deck overlooking Deadshot Bay. Even farther north, we have live music in Bemidji’s Toddy’s Pub and Grub, pool tables at Park Rapids’ Royal Bar, and some “frickles”—fried pickles—at Mick’s Office in Moorhead.
Digital Extra: MN's Diviest Dive Bar
Take Bucket List Bars’ virtual tour of the state’s oldest continuously run dive bar, today known as The Spot in St. Paul, then read our take on what makes a Minnesota bar a dive.