The great northeast

Food, fun and alcohol await you in the bars of northeast Minneapolis.

Niels Strandskov

There’s no shortage of bars in northeast Minneapolis. Along with old brewery buildings and lots and lots of churches, bars are one of the chief distinguishing features of “Nordeast,” that little Slavic slice of Milwaukee confusingly situated directly north of downtown Minneapolis.

In recent years, northeast Minneapolis has undergone, depending on your perspective, a welcome renaissance or an unwelcome gentrification. When all the rockers and punks had to leave Uptown in the late 1980s, many of them moved into the cheap housing left by old-time residents of the neighborhood. Those Russians and Poles had decamped for the greener pastures of Blaine and Fridley, leaving aging but well-maintained housing stock for bohemians to colonize. A few years into the 1990s, however, a new colonization got underway. Attracted by the hipness that Northeast had grudgingly acquired, yuppies flocked in at the height of the boom, paying more than the actual value for starter houses on streets named after dead presidents. Now it’s getting harder and harder to spot a bunch of guys in work clothes loading amps and drum kits into vans, unless they’re moving to St. Paul.

For all that, the bars abide. Some are neighborhood bars, the kinds of places where it doesn’t pay to act any cooler than you are, and it definitely doesn’t pay to jostle past the regulars on your way to a table unless you’ve got a yen to swallow your own teeth. Others were neighborhood joints until the bohemian element moved in and started clamoring for alternative hits on the jukebox. Then there are a few places that have always been a bit more cosmopolitan, through accident or design. The following bar guide is far from complete, and endeavors to describe a representative sample of northeast Minneapolis bars rather than aspiring to be a “best of” guide.

Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge
2519 Marshall St. N.E.
(612) 788-9069

Since the closing of the Bali Hai Supper Club in 2000, the Twin Cities has suffered without a bona fide tiki bar. On Nov. 24 of last year, Leslie Bock, owner of St. Sabrina’s Parlor in Purgatory, put an end to this grievous state of affairs. Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge is the newest bar on this list, but it is already becoming a popular destination.

Andy Pants, one of Psycho Suzi’s four managers, said that despite a lack of advertising, the punk rock tiki bar, which is located in a former A&W drive-in, has already attracted a diverse clientele. During the lunch hour, he said, Psycho Suzi’s draws a crowd of local workers and residents who appreciate both the food and the ambience.

That come-as-you-are vibe is something that appeals to Pants himself, and Bock and her employees have done an amazing job of creating an aesthetic that can produce it. The main seating area of Psycho Suzi’s was formerly part of the drive-in ports and sports a slightly vaulted ceiling that recalls both the actual origins of the building and a hint of Polynesian architecture. The decor consists of copious bamboo accents and palm thatching, along with dozens of tiki mugs on shelves around the ceiling and an amusing fake wood-paneling carpet.

Psycho Suzi’s does not slack off when it comes to food and drink, however. There is a full menu of appetizers, pizza, sandwiches and salads, all reasonably priced. The bar offers half a dozen taps, plus numerous cans and bottles, and a selection of tiki drinks that come each in their own distinctive mug. The mugs can be purchased for $4 apiece. The tiki drinks are all reasonably strong and priced reasonably as well.

In contrast to other recent tiki bars, which by and large do not get it, Psycho Suzi’s captures a version of the tiki aesthetic that is well-suited to its locale while being true to the original lounge spirit that inspired the growth of tiki culture in the 1950s.

Tony Jaro’s River Garden
2500 Marshall St. N.E.
(612) 789-9728

Across the street from Psycho Suzi’s sits Tony Jaro’s River Garden and the two could scarcely be more different. Tony Jaro’s is a solid, if not stolid, neighborhood bar of the old school. There’s a kitchen, serving pork loin sandwiches among other things and the standard taps, including Grain Belt Premium. The bar sits in the center of a long, narrow room, the north end of which is a few steps higher than the south end. Televisions play sports coverage and the customers are not interested in any nonsense from you or anyone else.

What really sets Tony Jaro’s apart from its peers is the “Greenie,” a pleasantly simple cocktail that tastes like melted lime popsicle plus vodka. It’s a little bit funny to see the hardbitten regulars hunker down over their fluorescent green cocktails (served in clear plastic cups) in such a basic, respectably working-class establishment. But it’s probably not a good idea to chuckle.

The Sample Room
2124 Marshall St. N.E.
(612) 789-0333

A few blocks down Marshall sits the Sample Room, which pushes Northeast bar culture in yet another direction. Until recently, the Sample Room was known as the Polish Palace and featured the same draws of cheap beer, pull tabs and lack of pretense as many another neighborhood bar. This changed recently with a renovation and re-imagining of the place as an updated version of the original bar that stood on the spot in the early 20th century. Nowadays, the Sample Room is quite the tony place, with “flights” of different wines to tickle refined palates and a menu with more varieties of cheese on offer (many of them, gasp, French!) than all the neighborhood bars put together. Dim lighting and quick, pleasant service make the Sample Room a good place to take an impressionable date, but don’t make for much in the way of an exuberant Saturday-night pub crawl destination.

Mayslack’s Music Lounge
1428 Fourth St. N.E.
(612) 789-9862

Among the bars that have successfully melded the old and new faces of Northeast is Mayslack’s. Long famous for its extremely garlicky roast-beef sandwich, as well as for the antics of its late former owner Stan Mayslack, this bar, restaurant and gig space is always jumping, even on dead nights. Mayslack’s definitely feels like a neighborhood bar. The service, menu and liquor selection are all unpretentious, and the decorations consisting of old bowling trophies and University football memorabilia is what certain chain restaurants try so hard to imitate but never can. The crowd is funny, loud, diverse and jubilant, and Mayslack’s shows no signs of ceasing to be a Twin Cities institution.

Knight Cap Bar & Lounge
1500 Fourth St. N.E.
(612) 789-5233

Not only does northeast have a lot of bars, but many of them are stuck cheek-to-jowl with each other, as is the case with Mayslack’s and the Knight Cap. In contrast to its more cosmopolitan neighbor, the Knight Cap has a distinct “leave us alone” vibe. Not that anyone’s going to hassle you just for getting a beer there, but it’s probably wise to mind your P’s and Q’s, lest you irritate the wrong person. The Knight Cap’s main attraction is cheap, cheap beer, at less than half of what those fancy places charge. Some nights a frozen pizza and a pitcher of Bud can be had for just $10.95, a deal that’s hard to beat. There’s Golden Tee and a pool table and a pull-tab counter as well, but if you’re not coming for the cheap beer and the freedom from unctuous waitstaff, you probably shouldn’t come at all.

Grumpy’s Bar
2200 Fourth St. N.E.
(612) 789-7429

The northeast location of Grumpy’s sets the archetype for a former neighborhood place that has changed with the times. The jukebox is filled with a similar mix of Johnny Cash and recent alternative hits to the one at south Minneapolis’ venerable CC Club. The crowd is almost identical to the CC Club mix of punks, hipsters and a few grizzled veterans as well. Grumpy’s small size and black walls lend it a cozy atmosphere; the bar is mostly illuminated by Grain Belt Premium signs. Nobody’s going to bother you for looking freaky here, even though there are still plenty of older folks from the neighborhood coming in for a drink, especially early in the day. There is a little bit of attitude floating around among the smoke clouds, but let it waft past you and Grumpy’s can be a thoroughly pleasant place to pass the time.