Serving Up Nostalgia

The Chatterbox Pub boasts quirky beer, good food and a back-then feel with a side of ‘Super Mario Bros.’

Everyone gives the ’80s a hard time. But without that big-haired, parachute-pants, hard-rock love ballad of a decade we would be without the Chatterbox Pub in south Minneapolis. And that, my friends, would be a shame.

Walking into the Chatterbox feels like walking into a rec room, complete with artifacts from the Ronald Reagan era: Jenga boxes and Milton Bradley games.

The pub’s atmosphere, though, is more about nostalgia and fun than it is about recalling one decade.

And soon there will be another Box: The owners are opening a second pub in Highland Park that will be three times larger than their south Minneapolis location at the corner of 35th Street and 23rd Avenue South.

While sipping on one of its two exclusively brewed beers and enjoying eats from its unique home-cooked menu, guests sit in vintage couches and play Atari or Nintendo games for a fee.

Rosie Waltz, 25, and Jeanette Matter, 32, were doing just that last week. The pair plays “Super Mario Bros.” and sips pints of beer at the Chatterbox about once a week.

“It’s a nice change from your usual trendy places,” Waltz said.

And Waltz isn’t worried that the opening of another bar might increase that trendiness.

“If it was trendy, it would be that way already probably,” she said.

“It’s a comfortable and familiar place,” Matter said. “You can come here for the first time and it has a very familiar feeling.”

That’s intentional, said Steven Miller, the pub’s executive director whose wife, Andrea, owns the Chatterbox. In the beginning the bar had a “see and be-seen” aesthetic. But Miller said they since have focused on making the place feel “real,” which has pushed out the trendy types.

Now Miller and the Chatterbox boast a more diverse crowd.

“I have retired people who come in there to play cribbage as well as people in their 20s,” he said. “It’s all different types of people in a place that’s packed to the walls having a good time and still feeling comfortable with each other.”

Brandon Zavada, manager of the existing Chatterbox, now coined “Chatterbox Midtown,” said the pub already was busy when he was hired more than three years ago. Since then word of mouth has driven its popularity.

Two breweries make exclusive beers for the pub: Schell makes Chatterbox Lager and Lake Superior Brewing Company makes its Chit-Chat Ale.

History permeates the Chatterbox – not just because of its retro decor. It’s the pub that has been there longer than anyone in the neighborhood can remember. One regular said he’s been going there since 1971, although the place looked quite different then. Guy Harrison, who joined the pub as a bartender several years ago, said he has discovered artifacts from decades past during renovations of the pub.

“It’s rumored to have been a speakeasy back in the ’20s,” he said.

Bob Dunn, director of operations for the Chatterbox, said an old Perkins building will house the new pub. It will include a private dining room that can seat 50 people. The new pub will hold about 275 people, he said, but the video games will be played on flat-screen TVs.

“So there will be a mix of the ’70s and ’80s along with the technology of today,” he said.

Four-bit Frogger on a plasma TV? Somehow that doesn’t seem to have the same appeal.

Remembering the ’80s

During the course of reporting this story, the two writers enjoyed a conversation worthy of an ’80s sitcom.

It might have been caused by the difference in their ages. Don Burrows has a good eight years on Tatum Fjerstad, who was born the year after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” came out. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Don: Do you even remember the ’80s?

Tatum: Well, I was only 6 when the ’80s ended, so it’s kind of foggy. But thanks to “I Love The ’80s” on VH1, I can remember a fair amount.

Don: I’m not sure that qualifies as history.

Tatum: Sorry. I’m not as old as you … How old are you, anyway?

Don: Well, I was 4 when the ’80s began.

Tatum: Wow.

Don: So, what do you think of the place? Is this the first time you’ve ever seen an Atari 2600?

Tatum: I like it. It reminds me of my parents’ basement when I was a wee one. Yes, this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Atari, but that Nintendo set over there is very familiar.

Don: Don’t you think the joystick is superior to the crosspad? Why did it ever fall out of favor?

Tatum: I think the joystick is too masculine. I feel awkward holding it, like I’m being naughty. But anyway – back to the topic at hand. What do you think of the place?

Don: Well, as tempting as it is to continue on the phallic overtones of gaming systems, I’ll just say that the decor here does stir some nostalgia, and by that, I mean pain.

Why does everyone like the ’80s, anyway? I mean, Reagan was president, sex was expressed through peculiar ambiguity and Jerry Falwell was ruining Moral Majority.

Tatum: I hear you clucking, big chicken, but in cases (and places) like these, people tend to remember the good. It makes them all the more marketable. But this place isn’t all ’80s. The walls are something else. Maybe ’70s? And the music is definitely not ’80s.

Don: No kidding. I just heard the theme from “The Apartment.” You know Jack Lemmon?

Tatum: I met Jack Lemmon once. He’s dead now, huh? He was great in the “Grumpy Old Men” movies.

Don: I guess the paraphernalia sells it. And the historian in me likes places that are temporally thematic. So does it make you want to fire up “Keystone Kapers” and eat some Pop Rocks or what?

Tatum: Pop Rocks are sweet. I heard if you eat them and drink Coke you’ll explode. But what the hell does “temporally thematic” mean? What are “Keystone Kapers”?

Don: “Keystone Kapers” was one of Activision’s classic Atari games. Don’t you have any older siblings or something? OK, so you’re more into that hop-hip and I’m more baroque. But you can agree that this Chatterbox Lager is the best beer specially brewed for a pub you’ve ever tasted?

Tatum: Agreed. They’ll have this beer at the new Highland location, right? I wonder if when the new place opens it will move from underground trendy to over-the-top and if the Highland residents are more or less in favor of the new pub opening in their neighborhood.

Don: No bar ever opens without at least some resistance, even one that only has a beer and wine license. But I live near this one, and it makes for a good neighborhood pub. And it seems too unique to be in danger of becoming over-the-top.