Glasses are clinking again at the Commodore Bar and Restaurant, this time during the Golden Age of the Throwback.
Take a look around: Hillary Clinton is courting voters with vintage photos on social media; Hollywood keeps rebooting old franchises, and fashion runways flash back to flower-child style.
What’s old is new — for now, at least.
And the Commodore Bar and Restaurant — whose history begins in 1920 — is back for another round on Western Avenue in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill district. It’s located below several stories of condos in a relatively quiet area that has made way for other eateries over the years, including Nina’s Cafe, W.A. Frost, Red Cow and the Salt Cellar.
Entering the renovated Commodore feels like stepping onto a movie set where guests can rove from scene to scene, opting for a traditional white tablecloth dinner or a more intimate corner love seat with cocktails. The space emanates decadence with checkerboard floors, twinkling chandeliers, ornate ceiling trim and white leather furniture.
When the Commodore opened in the Roaring ’20s, it was a hotel with an illegal speakeasy frequented by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. Post-Prohibition, a ground-level bar opened, beckoning guests such as gangsters Ma Barker and John Dillinger.
Decades later in 1978, a natural gas explosion injured 70 people and decimated everything in the space — except for an art deco bar and, of course, the lore of those famous characters.
The idea of Fitzgerald, who was born in St. Paul in 1896, finding comfort and creativity in a gin cocktail at the Commodore is emblematic of an era of glamour, feathers and fur — often re-created in theme parties, costumes and cabarets.
The Commodore’s historical status was a major selling point for current owner John Rupp, who also owns nearby W.A. Frost and the St. Paul Athletic and University clubs. He purchased the space in the mid-1980s and used it primarily for banquets. He has been renovating it for two years and studying the period’s politics, arts and culture.
“A lot of restaurants are starting to look the same,” Rupp said. The Commodore “harks back to a time when there was a little more gracious way of living.”
In other words, put down your smartphone at the dinner table and have a conversation. These nine talking points should help — one for each decade since St. Paul’s newest bar first operated.
1. Fitz’s final St. Paul hang
Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, stayed at the hotel in 1921, the year their only child, daughter Frances (“Scottie”) was born, and again in 1922. Both times they had been evicted — from the White Bear Yacht Club and a cottage in Dellwood.
During this time, he wrote his second novel, 1922’s “The Beautiful and Damned.” (His first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” was published in 1920.) The Commodore “offered a high-class residential service that featured, among other things, the homelike spirit and a location in the most aristocratic and quiet section of the city,” according to early advertisements. The Commodore was the Fitzgeralds’ last home in St. Paul.
2. DiCaprio would feel at home
As depicted in the 2013 movie “The Great Gatsby” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio), the Roaring ’20s overflowed with opulence and indulgence (at least for some). The new Commodore — which features two dining rooms, two lounges and two bars — definitely captures that aesthetic. One of the lounges is covered in mirrors and lit by a gold dome overhead that radiates a consistent evening glow.
“You don’t necessarily need to see every brewhouse in the city when you come” to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Rupp said. “But you do need to see this.”
3. Meet the invincible bar
That brings us to the original art deco bar, whose angular features and ivory color somehow survived the 1978 explosion. Even its mirrors remain uncracked. It was designed by notable architect Werner Wittkamp, who also crafted the Lexington on Grand Avenue as well as Hollywood sets.
For returning guests such as Dan Guerrero, 53, of St. Paul, the stool-less bar has always drawn characters, who used to “belly up” in the 1970s, he said. It reminds him of the now-closed O’Connell’s, which was an upscale pub. “It wasn’t a big draw because people weren’t as attuned to coming to these really cool cocktail bars,” Guerrero said.
4. What would Fitz eat?
The food by executive chef Chris Gerster, most recently of Red Stag Supperclub in Minneapolis, is also reminiscent of the first part of the 20th century.
Gerster researched old menus from East Coast restaurants to identify a few staples: pork cutlets, fritters and croquettes. Diners will find “easily identifiable pairings,” he said, including pork scallopini, a smoked Gouda cheese crisp and braised cabbage.
5. The cocktails tell a story
Before “buying local” was trendy, it was the smartest and quickest option to catch a nightcap at Prohibition-era speakeasies. In the same spirit, the Commodore is sourcing from 16 craft distilleries, including locals Norseman and Tattersall.
The cocktails come with names such as Zelda, Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, an American writer who co-founded the Algonquin Round Table. The Root n Rye, for instance, is a mix of Midwestern ingredients such as FEW Rye (from Chicago), Frostop red birch bark beer (Ohio), Door County dried cherries (Wisconsin), Dashfire Old Fashioned bitters (St. Paul) and orange peel.
“I think it gives people a much better story to tell than drinking Heineken,” said the Commodore’s bar manager, Christa Robinson.
6. Jazz Age returns
The Commodore originally opened in the Jazz Age, when America’s music reached a new height of popularity. The remodeled space is home to a sleek black Yamaha piano and will eventually incorporate live music twice a week. Plans are still tentative, Rupp said, but interested performers will be able to request slots. Returning bargoers at the recent soft opening said they remember seeing Irv Williams, now 96, and Natural Life (co-founded by Billy Peterson) perform at the Commodore in the 1970s.
7. Be lavish on a budget
Cocktails range from $9 to $12, and entrees range from $16 (wild rice risotto) to $32 (rib-eye). While Rupp wants an upper-scale atmosphere, he said he doesn’t want to break guests’ wallets. He’s hoping the restaurant and bar become a happy hour destination, too.
8. Learn to tie a bow tie
The dress code, while not formal, is a bit classier, which falls in line with the era’s element of escape during the Great Depression. “They’d save up, get a little dressed up and celebrate in a beautiful place,” Rupp said. “I think this will remind people that there is a nice place to go.”
9. Where everybody knows its name
At the soft opening, many guests were former regulars from the bar’s earlier, slightly humbler heyday. “There was no such thing then as young professional, so it wasn’t like that,” said Barbara Haselbeck, 67, of St. Paul. “It was post-hippie, but mostly young adults trying to be sophisticated,” she added, laughing. “As opposed to now, when we are sophisticated.”
Address: 79 Western Av. N., St. Paul
Info: 651-330-5999 or thecommodorebar.com