Here, inside this hole in the wall, the drinks are plenty and the talk isn’t cheap. The century-old tin ceiling is chipping, but were a piece to fall, a regular would probably just hang onto it as a keepsake. The stage supports all kinds of artists, renowned and unknown, as does the clientele — a mix of races, ages and creeds.
A beloved dive bar like Palmer’s on Minneapolis’ West Bank evokes words like “rugged” or “seedy” just as smoothly as “spirited” or “eclectic.” A refuge of coexistence, the bar beats with diversity. Anarchists, the homeless and academics all dwell there.
A “Wall of Deceased” memorializes late patrons with framed photos, including a poster-size portrait of Keith Berg, who was co-owner. Berg died in September, but saw his bar ranked as one of the best in America by Esquire.
His widow, Lisa Hammer, now the sole owner, has an army of regulars who consider the place as much theirs as it is hers.
“You cannot move anything without someone throwing a hissy fit,” Hammer said. “It’s like everyone’s living room.”
But she’s not complaining about the customers’ passion. Loyal regulars keep dive bars afloat, steadied by the promise of comfort and liquor. And in the Twin Cities, dive bars barrel along, even as trendy cocktail bars or speakeasies dot the North Loop, Uptown and Cathedral Hill.
Trendy, they’re not. In dive bars across the city, jukeboxes boom with oldies. Customers shout “bingo!” or fling darts. Pulltabs are littered across the floor, and long-standing rituals — chili contests, vendors with clothes or jewelry — retain their funk.
An unpretentious vibe and low expectations keep regulars coming back.
At Schooner’s Tavern, a “veteran hangout” in south Minneapolis, the theme is “well-worn” and “nautical,” with old ship wheels anchored on the walls. At Jimmy’s Bar in Northeast, owners have served free White Castle burgers every Sunday for three decades. At Knight Cap in Northeast, weekly meat raffles draw the carnivorous. That bar, like many others of its ilk, accepts only cash.
Dive bar dwellers can easily rattle off their top haunts; for Mike Elias, who’s spent 30 years at dive bars, his include Palmer’s (where he used to DJ), the Terminal in Minneapolis and the Nickel Joint in St. Paul.
“It’s a safe house for everybody,” said Elias, 52, who co-owns Barely Brothers Records in St. Paul. “You can tell there are people that get it, and there are people that don’t get it.”
If dive bars are your speed, the clientele become family.
“It’s a community that doesn’t really know a lot about you,” Elias added. “And you don’t really know a lot about them, outside of hanging out and having a beer.”
All in the family
Life and death mingle with the regulars at Palmer’s. On the street outside, brawling bargoers and beloved bouncers have been shot dead. The space — called Palmer’s since 1950 — has had more than a dozen owners since 1906, survived Prohibition and two world wars and hosted both hippies and hipsters.
Parties on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve give plans to anyone who needs a place to go.
This year’s Christmas celebration featured music by folk-blues legend Spider John Koerner. Koerner, 77, visits Palmer’s twice daily. He even gets his newspaper delivered there. And on the days he can’t make it, he calls to let folks know not to worry that some crisis has befallen him.
Strumming his guitar, Koerner played from the front corner stage, decorated with a holiday wreath, for a packed house.
His fans include Pam Orren, who comes to Palmer’s with her husband and other friends who travel for music. Orren, 64, is an empty-nester and dances among the “young people,” she said.
“If you stop paying attention,” she said, “you’re kind of dead inside.”
As Koerner started his song “Phoebe,” Orren clasped her husband’s hand — “This is our song!” — before drifting into the crowd.
Others belly up to the bar, where a line of festive stuffed animals hangs above their heads. Behind the bar, a medley of knickknacks accentuate a “Wall of Shame,” a smattering of tattered paper slips for folks who’ve been “86’d” — booted from the bar — over the years.
Some patrons hope to never leave the place. A former regular’s last wish was that his ashes be stored behind the bar in a Grateful Dead ceramic bear. That lasted until the container was accidentally knocked over and shattered.
“It had a powdery, weird smell,” recalled Seneca Krueger, a bouncer who witnessed the incident.
As Koerner’s performance wound down, Krueger, 36, took the stage for pulltab giveaways. Among the stash: a fanny pack, Jameson mirror (top drink at Palmer’s), beanie hat and “lime squeezer wrapped in this amazing bubble wrap.”
The crowd cheered as recipients claimed their prizes. Meanwhile, two Turkish men in their mid-20s strolled in. They’d just arrived in town to start a one-year internship.
“They’re from Turkey!” exclaimed one woman, handing the beaming men two stuffed animals. “We’re happy you’re happy!”
Although you might struggle to find a seat, there is always room for anyone.
“If I was walking into any other place, especially a bar, people spend a lot of time covering up their flaws,” said Krueger, who met her fiancé at Palmer’s. “Here, instead of trying to hide their flaw,” she said, “people wear it on their sleeves.”
House of Jameson
In one cranny of Palmer’s, Sarah Baker, a grinning, matter-of-fact stroke survivor, sat in her special chair, which Berg had gotten just for her. Baker, who lives just down the block, comes to Palmer’s “every damn day,” beginning with her morning coffee and doughnuts. This night she’s celebrating her birthday along with the Christmas festivities.
“When I’m broke, they buy me drinks. And they treat me no different,” Baker said. “They always party with me on my birthday.”
Someone always makes sure she gets home safely.
The wall outside Palmer’s features a slim, mustachioed man in a top hat and bow tie, holding a beer. The unofficial logo has been replicated on postcards and inside on a “Sorry, we’re open” sign and stained-glass window.
There’s no shortage of speculation over the identity of the “Palmer’s guy.” Hammer said it might be Roger Folta, who co-owned the bar between 1975 and 1996, taking over for his father, who had run it since 1959. But Folta denies it.
He did own the bar when the painting was done, however. It was painted by an artist during the ’70s when urban renewal nearly bulldozed the place. Folta, 67, started trying to attract a younger crowd — a move in which he now sees the irony.
“We were trying to get rid of the people like me,” he said.
The customers are expected to get along, said bouncer Big John Duhart.
“I don’t have no bad night at Palmer’s,” said Duhart, who has been manning his post at the front door for 20 years.
The patrons threw him a surprise birthday party earlier this year. Duhart, who didn’t shed a tear after his parents’ deaths, cried.
“It was just the love they had for me,” he said of his Palmer’s family. “It kind of tore me up.”