Taking tiki to the riverfront

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 9, 2010 - 8:00 PM

If the old Psycho Suzi's was an indie hit, the new version is a blockbuster. So big, so epic, would you believe it even has a gift shop?

On opening weekend in late November, a line of anxious bargoers snaked out the front door of the new Psycho Suzi's in northeast Minneapolis. Cars lined Marshall Street in either direction. In the midst of it all, owner Leslie Bock sat back and thought to herself: Where did all of these people come from?

A smaller version of Psycho Suzi's -- famous for its liver-destroying tiki drinks and punk-rock attitude -- had existed for seven years at the corner of Marshall and Lowry Avenue NE., just a few blocks away. On a busy winter night, that bar could hold about 80 people. The new place is another story.

"We thought the same number of people would come, but we'd squeeze in a few more," Bock said.

Her humility is charming, but clearly the bar scene's queen of kitsch knows what she's doing. Her new supersized tiki palace actually contains seating for almost 450 -- and every one of those seats was filled on the bar's first Saturday night. This is the second time in just over a year that she's re-energized a troubled location. She did the unthinkable in recasting the old Stand Up Frank's as Donny Dirk's Zombie Den. Now she has transformed the former saloon/hip-hop club Gabby's into what she calls a "tiki Taj Mahal."

How'd she pull off this epic endeavor? Here are nine things you need to know about the new Psycho Suzi's.

1. The move came out of necessity. Bock said Minneapolis licensing basically forced her hand. In 2009, the city told her that the patio at the original Psycho Suzi's was too big and would have to be cut by more than half, Bock said. "The patio is my business," she said recently, rubbing her temples at the very thought of losing it. As serendipity would have it, the nearby Gabby's had become available. "I've always wanted to be on the river," Bock said. In May, she announced her intention to buy the place and move her eloved bar.

2. It almost didn't happen. Part way through the negotiating process, city inspectors called for a new stormwater drainage system. The cost was upwards of $100,000. Bock said she couldn't afford it and was ready to walk away. But through more negotiating, the cost was handled by the Gabby's team and the project resumed. "I wasn't sure we were going to open in 2010," she said.

3. This butt-ugly building has heavenly origins. Bock said the 16,000-square-foot building originally was designed from church blueprints (however, it most likely was never a church). The giant second level has been dubbed Shangri-La (open Friday-Saturday). It's home to three themed bars, each with its own cocktail menu. Take away the fake ferns, wicker thrones, hand-carved tiki statues and hanging lanterns -- and sure enough, the vaulted ceiling screams church (of debauchery).

4. Tiki is a state of mind. Tiki culture is enjoying a newfound shot of respectability, with cocktail experts validating tropical drinks as a mixology "trend" worth our attention. But Bock doesn't seem interested in snooty authenticity. Tiki culture, after all, was an ethnographic gag created in 1930s Los Angeles by a guy named Ernest Gantt (better known as Don the Beachcomber). "It's almost an oxymoron to be an authentic tiki bar," Bock said. "The whole point is to make it your own."

5. The cocktail list is topped by a $48 behemoth. Behold: The Mender of Broken Dreams is a 92-ounce, three-tiered cocktail platter that flashes, smokes and comes covered in flowers. It's like drinking an amusement park ride (it serves 10). The full cocktail menu is spread across four distinct bars, each with its own array of slushes, shots, tiki mugs and other oddities served in conch shells, pineapples and coconuts. The bar's familiar brand of comfort food (pizza, cheese curds, pickle roll-ups) now includes burgers. Coming soon: Bartender Johnny Michaels has contributed to a series of themed cocktails called "Psycho Tiki Warlords From Outer Space." Each limited-edition cocktail will come with its own story line and collector's pint glass.

6. Exotica is back. Popular during tiki's heyday of the 1950s, exotica is a form of jazzy lounge music spiked with jungle noises (think: shrieking chimps and cockatoos). Psycho Suzi's house band, Exotik-a-GoGo, sets the freaky mood Fridays and Saturdays in Shangri-La.

7. Bock wakes up early so you don't have to. While her quirky personality is all over Donny Dirk's and Psycho Suzi's, Bock is rarely seen late-night at the bars. "I wake up really early -- like 5 a.m. early," she said. Bock is a morning person, more content to work behind the scenes. Before opening Suzi's in 2003, Bock had little experience in the bar business. "I got fired from Dairy Queen when I was 15," she said. She was a clothing designer (Prince's crew wore her outfits) and owns Saint Sabrina's tattoo parlor. With her bars, she's attempted to create comfortable places for people to talk and be their eccentric selves. "There are people in this world -- who aren't big losers -- that don't like thumping music all the time," she said.

8. Forget tiki, Psycho Suzi's could have been a caveman bar. Huh? Bock was never overly obsessed with tiki culture before opening the original Suzi's. "I had a few tiki mugs," she said. In fact, when she first saw the old location's dormant A&W restaurant -- complete with weird lava-rock exterior -- she had a couple of ideas. 1) A "Flintstones"-style caveman bar or 2) a tiki joint. "I think buildings and neighborhoods have personalities and you just go with it," she said. "Fortunately for me, Northeast and myself are on the same page."

9. The new joint is far from finished. The full potential of this place won't be decided until its riverfront patio opens in the spring. Bock's crew already has begun working on the foundation. At a massive 7,000 square feet, it'll be three times the size of Gabby's old patio and will include a hut, gas-powered tiki torches, trees and seating for 335 people. A tiki Taj Mahal sounds about right.

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909 • Follow Tom on Twitter: @tomhorgen

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    Where: 1900 NE. Marshall St., Mpls.

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