Two decades ago, a dirt alley and railroad tracks ran outside John Lee’s downtown Minneapolis bar. Property near Cuzzy’s, his North Loop hole-in-the-wall, was little more than a place for city plows to dump snow in the winter, he recalled. There was some industry, but not enough to prevent Lee from describing the Washington Avenue strip north of Hennepin Avenue as “pretty seedy.”

“Probably half the buildings in the neighborhood were boarded up, abandoned,” said Lee, who’s helping host the inaugural North Loop Fest block party Saturday. “It’s funny because so many people would come over that little train bridge and get about halfway down, look around and do a U-turn right back toward 1st Avenue.”

That was the North Loop circa 1995 — before the condo craze, before Target Field. Before it became the hottest neighborhood in the Twin Cities.

A number of bars and restaurants like Bev’s Wine Bar, Origami and Jetset have operated in the area for more than a decade. But starting with Bar La Grassa in 2009, the North Loop has undergone a nightlife renaissance. Haute Dish, Bachelor Farmer (and its companion cocktail mecca Marvel Bar) and Fulton Brewery’s taproom followed. This year’s addition of another esteemed upstairs-downstairs combo — Borough and Parlour — and Smack Shack cemented the North Loop’s place as a food-and-drink hotbed.

“I think the density of other places helps drive traffic,” said Smack Shack owner Josh Thoma, who’s throwing his Crayfest block party Saturday. “If people see the area as a restaurant destination in and of itself, they’ll come down, maybe have a pound of crayfish at our place and go over for a cocktail at Parlour.”

Between Thoma’s Crayfest, the North Loop Fest and “urban adventure race” TC Urban Dash, the once “seedy” neighborhood should be bustling Saturday. In addition to visitors, a growing number of local residents are dining and drinking near their converted lofts and apartments.

According to the North Loop Neighborhood Association, the population nearly tripled in the ’00s, and as of 2010 (the last year U.S. Census data was collected) 54 percent of residents were between ages 25 and 44.

“They chose North Loop because they wanted to be in the action,” said Borough and Parlour co-owner Brent Frederick. “They have a very active nightlife, and that was very appealing to us.”

More developments and bars are on the way. The Hennepin Avenue Whole Foods is slated for a fall opening. Frederick said at a recent neighborhood meeting he learned of 10 new residential projects in the works. As for new nightlife, the Loose-Wiles Freehouse brewpub from the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. is due this fall. The group behind the Crave restaurants has plans for an event center in the old Trocaderos nightclub space, and Tangiers — a new lounge near Origami — opens Aug. 23.

Tangiers partner Ivy Taheri said while its ownership group has experience in Warehouse District nightclubs, they preferred the North Loop’s more sophisticated “vibe” to the rowdy club-and-cowboy-bar scene along 1st Avenue N.

Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar co-owner Eric Dayton said the North Loop is still rife with redevelopment opportunities. Last weekend at Bachelor Farmer’s Kraftskiva block party, he had a chance to reflect on how much it’s changed since he opened his restaurant and men’s boutique, Askov Finlayson, two years ago.

“It was run down; the building had been neglected,” Dayton said of his space. “There wasn’t any energy at that intersection. Now we’ve got our building. Kitty-corner there’s a little store. And to see 2,000 people having a great time listening to music — it hasn’t been that long, but the energy is so different and so exciting.”

It seems fewer U-turns away from the North Loop are being made these days.


Michael Rietmulder writes about nightlife.