Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way right away: The new Nye’s is not the old Nye’s, the one that so many of you loved and remember so well despite all the nights you forgot or would rather forget there.
That Nye’s is dead. It had a long goodbye 20 months ago. Some people cried. A lot of people sang. Many more tried to sing who couldn’t. It was beautiful. And it was final.
That hard truth seemed to be accepted or at least buried deep beneath a broad smile by everyone who passed under the new neon Nye’s sign Wednesday night, when a preview party was held ahead of the official opening Thursday at 4 p.m.
“Weren’t we just here?” singer/pianist Daina De Prez cackled from behind the new, uncannily polished circular piano bar at the far end of the club — the same corner where musicians used to have to step aside for patrons to get to the men’s room. Not anymore.
“Wait till you see the new bathrooms,” De Prez added, not joking this time.
Housed in the oldest and smallest of the four buildings that made up the old 1950s-era Nye’s complex — the original century-old corner bar that became the polka room at 112 E. Hennepin Av. — the new Nye’s is basically just a skeletal remnant of the old lounge.
“Structurally, the brick walls are about all that’s left,” said co-owner Rob Jacob, who let out a pained laugh explaining how even the floor had to be replaced: “When we ripped it up, there were four other floors under it.”
But Rob and his brother, Tony Jacob, did bring back numerous visual nods to the old Nye’s. They consider them “tributes.” Their naysayers might see them more as opportunistic piggybacking.
Some still fault the Jacobs for not wanting to invest several hundred thousands of dollars needed to fix the noticeably crumbling old Nye’s spread. Instead, they made close to $2 million to partner with a developer on a six-story apartment and retail complex that’s nearing completion around the bar space, one of two buildings old enough to warrant historic preservation.
However you see the signs of old Nye’s nostalgia on display in the new space, foremost among the nods is a mural that covers the entire wall opposite the long bar — bound to become one of the most famous murals in Minneapolis.
Designed by renowned poster-art makers Burlesque of North America, the painted wall fills the narrow room with the smiles of the three late characters most responsible for Nye’s becoming a Minnesota landmark: a waving “Sweet Lou” Snider, who helmed the piano for nearly 50 years and then died just a month before the place closed; a gap-toothed Ruth Adams, who led the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band; and a dapper Albin Nye, the Polish immigrant whose name and pierogies graced the place long after he sold it in 1994.
De Prez was especially smitten with Snider’s likeness, which fittingly looms right behind the new piano bar: “It beats that damn Chopin picture that was always creeping over my shoulder in the old space,” she cracked.
Less conspicuous but more authentic, some of the rainbow-stone light fixtures that hung in the old dining room now hover over the bar. The half-circle booths along the wall look similar if not exact replicas to the old gold-flecked vinyl booths of old. The bar menu includes the Nye’s brand amber ale (brewed by Leinenkugel’s) and many of the same classic cocktails, alongside a long list of new mixology offerings.
And then there’s the original square-sized neon Nye’s sign. It used to hang outside the bar on the corner to greet passengers coming across the Hennepin Avenue bridge from downtown toward northeast Minneapolis — right by where the newly relit Grain Belt Beer now serves as a beacon-to-drinking.
The old Nye’s sign now hangs inside. It was refurbished but is still fragile enough that the “E” had been damaged just before the soft opening Wednesday (it should be fixed by the weekend).
Attendees at Wednesday’s preview party seemed to appreciate the effort to honor if not exactly replicate the old namesake supper club in the new Nye’s.
“They kept the nostalgic-swank character but made a nice, new place, too,” said Christine Zitzlsperger, who frequented the old place off and on for more than two decades.
Rob and Deb Clapp, who live just across the river and used to stop by nearly every Tuesday around suppertime, had hoped for a little more of the old Nye’s.
“I think they did a very nice job with it, but I’ll miss the old characters who worked here, and the food, too,” Deb said.
None of the longtime bartenders of the old Nye’s will be back, and no food service will be offered, either. (Another new and trendier-looking bar with food service, the Sonder Shaker, will soon open two doors down under a different ownership team.)
After about an hour of oohing and gawking over the new place on Wednesday, though, at least one old routine set in. While the polka may not return to Nye’s simply due to space limitations, De Prez and other piano singers including John Eller will be regulars again.
First up was Krista Cassidy of Maple Grove, who tepidly made her way through the first verse but suddenly sparked to life along with the rest of the piano bar at the chorus: “I’m going back some daaaay … come what maaaay … to Blue Bayou.”
“I used to sing it with Sweet Lou,” Cassidy bragged afterward, old-pro style.
A few minutes later, the room seemed to part for an octogenarian lady in a velvety red top who made her way up to the piano bar like Sylvester Stallone strutting to the ring near the end of “Rocky 14” (or whatever number the last one was).
It was Vera Strandmark, 86, a fixture at the old place who had the honor of singing the last song on closing night in 2016. She delivered “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for that occasion. On Wednesday, it was “You Belong to Me,” one of those old ’50s hits recorded by about 80 different famous singers.
“I’ll be so alone without you / Maybe you’ll be lonesome too and blue,” Strandmark crooned. “Just remember till you’re home again, you belong to me.”
Beaming afterward, Strandmark said simply of the new space, “It’s not the same. How could it be? But it feels nice to be here anyway.”