On Saturdays, she’s a hostess at a sushi joint, ushering people to their tables. But after the sun sets, it’s prime karaoke time in Seward, a Minneapolis neighborhood better known for its food co-op.
The front of the house is virtually empty. June Haddow stands in the back hallway, poised on the balls of her feet, watching the lights positioned next to a series of doors — one for each of the 11 private rooms that customers can rent at Encore Karaoke and Sushi Lounge.
A little blue light flickers. A patron needs attention. Haddow skims down the dark-marble-paved hall, bouncing in black flats, her slim black dress a blur in the dim light.
“Back here it’s like a different world,” she said. “Each room is crazy.”
All of the rooms are usually booked on Saturday nights at Encore, which opened in February on E. Franklin Avenue.
The place was abuzz as staffers hurried about. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” seeped out as one of the soundproof doors was cracked open. Crooning patrons could be seen through portholes in the slick black doors.
Encore isn’t the first Twin Cities nightspot to offer private karaoke rooms. There’s Do Re Mi in Eagan, Sushi X in Golden Valley and Boomtown Karaoke in Stadium Village. But it appears to be the only one in Minneapolis where patrons can have a boozy drink while singing in private.
“That’s a deal breaker,” Tyler Robertson-Smith said of the prospect of alcohol-free private karaoke. He was trying a room for the first time with a party of 10 to celebrate his birthday.
While karaoke and alcohol long have mingled in Minneapolis’ nightlife scene, it’s been a dive-bar affair.
Places like Otter’s Saloon and the Vegas Lounge in northeast Minneapolis offer karaoke every night of the year with the draw of cheap rail drinks and beer, and many bars have a weekly karaoke night.
But at Encore you pay for a chic room, from the two Silver rooms that fit up to seven people each, to the seven Gold rooms (with space for 12 people), the Platinum (for 20) and the Penthouse (35).
Room rates vary depending on the day, but on weekends the smallest room will run you $50 an hour while the Penthouse costs $200 — though the fee is waived if you purchase enough alcohol.
Encore’s three co-owners spent about $900,000 to turn an old tea shop, Verdant Tea, into a sushi restaurant equipped with modern decor out of a geometry obsessive’s dream.
The renovations about doubled the square footage of the previous business, with the upscale hallway and private rooms added in back.
The owners targeted Seward — located within walking distance of the University of Minnesota — to attract international students.
“Asian people love it,” co-owner Peter Chen said of the private karaoke style businesses that are omnipresent in Asian countries and big East and West Coast cities. “American people just need to familiarize themselves with it.”
Indeed, patrons on a recent weekend night were a mix of races and ages.
“Karaoke sells itself,” said co-owner Lawrence Tan, though they hope more people try the sushi during dining hours. “We want people to think of us not just about karaoke.”
On weekend nights, the sushi chef is rolling nonstop in the kitchen until two hours before the 2 a.m. closing time. And Encore is a lively melting pot, where people sing in Chinese, Korean, English and Russian, and bottle service meets tipsy renditions of Taylor Swift’s “Feeling 22.”
Barry Lytton is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.