One of the Twin Cities’ top restaurateurs walked into the bar and looked around.
Plywood covered the windows. Clutter filled the dining room. The morning patrons stopped drinking their beers — straight from the pitcher — to stare at the stranger in their haunt.
It was the Sunrise Inn, one of Minneapolis’ most notorious dive bars. And it was perfect.
At least, to Doug Flicker. The chef of the Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove decided then to make the Sunrise into his next restaurant.
“There was a sense that it was on life support,” he said, “but it was a diamond in the rough — if you could see through the grime.”
Driven by the rising costs of outfitting a commercial kitchen, the increasing popularity of casual dining and a hunger for nostalgia, Flicker and many other industry heavyweights are snapping up dive bars and spinning them into havens for craft brews and locally inspired food.
Dusty’s, Mortimer’s, Dan Kelly’s and 22nd Avenue Station have recently been purchased and are being renovated. And a host of no-frills neighborhood joints — including Hubert’s, Casey’s Bar and Grill, Gabby’s, Stand-Up Frank’s, Lee’s Liquor Lounge and the 331 Club — already have undergone transformations.
The Minnesota Restaurant Association doesn’t track bar conversions, but Executive Vice President Dan McElroy said he’s seeing “a pickup” in dive redos, due, in large part, to cost.
“It’s less expensive and less risky to look for a place with an existing kitchen with a grease hood and a fire suppressant system and make that into a restaurant than taking what we call a ‘green’ space,” he said. “The SAC [sewer availability charge] alone can cost up to $100,000. If you’re in a reused space, that’s already been paid.”
Dives also offer something money can’t buy.
“In old dives, there’s a feeling of authenticity, if you don’t wreck it too bad,” said restaurateur Kim Bartmann. “People still want that, for sure.”
Bartmann should know. She was a pioneer of sorts. In 1993, she bought an old bowling alley (known mostly for its drug dealing) to make it into a wine bar. After Bryant-Lake Bowl developed into one of the city’s hottest social hubs, Bartmann, who now owns eight restaurants, tried the formula again, remaking the former Casey’s Bar on Nicollet Avenue into the popular Pat’s Tap.
In the early 2000s, restaurateur Leslie Bock got into the game, transforming the Northeast watering hole Gabby’s into Psycho Suzi’s, Stand-Up Frank’s into Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den (soon to be Mr. Steven’s Snuggery) and a drive-in into what is now Betty Danger’s Country Club.
Since then, the pace of such projects has picked up.
Flicker, who made a name for himself at Auriga and polished his reputation at Piccolo, announced he was taking over Sunrise Inn in February. Two months later, restaurateur Erik Forsberg said he was reopening his Devil’s Advocate in the former Dan Kelly’s in downtown Minneapolis. Also that month, Nightingale owners Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston said they were buying dives Dusty’s in Northeast and Mortimer’s at Lyndale and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis.
“What’s unique about Midwest neighborhood dives is that they’re very comfortable, they feel like home,” Johnston said. “Mortimer’s sort of formed its own community, its own identity, its own atmosphere. It has its own mini culture, small-town flavor in a big city.”
Providing that authentic, homey feeing has become a must for restaurateurs, according to Tanya Spaulding of design firm Shea.
“People have gotten a lot more savvy about realizing if they’re opening a restaurant, it has to have a story,” said Spaulding, who has worked with “five or six” restaurant operators in the past six months alone who are considering buying a dive. “People want character. They don’t want something that is manufactured or picked from a catalog. Dive bars give that.”
Are the light fixtures old? Good. Are the floorboards uneven? Even better.
While the new casual restaurants may be inspired by the dives of old, they’re hardly replicas.
Many dives are seedy at best, dangerous at worst. Standards for cleanliness and safety have risen in the years since dives reigned, and safety codes have been updated, too. Windowless spaces are no longer allowed. Neither is smoking indoors.
And though liquor and casual food still rule at these remakes, the offerings couldn’t be more different. Pitchers of Miller Lite and microwaved pizza have been replaced by locally made craft beers and menu items like smoked beef brisket sandwiches, po’boys and Mahi tacos.
“Dive bars are kind of cool, but the people they’re cool to don’t really go because they’re going to craft breweries,” said Bartmann. “The new versions, you still get that vintage feeling, but you can have your Indeed and your Peterson beef burger, too.”
Of course, not everyone wants — or can afford — high-end beers and burgers.
Johnston and McCabe-Johnston already have heard complaints from Dusty’s regulars, prompting them to promise that they “weren’t taking away anybody’s dago,” Dusty’s legendary sandwich.
And while Flicker said he’s gotten praise from neighbors for buying the Sunrise (which he’s renaming Bull’s Horn Food and Drink), some regulars have complained about what they see as gentrification.
“I get that people don’t like change,” he said. “But in the case of Sunrise Inn, there were a lot of nasty things happening there. I don’t see how anyone could glamorize that or want that to continue in any way.”
Bock added that the prospect of keeping things “exactly the same,” isn’t realistic, given the increase in building, labor and food costs, code changes and the demand for higher quality food and drink.
Whether you call it reinvention, evolution or gentrification, many in the business think remaking a dive is just plain smart.
“I was accused of gentrification [at Bryant-Lake Bowl], and to some extent that was true,” Bartmann said. “But you know what? A lot more people get to enjoy it now. The cops don’t come anymore. As far as I’m concerned, that old dive bar is dead.”