Next month, Heather Bray will be able to do something she never anticipated when she opened her south Minneapolis restaurant, Lowbrow, eight and a half years ago: She will serve cocktails.
It’s been a long journey for Bray and other neighborhood restaurateurs, who last year banded together to remove language from the city’s charter that restricted off-the-beaten-path establishments to beer and wine.
“It’s not hip to be a restaurant where a guest comes in, maybe for the first time, and orders a cocktail they want, and I have to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have a liquor license, because the city of Minneapolis won’t let us,’ ” said Bray. “That makes us sound pretty backwater. Minneapolis has a really hip dining scene and a hip dining community, and we are really hoping our cocktail scene is going to reflect that.”
When Minneapolis voters approved the charter amendment in November with a 72% majority, they set into motion a cocktail renaissance poised to begin as patio season arrives. Two dozen restaurants have applied to upgrade their licenses to serve spirits, many in the southwest area of the city, according to city data. Of those, 20 licenses have been approved, and four are still moving through the process.
With about 70 restaurants in the city eligible to apply for full liquor licenses for the first time, more applications are likely on the way, said Matt Perry, Minneapolis charter commissioner and president of the Southwest Business Association.
“It’s a big plus for the city, just as we predicted it would be,” said Perry. “The customers are getting what they’re looking for.”
The push to change the charter faced little vocal opposition, the latest in a series of successful campaigns to loosen alcohol-related laws statewide and locally.
The “Surly Bill” in 2011 allowed for dozens of small breweries to begin serving their products on site. In 2014, Minneapolis restaurant owners pushed to change the food-to-alcohol ratio citywide to be less burdensome on the businesses. In 2017, the state legalized the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
Under the old charter, restaurants in Minneapolis could serve liquor only if they were located within a 7-acre area zoned for commercial use.
While downtown businesses capitalized on the latest craft cocktail wave, those geared toward a neighborhood clientele lamented being left out. More than two dozen appealed directly to the Legislature for special exception, some hiring lobbyists to navigate the Capitol on their behalf.
The liquor restrictions were a problem for restaurant owners such as Molly Broder, who couldn’t serve cocktails at Terzo, the Italian eatery she owns near Lake Harriet.
“In Italy, it’s not even a question,” she said. “If you walk into any place, if you feel like a Negroni or an Aperol Spritz, you could get that.”
Wanting to offer a more authentic experience for her customers, Broder applied for a liquor license earlier this year.
As of a few weeks ago, her menu now includes a small list of classic cocktails.
“We kept it really simple and in keeping with our Italian roots,” said Broder. She said it’s still too early to judge whether adding cocktails is leading to a net profit.
Bray said she is currently “eyeball deep” in gutting and remodeling the bar to make Lowbrow liquor-ready. The restaurant will close for a few days in June, and reopen on June 14 with a cocktail menu created with help from northeast Minneapolis-based Tattersall Distilling, she said.
Keeping true to Lowbrow’s “down-to-earth local joint” spirit, she plans to stick to the classics. Adding liquor to the menu won’t dramatically change her restaurant, said Bray, but she’s optimistic this will help Lowbrow move forward with the rest of the dining scene.
“Things are going great and we love what we do,” she said.
“But if you’re not moving forward in your business, you’re kind of moving backward.”