Pretend for a drink that it’s Dec. 31, 1929.
The Roaring Twenties are staggering to an end as the Great Depression takes root, but, for now, the night in this new speakeasy is young.
Order an Old Fashioned, perhaps. Resist the urge to text, or theorize on economic, social and political inequities. Pause the play-hard lyrics of today’s Top 40. Relax. Everything else is a Sea Breeze.
Volstead’s Emporium opened late last year in Minneapolis with no promotion, website or social media listing of its Lyn-Lake area address. Emblematic of the Prohibition era, guests must navigate a dark alley until they stumble upon a door with an eye-level slot, leading to the subterranean sanctuary of red velvet and chandeliers.
The bar is named after U.S. Rep. Andrew Volstead, the Minnesotan behind the 1919 law that tapped a habit of secretive boozing.
Unlisted on menus or signs, the bar’s name is a matter of question even for the guests who have found it, and the owners want it that way.
Dave West and John Braun opened the restaurant after two years of planning, seven years of dreaming and zero years in the restaurant business. West, a digital designer, and Braun, a real estate lawyer, curated the space with their own money, skills, travels, research and networks — down to the customized wallpaper.
“Those in the know,” as West calls the clientele, can enjoy the space themed around the year 1929, combining art deco and nouveau decor with a hint of Victorian.
Customers order cocktails, some made with spirits from Minneapolis-based Tattersall, or opt for a brew from the six-tap beer mushroom. Food is for sharing, including a charcuterie plate, Des Moines squash, burger or bass filet. Executive chef Eric Neumann, most recently of Eli’s Bar & Grill, is trained in classical French techniques and sourced ingredients from Minnesota and abroad.
“Everything has kind of been done in a way, so we’re not trying to invent anything, but [instead] do what we know the best way we know how,” said mixologist Darrin Commerford, who has tended bar at the Bachelor Farmer, Marvel Bar and Parlour in Minneapolis’ North Loop.
“If you have all the stuff and are making $15 drinks, no one is going to feel good drinking them,” Commerford said. Sorry, folks, no “rosemary-infused syrup” at this spot, he added.
A phone booth and Victrola are tributes to a time long gone. Jazz artists play caramelly melodies on the piano, whose backdrop is a vintage moon on an indigo sky — a nod to the exchange of lunar postcards or photos between lovers.
Volstead’s is “more feminine,” the owners said, than other spots that are rooted in gangsters or bow-tied writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis (see: the Commodore in St. Paul). And it’s striving to be more exclusive than North Loop spots that peddle their existence online.
“Look how many people are here,” said Jenny Schmid, peering around the packed space on a recent Thursday night; the wait hovered around 25 minutes. Schmid, an art professor at the University of Minnesota, was celebrating colleague Mark Borello’s 50th birthday with a group of about 20. “It’s clearly not a secret.”
“I’m sorry,” Schmid, 46, said, laughing. “I’m taking away the mystique.”
Thrill of the chase
The glam shouldn’t repel you, the owners say, but assist in the vision of a world before Square could eliminate the gold cash register stationed on the 20-foot bar. Customers share a collective distaste for the present or a desire for the past.
One original element is a metal safe, which the owners found while they were scavenging the dusty basement. It contained an accounting book labeled with Volstead’s name, West said, adding to the lore that he funded his political career by pushing beverages.
“There’s nothing snooty here,” said Braun, whose carpentry skills helped build the place. “There are places [in the area] that have priced me out of the market.”
The owners, both Uptown residents, have watched as their neighborhood became awash with “chains, sports bars, other distasteful stuff,” Braun said. The commercial district has catered its nightlife toward an upscale client, ushering in boutiques and trendy restaurants.
“If someone says there is a brand-new ‘foodie restaurant,’ ” West said, “you can picture what that will look like.”
For a couple ensconced in a cozy seating area, Volstead’s is a welcome arrival. They sat on a horsehair couch (non-faux), holding cocktails, in front of a fire flanked by bookcases.
“It’s a nice place to go and actually have a conversation,” said Tara Cegla, 27, who lives in the neighborhood. “I feel like it’s attracting a certain type of Uptown resident,” different from rowdier Cowboy Slim’s.
Her date, Mike Berg, agreed. “More for people who don’t want to go to Bar Louie anymore,” said Berg, 26, who also lives in Uptown. “It’s quieter. You can hear yourself talk.”
Cove of candles
Standing under a gold-framed portrait of Volstead was a quartet of men. It was a birthday gathering for Greg Lewis of Minneapolis, who was turning 52.
“They knew this was up my alley,” Lewis said of his friends who’d picked the place. He also likes the Safehouse, a clandestine, password-locked watering hole in Milwaukee.
His friends Dave Bahl, 55, and husband Mark Shaw, 52, had visited seven times before, after they’d eavesdropped on a conversation at Morrissey’s. The bar manager there, like others in the know, then gave them instructions. They bring a different crowd each time.
Among the rows of high-top tables was Borello’s party. A wine bottle wrapped in red foil sat on a marble high-top nearby.
An exuberant historian, Borello said he was “stoked” about Volstead’s.
“I think you can tell when people are doing something because they really want to,” he said.