God bless you, Palmer's Bar

Categories: Nightlife


As a born-and-raised, card-carrying south Minneapolis boy, I've finally come to grips with the fact that my Twin Cities have got to be the most insecure major urban metro in the U.S. We're constantly fishing for validation from the larger cultural hubs around the country to feed our low self-esteem, and no matter how much our friends from around the Midwest tell us how pretty or smart we are, their praise is immediately drowned out at the first mention of local interest on CNN.

So every once in a while, a slickster from some big magazine out East will waltz into town, take advantage of our open-armed hospitality, and decide to chronicle their adventures like an anthropologist wading into the bush. They'll take in some sights, marvel at how much life we've carved out of the tundra, scrawl out a quick missive for their editor, and hop back on the plane.

They'll flatter us, sure. Those fast-talking types always do. They'll tell us that they love our adorable quirks, or admire our hardiness, but the compliments always come with the sting of the back-hand. It's patronizing at best and insulting at worst, but still we find ourselves fawning over their limited praise like Sam mooning about Jake Ryan in 16 Candles.

Last year, Esquire sent one of these types over to the West Bank to honor Palmer's Bar as one of its Best Bars in America for 2014. It was a big deal at the time -- I remember where I was when I got the news, and I bet you do too. All respect for Esquire aside (thanks for the Windsor knot tips, fellas), the list itself was bloated with pretentious cocktail bars and Johnny-come-lately hipster digs. Not a damn one of them could hold a candle to Palmer's.

The business running at 500 Cedar Ave. is nothing less than an institution. It's a gritty, street-level roadhouse dive, and it takes all comers until they've proven themselves unworthy. It's a juke-joint, haunted by some of the most talented players north of Chicago. Depending on the night, and depending on the crowd, it can even get downright scary. And it's been doing all of this for well over a century, with nary a whiff of praise from the gatekeepers, and shows no sign whatsoever of stopping.

Courtesy of Palmer's Bar
A bygone era of Palmer's.

Palmer's opened for business in 1906. This means that Palmer's has survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars plus Vietnam, the civil unrests of the '60s, the inflation of the '70s, and the white flight and urban decay caused by Reaganomics. The iconic Riverside Plaza was built right in the bar's backyard and opened in 1973, carrying a utopian vision of mixed-income, multi-use skyscrapers that would revolutionize the neighborhood. As that promise withered in the face of rampant neglect on the part of the building's owners, and the poor conditions forced residents at the margins into crime and addiction, the bar kept its doors open. When a rash of murders in the early 1990s nearly surrounded the bar, Palmer's didn't even blink. It just kept serving doubles -- like it always has.

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