Two decades ago, a dirt alley and railroad tracks ran outside John Lee’s downtown Minneapolis bar. Property near Cuzzy’s, his North Loop hole-in-the-wall, was little more than a place for city plows to dump snow in the winter, he recalled. There was some industry, but not enough to prevent Lee from describing the Washington Avenue strip north of Hennepin Avenue as “pretty seedy.”
“Probably half the buildings in the neighborhood were boarded up, abandoned,” said Lee, who’s helping host the inaugural North Loop Fest block party Saturday. “It’s funny because so many people would come over that little train bridge and get about halfway down, look around and do a U-turn right back toward 1st Avenue.”
That was the North Loop circa 1995 — before the condo craze, before Target Field. Before it became the hottest neighborhood in the Twin Cities.
A number of bars and restaurants like Bev’s Wine Bar, Origami and Jetset have operated in the area for more than a decade. But starting with Bar La Grassa in 2009, the North Loop has undergone a nightlife renaissance. Haute Dish, Bachelor Farmer (and its companion cocktail mecca Marvel Bar) and Fulton Brewery’s taproom followed. This year’s addition of another esteemed upstairs-downstairs combo — Borough and Parlour — and Smack Shack cemented the North Loop’s place as a food-and-drink hotbed.
“I think the density of other places helps drive traffic,” said Smack Shack owner Josh Thoma, who’s throwing his Crayfest block party Saturday. “If people see the area as a restaurant destination in and of itself, they’ll come down, maybe have a pound of crayfish at our place and go over for a cocktail at Parlour.”
Between Thoma’s Crayfest, the North Loop Fest and “urban adventure race” TC Urban Dash, the once “seedy” neighborhood should be bustling Saturday. In addition to visitors, a growing number of local residents are dining and drinking near their converted lofts and apartments.
According to the North Loop Neighborhood Association, the population nearly tripled in the ’00s, and as of 2010 (the last year U.S. Census data was collected) 54 percent of residents were between ages 25 and 44.
“They chose North Loop because they wanted to be in the action,” said Borough and Parlour co-owner Brent Frederick. “They have a very active nightlife, and that was very appealing to us.”
More developments and bars are on the way. The Hennepin Avenue Whole Foods is slated for a fall opening. Frederick said at a recent neighborhood meeting he learned of 10 new residential projects in the works. As for new nightlife, the Loose-Wiles Freehouse brewpub from the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. is due this fall. The group behind the Crave restaurants has plans for an event center in the old Trocaderos nightclub space, and Tangiers — a new lounge near Origami — opens Aug. 23.
Tangiers partner Ivy Taheri said while its ownership group has experience in Warehouse District nightclubs, they preferred the North Loop’s more sophisticated “vibe” to the rowdy club-and-cowboy-bar scene along 1st Avenue N.
Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar co-owner Eric Dayton said the North Loop is still rife with redevelopment opportunities. Last weekend at Bachelor Farmer’s Kraftskiva block party, he had a chance to reflect on how much it’s changed since opening his restaurant and men’s boutique, Askov Finlayson, two years ago.
“It was rundown; the building had been neglected,” Dayton said of his space. “There wasn’t any energy at that intersection. Now we’ve got our building, kitty-corner there’s a little store, and to see 2,000 people having a great time listening to music — it hasn’t been that long, but the energy is so different and so exciting.”
It seems fewer U-turns away from the North Loop are being made these days.
North Loop nightlife guide
THE BACHELOR FARMER (est. 2011)
Go for: Chop Mondays.
While general palate-dazzling goes down daily, the Monday pork-chop special at the Dayton bros’ house of eats warrants an early-week trip. It’s possible that this thick, monster chop comes from a secret breed of horse-sized swine. But don’t let that keep you from teeing up Bachelor Farmer’s spectacular duck liver pâté, too. (50 2nd Av. N., Mpls., 612-206-3920, www.thebachelorfarmer.com.)
MARVEL BAR (est. 2011)
Go for: Envelope-pushing elixirs.
While paying homage to the classics, the Bachelor Farmer’s downstairs cocktail den is the Twin Cities’ premier destination for innovative cocktailing. If you’ve already tried the Olivetto and the Gatsby — required drinking for local libation hounds — consider the Scoville. Unassumingly complex, this gin-based drink has a softened spiciness courtesy of a habañero tincture and distilled water. (50 2nd Av. N., Mpls., 612-206-3920, www.thebachelorfarmer.com.)
BAR LA GRASSA (est. 2009)
Go for: Elite Italian.
With his culinary hand, James Beard winner Isaac Becker set the table for a new era of North Loop dining. Along with his wife, Nancy St. Pierre, and their business partner, Ryan Burnet, the big-shot chef brought four-star Italian fare to Washington Avenue in 2009. Four years later, an always-packed dining room suggests BLG’s success is no flash in the saucepan. (800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-333-3837, www.barlagrassa.com.)
BOROUGH (est. 2013)
Go for: Gastro bliss.
Led by Travail vets Tyler Shipton and Nick O’Leary, Borough’s cagey kitchen team came out this year as fiery as its spicy grilled octopus. The seemingly hungry young chefs churn out euphoric fare, like their pan-roasted halibut, set in a bewitching broth, or their fondue-accompanied steak. A sexified patio bar came just in time for summer. (730 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-354-3135, www.boroughmpls.com.)
PARLOUR (est. 2013)
Go for: Good vibes, great drinks.
The cocktail lounge below Borough takes an anti-stuffy approach to potable enlightenment. Feeling like a Jack and Coke or High Life pony? That’s cool. But you’ll miss the boat on the thoughtfully dillish Pickle in the Middle or the highly addictive Spicy N’ Stormy. Come for the fun atmosphere and cocktail craftsmanship, stay for the beef-gasmic burger (a benefit of partial access to Borough’s kitchen). (730 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-354-3135, www.boroughmpls.com.)
FULTON TAPROOM (est. 2012)
Go for: Growlers or pints.
These days, no Minneapolis cranny is complete without its own beer hub. While still repping its namesake southwest Minneapolis neighborhood of origin, Fulton has made the North Loop its adopted home. Since opening last year, its taproom has become the area’s beer-geek Grand Central and also draws hordes of Twins fans during baseball season. (414 6th Av. N., Mpls., 612-333-3208, www.fultonbeer.com.)
HAUTE DISH (est. 2010)
Go for: Head-spinning comfort food.
Gussying up Midwestern favorites an ounce of truffle oil and bone marrow at a time, Landon Schoenefeld’s ahead-of-the-curve eatery was the first foodie attraction to open after Bar La Grassa. Aside from sensational sweetbreads and its signature tater-tot “hautedish,” the weekend brunch and dinner spot boasts an above-average cocktail list. (119 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-8484, www.haute-dish.com.)
SMACK SHACK (est. 2013)
Go for: your seafood fix, tri-wheel.
Josh Thoma’s food-truck favorite pulled into its North Loop bricks-and-mortar space this February. The “casual coastal” joint has made a splash in its expansive digs and its 72-seat patio is perhaps the neighborhood’s busiest. Despite big-box sheen, the bar area’s tri-wheel facilitates classic dive-bar gambling. (603 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-259-7288, www.smack-shack.com.)
ACME COMEDY CO. (est. 1991): The stand-up club nabs national talent and hosts open mics for comics cutting their teeth. (708 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-338-6393, acmecomedycompany.com.)
BEV'S WINE BAR (est. 1995): Vino parlor has logged nearly two decades in the North Loop. (250 3rd Av. N., Mpls., 612-337-0102, www.bevswinebar.com.)
BLACK SHEEP PIZZA (est. 2008): The coal-fired pie peddlers were doing gourmet pizza before it was all the rage. (600 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-342-2625, www.blacksheeppizza.com.)
BUNKER'S MUSIC BAR & GRILL: Everything from dad-delighting, classic rock cover acts to jam bands grace the blue-collar bar’s stage. (761 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-8188, www.bunkersmusic.com.)
CLUBHOUSE JÄGER (est. 2004): Mature dance bar for post-C.C. hipsters and home of heralded DJ night Transmission.(923 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-332-2686, www.clubjager.com.)
CUZZY'S (est. 1995): Beloved, gentrification-defying dive bar, known for its dollar-bill-adorned walls. (507 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-339-6211, www.cuzzys.com.)
DARBY'S PUB & GRILL: Pre-game beers are de rigueur at this Target Field-adjacent sports bar with a primo patio. (315 5th Av. N., Mpls., 612-746-5064, www.darbysmpls.com.)
DÉJÀ VU: Still-pimpled 18-year-olds’ preferred venue for Intro to Lap Dance. (315 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-333-6333, www.dejavu.com.)
J.D. HOYT'S SUPPER CLUB: Vintage supper club, both classy and casual enough for intergenerational outings. (301 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-1560, www.jdhoyts.com.)
JETSET: Sparse but stylish gay club. All orientations are welcome on the small dance floor. (115 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-339-3933, www.jetsetbar.com.)
THE LOOP (est. 2006): Popular party spot for revelers who have slightly (slightly) outgrown 1st Avenue. (606 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-340-0010, www.theloopmpls.com.)
MONTE CARLO: Get Dean Martin-dapper and grab a martini at this “Mad Men”-evoking institution. (219 3rd Av. N., Mpls., 612-333-5900, www.montecarlomn.com.)
ORIGAMI (est. 1990): Origami was rocking authentic raw fish before every fusion joint in town. (30 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-333-8340, www.origamirestaurant.com.)
RUNYON'S: Old-school, no-frills bar with cold beer and claim-to-fame chicken wings. (107 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-332-7158.)
STADIUM PIZZA: Divey pizzeria and Packer/Badger bar coaxes PedalPubbers with ride-related deals. (207 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-334-3000, www.stadiumpizzaonline.com.)
SAPOR CAFE AND BAR (est. 2000): Longtime sneaky happy-hour spot, known for exceptional service. (428 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-375-1971, www.saporcafe.com.)
TOAST WINE BAR & CAFE (est. 2006): Cozy little wino wonderland tucked at the foot of the Heritage Landing Building. (415 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-333-4305, www.toastwinebarandcafe.com.)
[Photos by Kyndell Harkness]