Palmer’s Bar: A dive that survived the smoking ban, hot goddamn!

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You can say about a good dive what the old saw says about land: they just aren’t making them anymore.

Accordingly, with the demise of that beloved dump the Viking Bar, Minneapolis’s West Bank sots now have Palmer’s Bar and Palmer’s alone to turn to for cheap, non-watered-down drinks that aren’t three-fourths ice cubes, a jukebox that reads like an encyclopedia of golden oldies—from the Drifters to Fleetwood Mac—and ambience that distinctly feels like someone went and brought a junkyard indoors. The primary appeal, of course, is that you can sit down and get anywhere from pleasantly snookered to hammered like an anvil and actually have enough change in your pocket to go do something worthwhile the next day—like hit the grocery store and pick up a few odds and ends.

palmer’s bar, 500 n. cedar st., minneapolis. (612) 333-7625. (editor’s note: distrust any bar that considers itself a “dive,” yet—unlike palmer’s—maintains a web site.)

Naturally, Palmer’s is a godsend for broke or simply frugal writers, which is how I found out about the place to begin with. Years back, before David “The Rasta Bard” Daniels left for St. Paul (he may not be done relocating, so next time Dave’s performing in either town, be there before we lose him to his cherished Denver) introduced me to the place. I was delighted to sit down and order a double-jack rocks, then be advised by the bartender that nobody orders a double anything at Palmer’s. You pay the single price and they automatically double you up. What a wonderful policy.

There we were: me broke, him frugal, having one of our countless, ongoing jawing sessions about the New York Mets. (Sorry, I’d like to tell you we indulge in deeply cerebral discourse on such profound, existential considerations as why there’s air, but we don’t.) Halfway through our first pitcher of beer, Dave suggests we go outside. Thinking he’d already had too much, I came back with, “Fool, you can’t drink on the sidewalk.” That’s how I discovered Palmer’s patio, a reasonably spacious, decently appointed expanse in which it’s easy to relax, sitting back, sipping quite comfortably, thank you, enjoying the air, people watching and, okay, feeling like a genuine bohemian.

I haven’t caught too many bands there, but recently, I caught a hellified experience. Got dragged out of the house to catch a pair of performers who could burn down Hell. Juke Joint Duo they call themselves, going by the nickname “Two-Man Wrecking Crew.” It’s Cedric Burnside (vocals, drums) and Lightnin’ Malcolm (vocals, guitar). These guys ain’t nothin’ nice. I never before saw two cats get up on-stage and raise more sand than a full band. Hailing from Mississippi (between now and at least May, they’re on tour, booked solid from the Midwest to the South to the East Coast), Juke Joint Duo lay down blues so funky you can smell it. It was my unabashed joy, once they stepped down, having kept a packed house screaming and clapping all night long, to shake Lightnin’ Malcolm’s hand and say to Cedric Burnside, “Hot goddamn. Pass the grits!”

Looking back, it was a wild and crazy change of pace for Palmer’s and one that would be welcome on regular basis. Along with the usual artistic types and diehard barflies, the place was uncharacteristically festive—in fact, downright chaotic, with gyrating hips and flailing elbows in effect wall-to-wall. It helped feed the cash register for this valiant institution and, anytime all the hub-got to be too much, well, you simply stepped out to the patio and got away from it all. Kudos, by the way, to the bouncer nearest me (who’s never in a good mood, but doesn’t bust your chops unless you just refuse to behave) and to the bartender who waited on me. The bouncer had his work cut out for him, having to look everywhere at once, deal with happily boisterous drunks, and not lose his cool. The bartender smoothly handled one drink order after another in a crowd where requests for libation came non-stop, fast and furious. As a customer, I had a ball. So far as a working environment goes, I wouldn’t’ve been in the bouncer’s or the bartender’s shoes for love or money.

The exemplary braintrust at the State Capitol who came up with that smoking ban at bars have outdone themselves. They managed to hamstring an industry with about as much reason as Bush had to act on imaginary weapons of mass destruction. Stop letting people smoke at bars, and what smokers by and large will do, this ain’t political science, is drink more often at home—especially in the middle of a Minnesota winter, when you need to have a serious tobacco jones to smoke outdoors. That’s what killed the Viking, where, among other big fun, guitar god Willie Murphy would play his nasty ass off every Monday night, hosting one of the meanest open mics known to civilization.

Well, we still got Palmer’s Bar. Glory hallelujah and, yes, I do believe I’ll have me another drink.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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