The Country Bar Revisited

[The neon cowboy.]
The following is an excerpt from Noteworthy Dive Bars of South Minneapolis, a guide booklet available for sale in the online store.

[Excerpt begins.]

The Country Bar is the 
latest in a long line of 
late Lake Street dives.
 These marginal drunken 
ephemera — places like
 the Poodle Club or the
 Yukon Club (R.I.P.) —
lasted for a long time as
 liquor oases amidst the
 upright wasteland of
 gentility that forms Min
neapolis’ Southern half.
 And The Country Bar held out the longest, an Alamo of booze fighting off the moneyed ranks of good taste.

At least, until it didn’t.

So too, the origins of The County Bar seem a Western tale: a pair of roaming poultry purveyors named Shorty and Wags spent years frying around South Minneapolis making their name with their secret chicken recipe, like the cooks from a Cattle drive. Their legend was long as a sunset shadow in summertime, and the chicken craving people of the city flocked to their banner. Or so it was told.

At some point Shorty and Wags brought their fried fowl into the Country Bar, and the magic recipe of karaoke, cheap rail liquor, and barely-vented cooking oil holed up here, coalescing into a crevasse off Lyndale Avenue.

Lake Street is South Minneapolis’ great watershed, a ridge of density and diversity thrusting up like Grand Tetons on the plains of the single-family city. As such, it becomes both a border and a seam, dividing and connecting the relative chaos to the North from the placid neighborhoods stretching off alphabetically Southward. And the Lyndale corner rises a bit higher than the rest, a local peak of aging industry and commerce, now converted into a bourgeois utopia alongside the Midtown Greenway. It remains, with the solid detail-rich five-story edifices meeting at the corner (amplified today by the new, carnivalesque youth-oriented apartment boom), the closest approximation of a coastal cityscape you’ll find East of uptown. And in their midst, The Country Bar crouched like an alley bum.

A small confession: I once knew a couple who lived in one of the adjacent buildings. Stolen wi-fi from the County Bar was painfully slow, but there nonetheless. Their kitchen window opened up out onto its next-door rooftop, and we’d clamber out on autumnal evenings to traverse the grey pebbles like New Yorkers of old. The highlight was a cross-Country Bar trip to the building on the corner, topped with a large diagonal rooftop billboard facing towards the Lyn-Lake intersection. To sit before the 20-foot faces of the all-white KMSP news anchors or Edina realtors illuminated behind us, drink in hand, watching South Minneapolis bustle like a rapid creek below, was a high point. In the background, the short ventilation pipe of the Country Bar stuck like a straw through the rooftop, a periscope venting musky warmth of old grease into the air.

No Wild West cliché would be complete without music, and here too the Country Bar delivered. Instead of a haggard honky-tonk tickled by a nervous man in a bowtie, this was one of the top two most reliably intimate karaoke stages in the city. (The other being Northeast’s Otter Bar, a triangle of squeezed and improper song.) To sing at the Country was to get acquainted with strangers, the usual irony and distance crushed into something felt keenly, a vocal perspiration.

[The Country Bar on its last legs in 2013.]
By the time the official Dive Bar Tour sallied forth into South Minneapolis, the Country Bar had closed. I remember the tour riding by on our bicycles, and gazing at the cardboard that had sealed up the doorway like a tomb. Remembering the good and middling times I’d had at the bar over the years, it was poignant, like a funeral for an admired acquaintance.

But things have changed. The Country Bar has reopened under new management. And what’s more, it’s been completely remodeled, taken from dive territory and elevated firmly into the realm of hipster swank. A set of large red neon signs are mounted over the entrance, a simple animation of a cowboy on a horse. Inside,  gone are the crooked old wooden floors; in with the patterned tile. (Though if you stand by the entrance you can still feel underfoot the wild skew of the old bar floor.) Gone is the old beat-up bar; in with fresh copper top. The ceiling boasts a beautifully designed Wild West-themed mural. The heads of bison hang on the walls. The interior decorator budget was very well spent.

Craft beer taps are nestled amidst spare shelving, carefully adorned with quality bourbon and the like. solid dark wood booths have taken the place of the old awkward tables. This is no longer the dive of yore, the only “poors” inside appear on a pun above the kitchen window. They still have karaoke four nights a week, but it would not be the same, and I doubt we will see the old mixing of black and white, hip and disheveled, within these walls again.  Instead, this place, nodding to the past, positioned as an ironic commentary on the actual douche-ridden “cowboy” themed meat market down the street.

If a dive is to die, to be replaced, let it at least be tasteful. We can drink to that.

[Copper bar, flat screen TVs, a ceiling mural with vintage aesthetics.]

[Old Overholt, the last vestige of the hipster dive.]

[Buffalo on the bricks.]
[You'll find these same brass horses across town at Tracks.]

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