The last few years have not been kind to downtown Saint Paul dive bars, and COVID-19 and the absence of sports has made everything worse. I was downtown last week and once again struck by the lack of people, which is saying something for a downtown that is typically lacking in signs of human life in the first place.
Well, it seems inevitable that bars will go out of business during the COVID pandemic, and that goes double for places located downtown that are dealing with a huge drop in population. You would expect the most marginal places to be the first to disappear, and there was no more marginal dive bar in downtown Saint Paul than the Hat Trick.
The Hat Trick -- formerly the Top Hat, but the named was changed when the Xcel Energy Center opened up -- was in a historic one-story building in the middle of one the city’s last old blocks in the downtown core. It shares a wall with the the decrepit Empire Building, smushed between the Pioneer-Endicott alley and a large parking ramp, in what was once the heart of old downtown. 5th and Robert should be one of Saint Paul’s prime locations, but today, with the skyway buildings sucking all the life off the street, somehow it always seemed desolate. Even finding the place was like walking into an alley you didn’t know existed.
Each time I went into the place, I was struck again by its slapdash character. It was the kind of dive that was made from patchwork, where you could see each and every repair, remodel, or new piece of furniture in the place. Walking through the Hat Trick was like visiting a museum, various things on the wall dating back sometimes decades. The curiosities on the wall were unparalleled; I was especially fond of the weird carpet shamrock. The bar itself was a split-level and U-shaped, and festooned with historic-looking 70s lampposts.
They had big darts tournaments and a good pool table elevated somehow onto a balcony overlooking the main bar room. Typically the TV was tuned to local news unless there was Minnesota sports happening somewhere. There was often a newspaper sitting on the plush bar railing, probably opened to the comics or the sports page. This was one fo the last places in downtown where you could be absolutely sure to find the marginal folks of Saint Paul, people passing the time and drinking the day away. At night, local cover bands would play in the big side room. There was a vending machine (!) and one of the city’s dingiest bathrooms down a long beige hallway.
The building is for sale and the interior gutted. Almost nobody will miss it, but downtown is surely less diverse without the Hat Trick Lounge, made all the poorer without this weird refuge. RIP Hat Trick Lounge!