t was a bitterly cold Christmas Day years ago. I looked up from my glass and wondered what it was about these other sorry folks that they were alone on a holiday. TVs droned sports highlights that no one was really watching. A pulltab worker was tucked into a corner, thumbing through a Reader's Digest. The colored lights strung over the yellowed mirror behind the bar blinked with the apathy of someone else's good time.
When the door creaked open, a gust of wind blew in another lost soul and, like a change in a jukebox lineup, the energy shifted. He was a familiar face to the bartender; pleasantries were swapped before the newcomer laid down a tale of woe and an off-color joke. I caught the laugh bubble up from my chest. Another old-timer chimed in and soon we were all chuckling and sharing observations of the weather and poking fun at our Minnesota-ness and abilities to gripe about parking, temperatures and the accuracy of weather predictions.
Winding up my scarf to head out, I realized that I hadn't spent the holiday alone. I was joined by a collective of others in need of respite from the doldrums, hard realities and never-ending tasks of daily life.
And that's what is truly spectacular about a great dive bar. It's not the dim lights — although they better be — or the blue-collar drink prices. It's the community and camaraderie found when your elbows hit the smooth groove of an old bar. The best ones come with a strong sense of place, and a community of regulars who touch down on the same stool with more regularity than most windup clocks.
Luckily for us, the Twin Cities are filled with places like these. If an outsider was to visit any of them, they would walk away knowing what it was like to be a neighbor here, even if just for a moment.
To whittle down our list, we spent many late nights revisiting classic dive bars in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each one is emblematic of its place in our community, with individual personalities and cozy familiarity that have been the backdrop to many good nights and a landing place for those who want to feel a little less alone.
Here is our list of the 15 most iconic dive bars in the Twin Cities:
The Payne Avenue gathering spot is the fruition of a dream for two longtime industry veterans, Molly and Thomas LaFleche. There's an ease to the passage of time as you lean into the lip of this old bar and take in the vintage beer signs. It's the type of watering hole where you're just as likely to run into local elected officials as you are to see a neighbor. Cocktails are a step above the usual pop-and-pour variety, especially the beer and whiskey selections. Plus, it's worth a drive across town to indulge in chef Torrance Beavers' weekly specials, like the spectacular Payne (French) Dip or the chopped cheese.
956 Payne Av., St. Paul, 651-447-2483, brunsonspub.com
It's been a bar for more than 100 years, and the room feels like it's filled with the ghosts of good times. Thankfully, time moves slowly at the CC Club, and if you're remembering the glory days of a great jukebox, hot pool tables and plenty of dark booths with quick service and stiff drinks, you'll be happy to know it's all still here. The bar is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. these days, with a kitchen that churns out bar classics. Luckily, only a little sunlight seeps in the windows, so festive lights shine over the room day and night.
2600 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-874-7226, ccclubbar.com
The North Loop has changed drastically since Cuzzy's opened in 1995 as several luxe new condo buildings have sprung up around it. Meanwhile, the bar remains steadfast to its dive-bar core. It is dark, cheap — especially for this neighborhood — and a great spot to check out a band or grab a quick beer before a Twins game. While the area continues to build up for the new and flashy, Cuzzy's is blessedly dedicated to the old and comfy.
507 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-339-6211, cuzzys.com
For a relatively small bar, Dusty's packs plenty of good times into its space. The bar is a throwback to another era from front, where the TV is usually playing a game, to back, where a now-empty built-in telephone booth sits. There's a meat raffle every Friday night, and it wasn't that long ago that a manually operated cash register was still in use. You'll usually find a crew of regulars posted at the bar, most waiting on an order of Dusty's signature sandwich with "The Works": an Italian sausage patty with sautéed onions, sweet peppers and a slice of gooey cheese on a squishy bun. (The name of the sandwich, a regional favorite, has also been known as a derogatory term for Italian Americans.) Sometimes there's even a pulltab worker and live music all cozied up inside, too.
1319 Marshall St. NE., Mpls., 612-378-9831, dustysbaranddagos.com
There was a time when we were lucky enough to have three Grumpy's locations, each with its own vibe and signature, winking churlishness. However, Grumpy's Northeast is the last one standing. Stepping inside, there's the unmistakable Grumpy's decor — the red-patterned wallpaper, Formica-topped tables and now new, plush red bar stools. Order from the impressive bar list that has everything from Hamm's to the best local brews. Inside, the clientele are just as likely to be musicians as artists, continuing this part of town's history as an area where creatives can still afford to live and make cool stuff.
2200 4th St. NE., Mpls., 612-789-7429, grumpys.bar
6.Half Time Rec
Not every neighborhood pub comes with basement bocce ball, but more should. Half Time Rec would be a fantastic bar even without the underground activities. There are great burgers, a proper pour of Guinness, a giant bar that dominates the room, a countdown to St. Patrick's Day and dart boards in the back. From the kitchen, also known as the Paddy Shack, there are burgers, cheese curds and hearty Irish bar fare to act as a solid base for a night of revelry. When the kitchen closes, there are Heggies Pizzas to fuel another round of basement bocce.
1013 Front Av., St. Paul, 651-488-8245, facebook.com/halftime.rec
Mention Manning's Cafe to many former Gophers and a there's likely a story to follow of them and their mates grabbing massive schooners of beer before a game, or ending a night over an enormous basket of thick-battered onion rings. The bar has served University of Minnesota students and neighbors since the 1930s and, thankfully, it carries all those traditions forward to this day. It's still a great place for diner food, beer served in glasses that could double as a salad bowl and service that's quick with a pour.
2200 Como Av. SE., Mpls., 612-331-1053, manningscafe.com
This might be the best origin story of all time. Mayslack's began as a bar where the owner, professional wrestler "Handsome Stan," and his wife, Butch, lived upstairs and served garlic roast beef sandwiches on paper plates with a menacing growl. Much has changed since it first opened in 1955, but Mayslack's, founded by Butch and Stan Mayslack, has maintained its core of gruff hospitality, drinks and good times. In the early days the music leaned toward polkas, but today the bar also acts as a music venue for local bands. It's an ideal weekend destination for a Bloody Mary and a beer back. Plus, the roast beef sandwiches now come on actual plates.
1428 4th St. NE., Mpls., 612-789-9862, mayslacksbar.com
Not many neighborhood bars are just as likely to be the backdrop for a Dungeons and Dragons meetup as they are to host a selection of gruff dudes in kilts, yet here we are. You don't have to have a fluency in Monty Python sketches to love this bar, but it doesn't hurt. Duck in for a pint, meat pie or a perusal of its whiskey bible with a staggering selection of peaty goods and just enjoy the atmosphere. The welcoming atmosphere matches that of an English countryside pub, the sort where mates can gather for hours and relate the day's big and little news. You never know what kind of revelry could walk through the door.
3601 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-216-2419, merlinsrest.com
Meteor may only be a couple of years old, but owner Robb Jones is a longtime bartender who appreciates a great dive bar. The building has been a bar for more than a century. The front is papered with reprints of old rock photos and band bills, while the inside is dim and comfortable. Behind the old bar, properly well-worn for a good elbow lean, there are sophisticated drinks from bartenders qualified to work behind the best of the city's high-end fine-dining establishments. But it's also a great stop for a beer and a top-shelf poured bump. Food options are limited to surprisingly good hot dogs and maybe a dolled-up frozen pizza, but the cocktails are the star attraction.
2027 N. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-886-2483, meteormpls.com
11.Shaw's Bar & Grill
Follow your ears and the slick blues guitar riffs inside Shaw's Bar and Grill. Even when there isn't live music, there are always tunes playing inside. The bar is most famous for two things: its dedication to the blues and the Shaw Burger. One of life's simple pleasures is tucking into a basket filled with beef smothered in cheese, bacon and sautéed onions with fries on the side while nodding along to whatever happens to be pouring out of the sound system. First opened in 2000, the bar has the well-worn feel of a joint that is in it for the long haul.
1528 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-781-4405, follow them on Facebook.
There's the low profile of the windows, promising a welcome shield from the outside world, and the sticker-applied address on the back door confirms it: This is not a place for the fancy drinker. Inside, the bar is just the right amount of worn and comfortable, and the food is scratch-made and very affordable. Pete Skinner, who owns the bar with his wife, Molly, was a longtime cook, so the recipes are built from his years of experience and the occasional demands of the clientele, like the totchos: a tray heaped with tots buried in nacho toppings.
919 Randolph Av., St. Paul, 651-291-0146, skinnersmn.com
13.The Spot Bar
The first time we stepped into the Spot, every neck craned around to assess the newcomers in the doorway. This W. 7th bar is the embodiment of the old-timers of the neighborhood, even as more people in their 20s and young families move into the area. Folks can still spend hours here — if not whole days — nursing a beer or four and catching up with other aspiring regulars. Prices are kept low because the locals wouldn't have it any other way.
859 Randolph Av., St. Paul, 651-224-7433, follow them on Facebook
The best bar nights happen when an unexpected opportunity to connect with a complete stranger presents itself. Tapper's Bar exudes an easiness that invites those types of chats and deep laughs. Walking in, the mix of people reflects the surrounding neighborhood and the jukebox is just as likely to play Beastie Boys as Waylon Jennings, depending on who is willing to queue up a tune. The food menu is brief, consisting of creative pizzas with flavors like fresh jalapeños on top of pepperoni. A mighty fine Saturday night accompaniment to a beer and a bump. Even better are the electronic pulltab machines.
879 Stryker Av., West St. Paul, 651-457-6784, tapperspubwsp.com
15.Whitey's Old Town Saloon
The new construction, ongoing construction and towering condos continue to rise around this historic bar, but once inside, the world is shut out and Whitey's remains virtually unchanged. Although there are modern-era cocktails on the menu, stick to the basics: generous whiskey pours, gin and tonic, and icy cold beers. Settle into a vinyl-topped bar stool and take in the sights: Sometimes there's a musician stuffed in a corner, sometimes there's a game on, and then there's the giant wooden female affixed to the top of the bar (reclaimed from a long-gone bar). Purchased in 1994 by Randy "Whitey" Rodgers, who added his nickname to the bar, it was sold to Erik Stadstad in 2019. Luckily he kept the solid food menu and low-key vibe of the place.
400 Hennepin Av. E., Mpls., 612-623-9478, oldtownne.com
Pour one out for the ones we lost
The dive-bar scene isn't the same without the Uptown in Uptown, Nye's Polonaise Room in Northeast, Moby Dick's in downtown Minneapolis, Grumpy's in downtown, the Classic in St. Louis Park, the Ace Bar, the Hexagon bar in Minneapolis, O'Gara's in St. Paul, Kelly's Depot Bar in Lowertown and so many more.
Dive bars hold a special place in our hearts. Where's your favorite and why do you like it? Tell us in the comments — we might just see you there.