Unlike its larger western twin, St. Paul has never been overly concerned about strict rules and regulations. Its streets are not alphabetical, its numbers don’t make sense, and its rules are more likely to be worked out in a back room than posted neatly on a sign.
The same holds true for the dive bar landscape. As you’d expect from a city originally founded as Pig’s Eye, named for a haggard rum trader, the dive bars of St. Paul are thriving.
Just as in Minneapolis, dive bars are concentrated in certain spots. During the late 19th century, great sections of the city were explicitly developed to be domestic havens, free from the immoral temptations of booze. Today, large parts of St. Paul are still devoid of strong drink.
In Minneapolis, the booze rules—the 1883 “liquor patrol limits”—were marked clearly on a map, but in St. Paul (as I was told by an old politician), liquor licenses were worked out in a delicate negotiation between elected officials, neighborhood leaders, and Catholic parishes.
So there are no dive bars in Highland or Highwood, and nary a beer to be had in St. Anthony Park. But elsewhere, they cluster like crows in winter.
After systematically visiting every dive bar within St. Paul’s borders, here’s my list of the city’s purest, the places where regulars are not forgotten and windows are seldom seen, where craft beer is rare but taxidermy is not.
These are places with haunted basements, forgotten phone booths, and old men reading newspapers out loud. Enjoy them while they last, for while the dive bar still thrives in St. Paul, the future of a dive is always uncertain.
North End: Born’s Bar
This little-known neighborhood is chock full of wonderful dive bars, but my pick is Born’s Bar on Rice Street, which runs north from the state Capitol to the city line. According to one regular, the place is 110 years old. The inside is decorated with Marilyn Monroe paraphernalia, hand-drawn sketches of the old owners, and miscellaneous wooden furniture. A scrolling LED sign above the booze advertises the “double-yoker” meal, a reference to hormone-addled eggs boasting two yolks. Other than Heggie’s and the standard rack of chips, that sums up the menu. The fenced-in patio is a great place to have surprising conversations with people from all walks of Rice Street life. Other great North End dive bar shout-outs go to Hoover’s Bar on Jackson and the Half Time Rec in nearby Como.
Frogtown: The Nickel Joint
There are a bunch of seemingly secret dive bars in Frogtown, one of the oldest and most diverse parts of St. Paul. The purest of them all is the Nickel Joint on Mackubin Street, a lonely hole that rests in the shadow of St. Agnes Church’s massive steeple. The first time I went there, I had to be buzzed in by the bartender. There’s a large back room that’s used for meetings of an ancient “hot stove league” baseball society, and the walls are covered in old pictures of local factory ballclubs from a century ago. The men’s bathroom is dank, as it should be, and there is usually a pile of pull tabs on the floor somewhere beneath a small round table. Occasionally, a roving coney dog vendor plies his trade behind the bar on Saturday afternoons. The place is currently for sale, and might not be long for this world.
Midway: Trend Bar
The semi-industrial Midway area has a bunch of dubiously healthy dive bars, but the most authentic is the Trend Bar, housed in a century-old former mortuary on the corner of University Avenue and Asbury Street. Whether you go early Saturday morning or late Sunday night, the Trend is waiting for you and anyone else who wanders in from the Walmart parking lot across the street. There’s a pool table, a bunch of Fireball-friendly shots, and a closely guarded back exit to the alley. The experienced bartenders are quick to kick out anyone who falls off their stool more than once.
West Seventh: The Spot Bar
The neighborhoods along West Seventh Street, once known as Old Fort Road, have long been the epicenter of St. Paul’s dive bar culture. Here the definitive specimen is also the oldest, the Spot Bar on Randolph Avenue, which dates back to 1885. According to the 40-year-old articles shellacked to the wall above the booths, the Spot used to have an organ in the back nook, and folks used to sit around the keyboard and sing drunken songs. Some Saturdays the Spot transforms into a vintage clothing store, and remains a great place to drink Hamm’s while watching the Twins play on a small TV in the corner. The men’s room was recently remodeled, and has a curtain now.
West Side: Shadey’s Bar
Most of the dives on the West Side were demolished when the river flats neighborhood was bulldozed in the 1960s for an industrial park, but there are still some noteworthy spots clinging to the bluffs south of the river. Shadey’s on Stryker Avenue is the truest to the spirit of rail spirits. The two-story building—formerly known as Winner’s, before that went out of business—has thriving meat raffle, pull tab, and darts scenes. A few nights a week, a woman named Evie comes in to sell St. Paul-Mexican tacos, and they are as good as you’d expect.
Downtown: Hat Trick Lounge
Most of the dozens of old dives that used to crowd the downtown streets have been redeveloped, “urban renewed,” or remodeled out of existence. The one big exception is the Hat Trick Lounge on Fifth Street. A safe space for people with perceptible health problems, the Hat Trick overflows with idiosyncratic character, like the shag carpet mural on the wall, the barely upholstered booths, and the odd interior street lamps. This is the last downtown refuge of the day drinker. In the evening you can find strange musical acts in the attached side room. Downtown St. Paul used to have dozens of places like this, but this is the last one left.
Payne/Arcade: The Arcade Bar
The East Side’s old main streets have lost a few dives in recent years, prickly joints like Louie’s and Governor’s, which were victims not of gentrification, but of the slow erosion of their clientele and thinning bottom lines. My vote for the purest remaining dive goes to the Arcade Bar, a dark, quiet lager enclave in the bottom of an old three-story flophouse. The place has barely changed since the mid-1980s, when the factory down the street closed shop. Inside you’ll find an old trophy case, North Stars paraphernalia, a checkered floor, and rumors of an elevator hidden in the walls. Like the rest of the bar, the specials—all-you-can-drink beer and pool for $10 on Saturdays—are straight out of a long-lost past.
Greater East Side: Beehive Tavern
The windowless white walls of the Bee Hive Tavern, on Forest Avenue in Dayton’s Bluff, hide the last 3.2 bar in St. Paul, where Zima has been on the menu since it went out of style the first time. John, the owner, is almost always there, and this quiet bar is a great place to hang out and watch cable TV or Vikings games, or to simply sit in silence while drinking “ponies” of weak beer. The building dates back to 1887, and the bar used to be owned by the Schmidt brewery back when “tied houses” were legal. Like its 3.2 counterpart in north Minneapolis, the T-Shoppe, this is the last gasp of the golden age of prudent prurience.
A final note:
For the most part, dive bars are a core city phenomenon. Most Twin Cities suburbs don’t have the zoning, walkability, or history to support them properly. But there are a few classics sprinkled around the first-ring ’burbs. The Vadnais Inn in Vadnais Heights is a remarkable beer shack that ranks with the finest dives of old St. Paul. Likewise, West St. Paul’s Marty’s Bar is a gem, despite a recently remodeled ceiling.
Want more dive bar recommendations? Check out The drinker's guide to authentic Minneapolis dive bars.
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