“You didn’t buy a bar, you bought a community.”
Lisa Hammer and her late husband Keith Berg purchased Minneapolis West Bank institution Palmer’s Bar on 2001, three days after 9/11. They bought it on a handshake, because the previous owner knew the couple understood what kind of a place it was, and she wanted them to have it. When it came time for Hammer to sell, she needed to find just the right person, so she could rest assured the legacy of the place would live on. About a month ago, she found him.
If you’re from Minneapolis, chances are you know Palmer’s Bar, 500 Cedar Ave. S. But is it the New Orleans-esque Palmer’s where a piano player bangs in the corner and couples vie for space to two-step on the tiny dance floor? Is it the Palmer’s that has a Santa Claus passed out in the corner – in July? Or is it midday Palmer’s with sunshine peeking through the trees, your wine bottle chilling on the patio table?
Because see, that’s the thing about Palmer’s – this come one, come all, established in 1906 West Bank institution is not just a bar. It’s a community center that can meet your expectations, your wants, and sometimes your needs.
Tony Zaccardi, longtime bar manager of Grumpy’s Northeast, settles into the patio on a recent pitch perfect June day. As we do, many patrons approach, shake his hand, say how good it is to see his face, and you can see that they genuinely mean it.
“Lisa (Hammer) told me that a lot of people are going to be so glad that someone who looks like me now owns this place,” said Zaccardi. And by that she meant a Black man, because Palmer’s is nothing if not diverse.
“A lot of Black people come here,” he said. “Black, white, transgender, gay, straight. It doesn’t matter. We love everybody.”
Which is the opposite of the rough and tumble dive bar that Palmer’s sometimes has a reputation for – and Zaccardi admits that yes, there have been some moments. But get to know the place, and soon, you’ll get to know a neighborhood. Sometimes rough and tumble, but most of the time pure joy and welcome.
That “we love everybody” mantra is a perfect fit for Zaccardi, who is known for the very same ethos when you belly up to his bar.
“Everybody gets a chance. I try to be the bartender that I myself want,” said the new owner.
Zaccardi has bar culture running through is veins. When he was growing up, his uncle ran a bar in Columbia Heights, his grandfather was a bartender at the late East Hennepin pub, O’Brien’s, and his great grandfather, who he never met, reportedly died in the basement of Spring Street Tavern.
He started his career cleaning Grumpy’s on Sunday mornings after the busy weekends, which included rinsing all the beer bottle returns that were par for the course in those days. A disgusting job, and most definitely not glamorous. He eventually got the Sunday bartending shift, and then worked his way up to full time shifts and then management.
“Grumpy’s Northeast is my favorite place on the planet,” said Zaccardi. “I figured you had to have a bar as an adult, and that was mine.”
For lots of people, a neighborhood bar is where they can find family, and Zaccardi gets that. Palmer’s has plenty of daily regulars, and he understands that not every place does. Why?
“This place is so inclusive. You can let your freak flag fly here,” said Zaccardi.
But in spite of its freakiness, Zaccardi says Palmer’s is full of surprises; ones that he’s still discovering every day, and ones that he wants you to discover, too.
For starters, the bar is impeccably clean.
“People clean the floors on their hands and knees every day. Everything works here. And I mean look – we have a lawn,” said the proud owner.
That they do. He’s still getting to know the neighborhood, and the neighborhood people, and as he says it, he starts to laugh. Out of my eyeshot, he spots a guy on a bike, wearing a Chinese bamboo hat, playing a trumpet. The West Bank is nothing if not unique.
Having spent most of his adult life in overwhelmingly white Northeast, Zaccardi is adapting.
“This part of town is quite different. It’s much more diverse. There are different lifestyles and cultures. Everyone drinks something different,” said Zaccardi, who said that was something he didn’t have to think as much about in craft beer crazy Northeast Minneapolis. “I want to be more culturally aware. Being surrounded by it, I’m more aware of it.”
Zaccardi most definitely has no plans to turn the place into a craft beer emporium.
The best part of owning a bar?
“You never know who, or what’s going to walk through the door,” said Zaccardi.
The changes he plans for Palmer’s are minimal, so as to keep the integrity of the place intact. So far, Palmer’s now accepting credit cards as an addendum to their longtime cash-only policy, and he’s added a jukebox iPod.
“Sorry,” he jokes, as a consolation to those who don’t want him to change a single thing, even if the subtle changes are almost indisputably for the better.