Nye's Polonaise: The Best Bar in America (Esquire, October 2006)
October 2006, Volume 146, Issue 4
No. 9: Nye’s Polonaise
The Best Bar in America: Following a four-month search, this is the one.
By Chris Jones
The best bar in America isn’t Irish. It isn’t in a strip mall. It isn’t the sort of place that charges an outrageous cover for people to stand around in black light pushing back shooters out of test tubes. It isn’t a fight club or a meat market. There is no snobbery, and there is no tonic-water drinking. There are gimlets and manhattans, bottles of Zywiec, and a first-rate pissoir.
The best bar in America occupies a corner where the path to righteousness and the road to perdition run parallel, east to west, perpendicular to the muddy river that cuts this country in two, north to south. The best bar in America has occupied this physical and spiritual intersection since 1950. The best bar in America lies across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis over a bridge named for Father Louis Hennepin, and it has a sign on its yellow-brick exterior that points the way to Our Lady of Lourdes, cast in the red-neon glow of another that reads LIQUORS. The best bar in America also saw one of its doormen murdered last summer.
The best bar in America is Nye’s Polonaise.
More accurately, it is the two best bars in America—Nye’s Bar, known as the “Old Side” to its ancient staff and unshifting regulars, and the upscale bordello kitsch of the Polonaise Room—connected through their shared fire wall by a pair of swinging doors. When it comes right down to it, you’re either Nye’s or you’re Polonaise, making this place a kind of crossroads inside and out.
On this summer night, it feels as if all that ties the two halves together is their shared floral carpet and their nearly pitch-blackness. Nye’s has the only window in the entire complex, but it has turned opaque with time and pierogi smoke. Apart from a few stained-glass lanterns and a small TV with the Twins game on, the only light that penetrates this joint’s darkest corners comes from the accordion display over those swinging doors.
Everybody says that stepping into Nye’s Polonaise is like stepping back in time, and, for once, it’s true—to a time before even electricity.
Minneapolis is a city built on its institutions—the falls at Minnehaha, the Institute of Arts, Kirby Puckett, and Fran Tarkenton—but the best and sturdiest of them hang out here, wrapped in the darkness and surroundings that have remained perfectly preserved since the 1960s. The walls are paneled, the tables are Formica, and there are people who have worked at Nye’s for forty years. Their stories are each the same: One otherwise unexceptional day, they ducked in from the street, waited for their eyes to adjust, and never found reason to head back out into the sun.
Sweet Lou Snider was thirty-one years old when she first sat behind the piano in the Polonaise Room; she’s seventy-one today. Every Friday and Saturday night, as regular as rain, pint-size Lou boosts herself up onto her bench, a smoke-stained oil portrait of Chopin staring over her shoulder, and begins banging out songs precisely at the stroke of nine. Lou will take requests. She will also sing for you, but if you would like to sing, that would be just fine, too. It doesn’t take long for a chorus to surround her—including warbling, bickering twin brothers Dan and Dean Oberpriller, one singing high, one singing low—passing around the microphone and rounds of drinks, belting out “When I Fall in Love.” Although she is too modest to announce the truth herself, Lou is believed to have thousands of songs ready to dance from her fingers, and she smiles warmly at just about every request, as though she hasn’t already played “Unforgettable” eight million times, and wouldn’t that be nice? (You might want to reconsider asking for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” however. It’s kind of a long story.)
Watching Lou from her little booth set back from the door, Evie Radke, seventy-seven, has put on her makeup for another evening of playing host. She’s been here twenty-eight years, since her old job—at Harry’s downtown—went up in smoke along with the bar and a particular Polonaise fixture named Uncle Irving asked tough nut Al Nye to bring her across the river. Nye obliged, but he was sterner than Harry, and he told Evie that he wanted her to stand throughout her shift. Evie said nuts to that and dragged a barstool over to her booth. She’s sitting on that very same barstool tonight.
And, as usual, Fran Raymer is smiling from out behind Evie, waiting on her four booths, hauling out heaping plates of cabbage rolls and Polish sausage and hunter’s stew. Her white hair has a shock of black in the forelock, and she is dressed more like a teenager (a teenager from a different era, but a teenager nonetheless) than a woman her age, which is also seventy-freaking-seven. She wears bobby socks and a short, pleated skirt, her black bowling shirt rolled up at the sleeves, long earrings shining, her eyes bright behind oversize glasses. Although she struggles to shoulder the Nye’s cut of prime rib, a thirty-two-ounce heart stopper, she remains one hell of a waitress, making sure your onion bread is warm and the relish tray is so fresh, the pickles remember when they were cucumbers.
Memories are a living part of this place. “We’re a big family,” Fran says. “We know one another so well.” Like everybody else who works here, when asked when she plans on retiring, Fran says, “When I’m dead.”
Nye’s is a union shop, by the way. Dying on the job is not out of the question.
Big Billy was gunned down last summer on the sidewalk out front, four bullets in his back, put there by some random freak show who didn’t like being asked to leave. Against the wishes of the crowd, the police fished Billy’s assailant out of the Mississippi, which he tried to swim across to make good his escape. It was an awful, terrible night. Nye’s working-class immigrant neighborhood, called Nordeast by locals—where there are three bars for every church, all of them houses of the holy—felt on the edge of collapsing inside of itself. It was the sort of night that looked as though it might put down more than Big Billy.
With blood still on the sidewalk, the staff were called together by their stricken manager, Joe Stouffer, a young guy with a head for business who came in four years ago, after the bar was bought up by a couple of brothers who left everything down to the cigarette displays unchanged, even after the city went nonsmoking. Joe asked the bartenders and waitresses what they wanted to do the next day. They told him that they wanted to work.
And so Nye’s kept its doors open, and later a benefit concert was held in the parking lot for Big Billy’s family, and the life of the place stayed put along with Sweet Lou and Evie and Fran and Dan and Dean. But for the first time in forever, things felt different. It felt as though everything that before had been left unspoken should now be said out loud.
“Norman Rockwell could have gotten fifty paintings out of this place,” says Chicago Mike, a longtime “Old Side” bartender with a slick black pompadour and the record holder for the most booze poured in a single shift, $3,670 worth on New Year’s Eve six years ago. (“I had to clean my own glasses. After, I slept for a week.”) Nye’s is his home. He lives upstairs, in the fancier of the two short stacks of apartments jokingly called Clap Towers, because they are set aside only for men, and some of those men are in need of a shower. But for Chicago Mike, there is a comfort in being able to get to work by falling down a set of stairs, as well as a comfort in knowing that everything will always be as he left it the night before: that he will tend bar with Phil, Dan, and Corky; that he will serve cocktails to customers he knows by name and drink; that around eleven o’clock, the place will fill up with college kids and skinny-tie hipsters who somehow mix easily with the old-timers and barflys; and that the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band will be crammed onto the tiny stage in front of him, soon enough bouncing into yet another edition of “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”
“That’s why we drink it here,” sings sixty-four-year-old Joe Hayden, holding a horn by his side. Although the heart and soul of the band is Ruth Adams—a large, toothless matron who has played accordion here for more than thirty years—Joe is the brains and the deep voice of the operation. He took up the trumpet late in life, at fifty, and made his first public performance at Nye’s just a year later. “I played ‘Sentimental Journey’ and ‘Release Me,’ and then I staggered over to the bar for a couple of stiff drinks,” he says.
Three years later, he joined the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band, along with Ruth (“She’s ugly, but you won’t find a better accordion player in the city”) and a rotation of drummers Spinal Tap couldn’t rival, most of whom failed to abide by Joe’s three simple rules: no booze, no broads, no blue jeans. An excitable man named Ollie Manley, wearing a pitch-perfect Hawaiian shirt, presently rocks away.
They took the stage a little before nine o’clock, Sweet Lou on one side of the swinging doors and the three of them on the other, one more choice for folks to make. Chicago Mike looked as if he might die when the band ripped into “Barking Dog Polka,” which includes Ruth’s best impersonation of an angry chihuahua, but the fogies and the cool kids ate it up, hitting the small dance floor in front of the stage for a jump around. For those ladies without a partner, the bar gives a once-debonair man named Roger free coffee in exchange for taking the lead with a night’s worth of partners. It’s the sort of easy arrangement that makes everybody happy. There are moments when every single person in the room is smiling.
Now, having finished slagging heaven as a pale imitation of Nye’s and taking a short break at the bar, Joe says the smiles are why he shows up and plays his horn till well after one o’clock and why he, too, will work here until he dies.
“I never wanted to play a polka until I played my first one and I saw the look on everybody’s face,” he says. “It’s real music, and this is a real place.”
It’s time for Joe, Ruth, and Ollie to take their stage once again. A-one and a-two and it’s into another number, “Too Fat Polka” or maybe “Sheik of Araby”—they all sound the same—and the dance floor fills up as though assembly’s been called, and it will remain full till last call. The day has built toward this moment, through the sedate lunch hour, the afternoon lull, the dinner armies, the evening booze pounders and bar crawlers, and, finally, now, when they have all come together at once, summoned by Joe Hayden’s trumpet.
Sometimes he will be playing his horn with one hand and pointing to the nearby crapper door with his other, guiding some lost and desperate soul to paradise. Inside, there is only a rust-stained sink, a toilet behind a door that doesn’t quite lock, and a twin-size trough. Contained in that double-wide slab of porcelain, apart from a urinal puck, is everything you need to know about Nye’s: This is a shoulder-to-shoulder sort of bar, mostly utilitarian, entirely something short of glamorous, but it gets each of its jobs done, with no tolerance for shyness and no mercy for stage fright.
Apart from the dancers, there are still more clusters of carousers, young and old and in between, along the bar and tucked away in their booths. The front door opens to reveal a few more late to the party, feeling as though they need to stamp their boots despite it being the height of summer, as though they have trekked through a storm and finally arrived someplace safe and warm. The new ones are not sized up, and they are not patted down. Here they are free, and they ask Chicago Mike for a drink, and they join one of the existing gangs or they start one of their own. Or they take their drinks over to the Polonaise to hear some piano and eat a plate of fattening food that will make them feel at home. They will stay here, content and unbothered, till the lights are finally flicked on, till Mike wipes down the bar and heads back to his room upstairs and Joe packs his horn away and puts Ruth in the car and Fran sits down and puts up her throbbing feet and they sing along with Sweet Lou for the night’s last song.
These are the rhythms of the best bar in America. Everybody says that stepping into Nye’s Polonaise is like stepping back in time, and, for once, it’s true—to a time before even electricity, and, what’s more important, to a time before bars and neighborhoods and cities became things they were never meant to be. Somewhere along the way, instead of remaining places for people to come together, to share the familiar courses of their everyday lives, they became places where people stopped smiling and locked every door, where people lived in fear and anger, where people wanted not to celebrate but to be left alone, to live out their days behind shutters.
So easily, this place could have become such a shadow. It risked losing itself in its own darkness. But it did not, if only because it kept the Grain Belt and Grey Goose coming—whatever’s your pleasure—and because it remained a union shop and because it still points the way to Our Lady of Lourdes, a short stumble up the hill from a corner of America bathed in red neon, a kind of crossroads inside and out.