Perhaps no institution on the West Bank embodies its character—the grittiness, eclecticism, the diversity, the music, the history, the resiliency—more than Palmer’s Bar. Palmer’s has served West Bankers in some iteration for over 110 years now.
The Minneapolis Brewing Company—a predecessor to Grain Belt Brewing—owned the space, and Palmer’s has retained the red and white tiles emblematic of the old tenant. The wall outside the bar features a character that looks like a thinner, taller, and younger Monopoly man holding a beer. A sign reads, “SORRY, WE’RE OPEN.” In the warmer months, crowds will sit and enjoy a drink on the patio under the shadow of the towering Riverside Plaza above.
Everyone at Palmer’s, even on a Sunday afternoon in January, has some story to tell about the bar. A grid of photos adorns the wall in an inlet near the door. That’s Palmer’s Wall of Fame, dedicated to remembering the stalwarts who have since passed away. Herb Clark, a longtime friend of Palmer’s and somewhat of an unofficial historian of its past three decades, is one of many regulars who can bring their stories and the bar’s legendary history to life.
“I was living in Little Earth and got on my Schwinn bike to just check out the area and I stumbled upon Palmer’s Bar,” Herb said about his first experience coming here over 35 years ago—“like a lost child.” Herb pointed at a photo of a woman on the Wall of Fame. Florence, the bar’s owner at the time, “was like a second mother to me. There’s so much she did for me; I didn’t know nobody. I opened that door and came in and it was like being in a second home.” Whenever Herb rode up Cedar Avenue with his kids, Florence would give them bags of potato chips and cans of pop before they’d head over to play at Currie Park.
Patrons of Palmer’s have echoed Herb’s thoughts over the years. Even if you don’t know anybody, there are no strangers here. “You just don’t know who you’re going to meet in this bar,” Herb said. That means that people don’t judge one another here—all types of characters from all walks of life have come through those doors, and no one thinks twice, or even considers, their background. A sense of warmth awaits anyone who comes to Palmer’s for a drink.
But it also means that you really don’t know who you’re going to run into here. Palmer’s has a way of creating lifelong connections, as if it’s a community center but a little more seediness and a lot more alcohol. While Herb was regaling stories, Theodros Tamrat, an immigrant from Ethiopia and friend of Herb’s for thirty-plus years, wandered over to the table and started telling his own stories. Later, other friends of Herb’s who have been coming to Palmer’s even longer than him, strolled up to the counter.
There’s a chance you also might run into one of the local West Bank music legends who’ve been playing Palmer’s cozy corner stage for decades. Willie Murphy, Tony Glover, Spider John Koerner—all pioneers of the West Bank folk and blues scene in the 1950s through the 1970s—still frequent the bar, and even the stage. Although the immensely popular Cedar Fest has disappeared from the neighborhood—in its last year in 1998, it drew about 100,000—Cornbread Harris and Spider John Koerner still graced the bill for the bar’s annual festival, Palmfest, in 2017.
Steeped in tradition and legacy, Palmer’s has never been without its rough edges. The Wall of Fame has an ignoble counterpart: The Wall of Shame, documenting bargoers who have been permanently booted from the establishment. Herb told one story about seeing one customer who had kicked out by a bouncer then come back to the bar minutes later and shoot the bouncer (in another version of the story, the bouncer subdued the would-be assailant, but then was stabbed in a separate incident).
That, of course, was in the days when Minneapolis was known as “Murderapolis.” Although that type of violence has subsided, Palmer’s has not lost an inch of its grit while the neighborhood has gotten safer. Having endured two World Wars, prohibition, the rise of hippie counterculture, urban renewal and the neighborhood’s decline of the 70s and 80s, it’s safe to say Palmer’s and what it fundamentally represents will remain unchanged—as long as its regulars still frequent the West Bank haunt.
The most recent change in the neighborhood has been the influx of Somali and other East African immigrants. The bar shares a wall with the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, something which a longtime community member described as “the most West Bank thing ever.” One Palmfest right around when the mosque had moved in coincided with Ramadan, and the noise made it difficult Dar Al-Hijrah’s members to pray. They’ve since worked out an agreement to coordinate schedules more.
Such contradictions—tight-knight and inclusive, danger and safety, mosque and bar—define Palmer’s and the West Bank at large. They not only give it character, but possibly have been key to its survival after so many trials and tribulations over the past one hundred-plus years.
Ask any Palmer’s regular why it’s been so enduring, and they’ll give you the same answer Herb did: the people. “You can run into some real people that care about you. And you don’t even know ‘em.”