Food memories and restaurant futures

The backdrop of my early childhood was wood paneling and intricately patterned red and orange carpeting. It smells like stale cigarette smoke, hotel pan spaghetti buffets, damp beer boxes and tastes like the butter and cream of special Christmas dinners.

I lived in Duluth, Minn., until I was six years old. My grandfather and two uncles owned a liquor store and, for awhile in the 1980s, my grandfather also owned the restaurant across the street — the Casa de Roma. My grandfather was known as “The Polish Count” and wherever he went, the party went with him. Below is a photo of “Polish Count Beer” made by Schell’s Brewery in the late 1960s into the 1970s. My grandmother, the “Polish Countess,” had her own Schell’s beer as well. This stuff definitely got the party started.

schell'sThe liquor store, Last Chance Liquor, was a playground for me and my cousins. When my grandpa bought “The Roma,” our playground expanded. When the adults got tired of us running around the liquor store, they’d make us run across the (very busy) street to order chicken wings in the bar and play pool and arcade games. The restaurant staff knew us and knew as well as we did that we were “Carl’s grandkids.” That meant we were in charge and could do pretty much anything we wanted.

We messed around unsupervised a lot of the time because we were working class. Solidly middle class, everyone worked very hard for their modest living. We had sporadic adult supervision because the adults were working. But that wasn’t something that occurred to us as kids because we had a conveyor belts to ride in a liquor store and a castle-sized restaurant to conquer.

Here is a photo of the restaurant in the late 1990s after it closed and became run down. This does not accurately portray the grandeur of the place. Also, I’m pretty sure that van is not still for sale.

Photo courtesy of Duluth News Tribune

Photo courtesy of Duluth News Tribune

That restaurant was amazing. It was HUGE with several main dining areas, a picture window view of Lake Superior, hand-painted murals of someone’s interpretation of Italy, a full and separate bar area and a ginormous basement event space. The food in the bar was bar food — chicken wings, fries, etc. The food in the restaurant was someone’s interpretation of Italian. For some reason, my grandparents’ outstanding homemade Polish sausage, pierogies and cabbage rolls never made it to the menu. The place was wood-paneled and stuccoed and dark, even in the middle of the day. The basement event space had basement-y drop ceilings and was one step up from a church basement (the other place we celebrated big life events, by the way). The carpet was dark red with a paisley pattern and the chairs were covered in dark vinyl. The waitresses had all worked there for 20+ years and had names like Flossie (she was our favorite).

Why am I telling you this? 

When I was in my early teens, my grandpa sold the restaurant to his friend, who changed the name and theme (sports bar). Eventually, it went out of business and was replaced by Duluth’s food co-op (which is awesome, incidentally). My grandpa passed away, my uncles who owned the liquor store passed away and now my cousins run the business. There was a flood and they made lots of updates. It looks amazing. But they won’t let me ride the conveyor belt anymore. My grandmother is in a memory care unit now and this year the family cabin — site of many wild 1970s and 1980s parties — was sold. It was too far away, too much maintenance and it was time for another family to make memories there. That is good.

But now Nye’s is closing. I am a whole lot more sad about this then I ever thought I would be.

If you’re unfamiliar with Nye’s, it’s a patchwork vintage supper club, lounge, event space and bar launched by Al Nye in 1950, when Northeast Minneapolis was solidly Eastern European working class. So much of it remains unchanged to this day. There’s the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band and a piano sing along every weekend. Perpetually grumpy elder statesmen brood at the bar, nursing their beers.

Photo courtesy of City Pages

Photo courtesy of City Pages

My grandfather, the “Polish Count,” enjoyed hanging out at Nye’s when he came “down to the Cities.” They served Polish food (like pierogies) and hunks of prime rib and he could sit court in his element. Nye’s is kind of the last vestige of my childhood. To lose that — and the spirit of working class people like Al Nye and my grandparents — is so very sad. I spent many nights hanging out at Nye’s from age 21 on — singing along to the polka band, doing Patsy Cline duets with a friend while Lou accompanied us on the piano, after-work happy hours in the glitter booths and it’s still our go-to place to bring friends from out-of-town. You want a flavor of old Minneapolis? Nye’s is it.

The current owners are working with a property development company and that the space will be cleared to make way for a mix of retail and high-rise apartments seems a done deal.

As sad as I am (and I have tears streaming down my face as I write this…) to lose this piece of my childhood and as depressing as it is that future generations won’t experience the unique and magical camaraderie facilitated by this place, I’m angry at the owners as businessmen, residents of Minnesota and keepers of the legend.

When you choose to purchase a place like Nye’s, you aren’t just buying a business. You’ve got a responsibility to history and to the legend. To keep the dream alive IS your business. They’ve been quoted saying it wouldn’t be right to change Nye’s so they’re just closing it. What could possibly be a bigger change than that?!

Photo courtesy of JournalMpls.com

Photo courtesy of JournalMpls.com

But now I’m going to put on my business owner hat (because I own a business too): I’ve been a patron of Nye’s since the 1980s. Over time, I’ve seen the owners rest on their laurels and rely on its reputation to keep the business pulling through. They seem to have given up on it being a restaurant — the food is terrible and no “cheeseburger pierogi” special is going to make it better. They do very little in terms of marketing the place (their Twitter feed hasn’t been touched since 2012) and, if it seems like they never bothered to keep an eye on growth or the future, it’s because they never had to. The business is sitting on a valuable piece of land.

Restaurants and bars close every week. And if someone offers you $2 million for your business, that’s a tough one to turn down. But when you’re responsible for the memories of tens of thousands of people and maintaining a nationwide institution, you have the responsibility to at least look for an opportunity. And that’s why I’m most disappointed. The owners threw in the towel and seemingly refused to acknowledge the opportunity here.

A simple, respectful reconfiguration of the space to make more room for the popular piano bar, a menu update to focus on real Polish and Eastern European food — simple, tasty, true and not from Sysco. Unique late night bar snacks — who wouldn’t go for a platter of buttered toast and a plate of crisp bacon (aka my grandma’s specialty) or a big bowl of Frosted Flakes at 1:00 am?! The mother of all Mad Men-esque event spaces in the basement. Why not capitalize on that?

And if the current owners are unable or unwilling, why not let fans of Nye’s know how much their buy-out deal is worth? Perhaps all the sadness, nostalgia and uproar can be channeled into a crowdsourced buyout of the current owners (for a competitive bid) in favor of someone who can see the possibilities, the opportunities and will honor the legacy.

trjacob

…I hope you’re listening with consideration. I’ve got a lifetime of experiences in this unique space. The Twin Cities is home to innumerable creative people, food people, music people, people to whom history is important, working people, people willing to hustle when it comes to doing the right thing. Lean on us, gentlemen. Work *with* the community of people who want to preserve this piece of history and keep it solvent for generations to come. Do something awesome for the city — WITH the city — instead of just collecting a check, heading back to the suburbs and letting a landmark fall to make way for more apartments for rich people.

At least give us the chance. The spirits of Al Nye, the Polish Count and every struggling college kid and working class schlub who drank a beer at Nye’s will be forever grateful.

Let’s work together to find a solution that can make everyone happy. I’m at eatdrinklifeluv (at) gmail.com — I’ll be waiting to hear from you!

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