The coneys are great. The egg rolls are worth it.
Knowing where to begin with a St. Paul dive bar the quality of the Gopher Bar is a difficult task. The real magic of the place was the conversations had in and around the bar, the kind of interpersonal connection that makes dive bars the worthwhile destination that they are. The conversation ranged from the shouting matches between the husband and wife owners (George & Cheri) of the 90-year old Gopher Bar to the deep history of professional wrestling in the Minneapolis area, from Brock Lesnar to Baron Von Raschke.
Current owner of the bar, George, is son to Andrew, who opened Gopher Bar in downtown St. Paul in 1931. The timeline extends so far back that upon opening, Prohibition was in effect, meaning Gopher Bar began life as a diner before mercifully being allowed to start serving alcohol in 1933. Life did not, sadly, begin at this same location, a move forced in 1955, where Gopher Bar has sat ever since.
As the bartender during the day shift told us, there are few downtown bars left in St. Paul, making Gopher Bar a bit of a destination for those working downtown or living nearby. Any type of crowd drawn downtown eventually spills over here in search of beer and the coney dogs that Gopher Bar is known for. We were assured that in days gone by, any deviation from the menu or special request would have been met with an expletive, but our day was lucky and the cook was kind enough to deliver a custom coney (amazing) and, of all things, a homemade egg roll.
The term egg roll is a bit misleading as it conjures up an image far different from the hand cooked, freshly prepared mini burrito that was served up. When the shock of the size of the egg roll became clear to the bartender, she asked us what we expected for $4, the clear connotation being that $4 should go a long way and indeed at Gopher Bar it does. The coney was phenomenal, the bun made up of a sort of split Texas toast, topped with not coney or chili sauce (I was yelled at for the suggestion), but a delicious meat sauce that makes it clear the dive bar’s high food reputation is well earned.
The best dive bars are the ones that make it easy to picture generations of drinkers filling into this same space, surrounded by these same decorations and drinking these same beers. Gopher Bar may be the perfect example of that phenomenon, the interior dominated by vertical wood paneling and posters surrounding the space clearly in positions they’ve held for decades. The space behind the bar alone provides enough visual variety that picking out every detail feels impossible. Modern beer signs mix in with deer heads mix in with colorfully worded signs that we were assured have been actually tamed down over the years.
Surrounded by low square tables, the bar runs along one wall of the building, the short grill that produces the aforementioned coney selection taking up one end. Signs for St. Paul-Minneapolis dive bar staples like raffles and bingo nights can be found, as well as daily food specials underscoring the dive bar-diner combo pack that Gopher Bar offers. Above the grill, a metal “Asshole’s Garage” sign can be seen in keeping with other descriptions to be found throughout the bar that, in a manner of speaking, discourage the use of credit cards (cash only, folks).
Gopher Bar is the classic St. Paul dive bar collection point. The food, the atmosphere, the history, the people, they combine to draw in everyone from locals on their lunch break to nostalgic travelers looking for a coney that has gone unchanged over decades. As every review of the dive bar-diner mentions, the sign collection isn’t always politically correct, but a cold beer, a hot coney and overhearing an argument among owners can serve to refocus attention, so to speak.