“Looks like a dive,” the hotel doorkeep says. “But it’s been voted the best bar around for years.” Nye’s Polonaise Room is on the Mississippi, its brick edifice moistened by the pillow of cold air that rises off the river.It’s a low-ceilinged cigar box of a lounge, narrow and lit by red bulbs. The floor is made of two-inch Saltillo tiles and the bar is solid walnut, darkened by elbows and spilled drinks.
Esquire magazine has called Nye’s “The Best Bar in America,” and it’s been featured on Good Morning America and Rachel Ray, but I’m unaware of this, and arrive with no expectations.
The band kicks up. Crammed like Chuckie Cheese animatronics against the far wall, they fill the entire end of the room. And they’re good. Ten of us perch on glittery naughahyde barstools, hunched over our beers. It’s never too loud to hear each other talk.
“Special guest!” the singer yells between songs. “Dude from the other side of the bar!” A guy with a handful of brass rises from a chair and saunters past the oxblood-colored high-backed booths, their headrests slick with years of hair oil. The band has three full drum kits, a sax, an electric guitar and now a trumpet.
I motion to the bartender like hailing a cab. Old, large, broad and bland, he waddles down the gangplank of his bar toward me. White mustache. Close-cropped white hair. Black pants. White shirt. Pocket protector. He peers around the playboy game machine squatting on the
bar. “Yeah?” He says.
“Local beers?” I ask. Seems wise not to waste words in this place.
“Grainbelt Lager,” he says. “Summit.”
“What’s the difference?” I ask.
“Well one’s a light, regular beer and one’s a heavy, bitter beer,” he says. He puts his fingers to his lips and twiddles them against each other when he says bitter.
The fat lady next to me looks amused. “Do ya order much beer?” she asks.
“I have some experience ordering beer,” I say.
“Here’s the deal,” she says. “First ya gotta understand whether you like your ales or your hoppies. Cause your ales are like standard old American beer. But your hoppies are like…” She puts her fingers in front of her lips like the bartender and clicks tiny imaginary castanets. “Bitter,” shesays.
Strange mix here. Young hipsters in Carhartt hats and combat boots right alongside the good people of Minnie—middle-aged black men in simple clothes, my beer steward and her equally robust companion, both in size 40 denim pants and dark blue shirts. My walrus of a bartender. They’re all as abrasive as soapbubbles, clustered like
stuffed animals in their booths, thickened by the Minnesota winter, insulated from the cold and from self-consciousness by their Baltic earnestness.
The band wraps up a final song. “Good night mutha fuckahhhhhhs,” the singer falsettos. Someone claps, a single pair of hands like high heels on an empty stage. The lights come up. I finish my beer and settle up, step into the cold and back across the Mississippi, to bed.