Bar Hopping Our Way Through Downtown Duluth
Every few months, Ben and I like to pile into our car on a Friday afternoon and take a leisurely drive upstate to Duluth, Minnesota. It's roughly 2 1/2 hours away, just far enough to be a weekend vacation without feeling like we're at home ... but still Minnesota enough for us to enjoy the comforts of our evergreen state.
Sorry Washington, we were here first. ;) Though I admit, you have nicer winter weather.
This past month, upon surveying our calendar, we realized we hadn't been to Duluth in almost a year. In fact, the last time had been in May 2016 for Ben's 32 birthday when we passed through on our way to Thunder Bay.
I know, I know. Shame on us. Another visit had been a long time coming, so after making sure our calendar was free and picking the first weekend available (we had to book it a month out; our lives are pretty hectic right now), up we went.
After exploring some of Duluth's finer coffee shops and visiting a couple people Ben used to attend art school with, we freshened up at our hotel and thought, why not spend an evening on the town? We realized we'd never explored Duluth's bar scene before ... but the weather was drizzly and cold that night: a perfect time to be hangry for some alcohol, if you ask me.
As a bonus, our hotel was minutes from Duluth's downtown strip and waterfront, which is full of quirky shops, delicious eats, and booze. It's always a plus when you don't have to drive from establishment to establishment (not to mention safer, as everyone in the group can drink as much or as little as they want without worrying about a designated driver).
Spoiler alert: We spent three hours downtown and had a great time. Each bar was different enough to be enticing and atmospheric, happy hour was great for budget-conscious partakers (especially the more expensive drinks), and the food options were decidedly Minnesotan.
If you want to follow in our foodsteps for a night of fun, we suggest you visit the following bars. We liked this order, as each place seemed a little better than the last, but you can't go wrong with any of them.
Pickwick was located right across the street from our hotel, so it made sense to stop there first and kick off the night with a glass of Pinot Grigio and a Long Island ice tea (can you guess who ordered what? You might be surprised). They were packed at 5 p.m. on a Saturday ... but it could've been due to a local sports game playing on the TVs. Or maybe it was the luck of the draw. Rain drives even the most hardy Minnesotans inside for a drink.
We found seating at the bar despite the crowds and relaxed there for almost an hour. The drinks were okay—nothing outstanding or innovative—but Pickwick's interior truly won me over. It was eye candy, at least for the German girl in me; we enjoyed studying its beautiful display of hard liquors, sampled a slightly-spiced sausage platter, and soaked in the atmosphere of chattering friends and energetic locals around us.
Pickwick's bar is nestled into the side of a long, open-space room with plenty of tables, dark wooden posts and siding, intricate carvings, and a display of antique axes hanging from the ceiling. If you grab a spot at the back of the room, you'll even have a great view of Lake Superior while you pretend you're a barbarian eating meat and slamming ale.
Pickwick Restaurant & Pub was established as a landmark in 1914 and has a decidedly warm and welcoming feel, as cozy as a sip of cold ale by a crackling hearth. Their happy hour runs from 3-6 p.m. daily, even on the weekends, and offers up a tasty assortment of nibbles and bevvies.
Black Water Lounge
A few minutes down the street, we stumbled (hehe, not literally) across Black Water Lounge. Even before we entered, we could tell the vibe of the place was classier than Pickwick: a perfect place to wear a sleek black dress and sip an expensive glass of champagne. We were completely underdressed for a visit in our jeans and button-down shirts but thought, YOLO!
The lighting dimmed considerably as we stepped into a quiet hallway and hung up our coats. Soft jazz music floated toward us from down the hall; we followed it and seated ourselves at a table with views of the entire room. Most of the glow around us came from romantic candles at each table and the spotlight hanging over a piano in the far corner—where a duet eventually played, providing an ambience to our drinks that reminded us of the Roaring Twenties. Pictures on the walls depicted beautiful flappers and smoking cocktail glasses.
It was, in a word, lovely.
Black Water Lounge has an extensive drink list, more than able to accommodate tastes of all types, but we were drawn to their fantastic martini selection. Ben ordered a Basil Cucumber Gimlet made with vodka and followed up with a Key Lime Martini that tasted like biting into a real piece of Key Lime pie. Utterly deeeeeelicious. I decided to switch it up a bit and have a Man-tini, which was a mix of whiskey and lemon sour. Not bad!
The Key Lime Martini was the definite winner of our visit, though.
We also ordered a plate of chicken as an appetizer off their Happy Hour menu, which runs from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Happy Hour deals include $5 martinis and $5 appetizers. We were surprised (but pleased) by the quality of food and drink for such a decent price. Definitely makes Black Water Lounge a place worth stopping on your visit to Duluth.
Under The Blind Pig (a popular gastro bar and pub) lies a wonderful little gem: The Rathskeller. You can only enter through an unassuming door at the back of the building, and for good reason. This is Duluth's secret speakeasy. Dim lighting and cold stone walls hold the memory of what was once a city prison. If you listen through the din and chatter, you can almost hear the shaking of metal chains...
The owners of The Rathskeller say it's haunted, actually, but don't worry. We didn't meet any ghosts during our visit.
If you like a bit of spooky atmosphere on a Friday or Saturday night, The Rathskeller is a wonderful hangout. We sat near the back of the room and were only slightly dismayed when we discovered they didn't serve cocktails. It's all beer and liquor here. Not ones to submit to disappointment, we switched to pours of whiskey on the rocks—via the suggestion of our waitress—and ended up having two each. Yum, yum, yum.
Whiskey not your thing? Go for the beer. They boast 13 taps of the finest beers in the US. We didn't drink any beer on our night of bar hopping, so we can't testify to whether or not that's true. But if there's any Minnesota beer on that list from Bent Paddle Brewing or Castle Danger Brewing? I's probably pretty stellar.
When the booze finally settled in amidst layers of martini and wine, we started to get hungry. The Rathskeller does have a small food menu, serving bread pudding, deep-fried cookie dough balls, and a few saltier plates I can't seem to recall now. When we found they were out of bread pudding (buuuumer, it sounded incredible), we ordered a plate of hummus that came with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and freshly-baked naan bread.
OMG. Can I just say, that naan is to die for. We didn't have high expectations for a vegetable and hummus platter, but it just blew us away. Plus, they gave us way more food than we anticipated. We filled up quickly and left for our next stop very, very happy.
The Rathskeller (German for "counsil's cellar," if you were wondering. According to Wikipedia, the Germans liked to have bars in the basement of their city halls too) is open Tuesday to Sunday from 5 p.m. to close. We went around 7 p.m. on a Saturday and there was hardly anyone there—one of the nice things about Duluth, really. It's popular but not overcrowded.
Fitger's Barrel Room
Fitger's is a big brick mall (and regional landmark) next to Pickwick that contains three restaurants, two nightclubs, and a microbrewery—so you have several options to match your current mood. While I'm sure they're all interesting, the two you definitely want to note are Fitger's Brewhouse (they brew their own beer!) and the Barrel Room.
For the sake of this post, we decided to end our night at the latter.
The Barrel Room is a small area in Fitger's with high top tables and bar seating. We arrived at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday night but the room was almost empty, allowing us space to stay as long as we wanted and talk without interrupting the sports game playing on the TV.
Deciding to switch back to cocktails after drinking (a little) too much whiskey, Ben ordered a drink made with maple and bourbon from the Happy Hour menu. When I ordered a mango martini, the bartender asked if I wanted pepper-infused vodka in my drink instead of regular vodka. Ummm, yes! Yes I do! As it turns out, the Barrel Room infuses its liquor for several of their handcrafted drinks, and I got to watch as he poured vodka straight from a glass container on the shelf, one filled with colorful red and yellow peppers.
The drink had such a nice kick. Wow. Seriously, out of all the booze we ordered during our night of bar hopping, this peppery mango martini was the crème de la crème. We can't wait to go back and get another one.
We also ordered some cheese curds off the menu; they came in little squares and definitely challenged the traditional idea of cheese curds but were a little too doughy for our tastes. You'll probably have more mileage with food elsewhere.
Fitger's Barrel Room is open from 4-12 p.m. Monday through Friday, 12-12 p.m. on Sundays, and 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturdays. They offer their Happy Hour menu and prices daily. Our recommendation? Get the drinks, go elsewhere for the food or (if you really need some hangover food) split a plate for cheap eats.