It’s a quiet Tuesday at Franklin and Lyndale.
Inside the brick walls of the dive on the corner, a half-dozen guys sit around the bar, silently nursing bottles of beer and glancing alternately from their phones to the Twins coverage on a flat-screen. A couple walks in, past a wall of winking pinball machines that’s currently going utterly ignored, and snag stools before ordering a pair of Coronas each. Almost everyone is wearing a baseball cap.
In other words? This is your standard weekday afternoon at Mortimer’s.
Only when your eyes adjust from the sun do the changes to the 40-year-old bar become apparent. Did that guy just pay with a credit card? How many times have you seen a sober-seeming person ordering solid food here? Weren’t there four foosball tables instead of three? Weren’t they in way worse shape? And, am I losing it, or—no, that wall definitely wasn’t there before.
Those differences are thanks to Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston—the couple behind the nearby new-American restaurant Nightingale—who announced they were buying the Whittier staple last year. They planned to revitalize the building and redesign the menu with chef Carrie’s craft touch. Ah, and there would be one other very significant update.
“Right away, we wanted to turn it into a music venue,” Carrie says. It was a matter of timing: Uptown’s Dulono’s had suddenly shuttered not long before; the Triple Rock’s closure late last year, while less abrupt, sent proportionally greater shockwaves through a community of musicians already hungry for places to play. Ergo, the wall, which splits Mortimer’s traditional, pinball and foosball and drinking-to-get-drunk side from the restaurant-and-live-music room.
“We figured, Mortimer’s has always been about the two-for-one—we’ll kind of keep that space as it’s always been, a neighborhood drinking bar, and have music over here,” adds Jasha, seated across from Carrie in one of the U-shaped, sparkling-gold booths lining their new venue.
It’s a risk. But if anyone could bring Mortimer’s back to life, it’s these two, who met when they were undergrads at Augsburg College. It was Carrie’s dad, a longtime bartender-slash-manager at Mortimer’s, who hired Jasha to tend bar at a tender 21. He’s been there for the two decades since. “It’s kind of always been a part of our lives,” Carrie says. “Jasha knew, even before it was an idea of us taking over, exactly what the place needed to be better, or to become more of a place for a wider audience.”
Carrie knew too, of course. Her dad even tried to buy the bar once; the owners just weren’t ready to sell. She and Jasha may be behind Nightingale and the shiny new Tilt Pinball Bar, but they love a good dive. (They also bought Dusty’s in Northeast last year—though they’ve left that purchase virtually unchanged.) So, she gets this place: “It’s a drinking bar,” she says. And that means a menu chock-full of burgers and BLTs, pork chops and tater tots.
No dish better captures the the old-meets-new, bar-food-but-better vibe as succinctly as the Fried Fish Sammie ($11). A homemade riff on the Mickey D’s Filet-O-Fish, the sammie sammiches a substantial square of Alaskan cod and salt cod between a no-frills bun, a dollop of jalapeño tartar sauce spicing things up ever so slightly. With yellow American cheese and shredded lettuce, it even looks like the McDonald’s version—only bigger—and it’s the kind of perfect sandwich that has us hoping Twin Cities chefs someday tire of their pursuit for the ultimate burger and switch to gussying up this fast-food classic instead.
Elsewhere on the fried side, you’ll find a number of vegetarian dishes on the new Mortimer’s menu: the lightly crispy Buffalo cauliflower ($7), the sourdough onion rings ($6) with a tangy, lacy batter making them unlike just about every onion ring you’ve ever had. And almost everything that hits the fryers is gluten-free, something Carrie says she’s seen more people at Nightingale asking for and something that isn’t easy to find, bar-food-wise.
It’s not all batter and bread. For example, did you ever think you’d order a salad here? You should—the chop salad ($10), which finds strips of sopressata and provolone partying with roasted red peppers, chickpeas, green olives, and romaine, generously dressed in oregano vinaigrette.
There are holdovers: Mortimer’s always had a pretty solid bar pizza, which remains on the menu with minimal cheffing-up. The spicy wings have stuck around (and are 50 cents each on Wednesday wing night). Mercifully, the classic coney ($7 or two for $10) is still available, the dog a little bit meatier this time around.
“I just thought about what I would want to eat when I’m at a bar like Mortimer’s,” Carrie explains.
“I think that some people were a little bit worried that Carrie was gonna Nightingale Mortimer’s up a little bit too much,” adds Jasha, “and it seems like she’s struck the perfect note.”
In keeping with the old-school, neighborhood-bar vibe, Mortimer’s serves up daily dinner specials. Half-priced apps are available on Mondays. On taco Tuesdays, get two street-style tacos for $6. A coney dog with chips can be yours for just three bucks on Thursdays. Sundays? Those are for carbo-loading with bottomless spaghetti. (No sharing—they’ve been burned by a guy with multiple forks before.) And the deals start at 4 p.m., which means there’s a blissful two-hour window in which you can pair your discounted meal with two-for-one drinks—they’re still available seven days a week from open to 6 p.m.
Here’s something else: You can bring the family. It’s a distinct departure from the Mortimer’s of old, where kids were explicitly not allowed. Ever. “Including ours,” Carrie quips.
She says it’s all about making Mortimer’s a more accessible place, one where regulars belly up to the bar, but new neighbors can drop in without feeling as unwelcome as a fly in a pint glass. “We live in this neighborhood, and we have for going on 16 years now. We love the nostalgia of those places and to be able to have those institutions, but then a lot of times, those institutions just end up becoming, like, museums for people that want them to stay the same.”
So they’ve updated. They take cards. They have live music. They’ll let your kids in. If you forget every word preceding this, you can look up the info via Facebook or their website—two decades after everyone’s mom got online, Mortimer’s finally did, too.
But plenty hasn’t changed at all. On a recent Thursday night, Kathy’s still behind the bar, as she has been for about a quarter-century. Two guys step up to the pinball machines, holstering their beers in the cupholders before depositing coins; a woman perched on a stool with a bottle of Budweiser is politely declining a series of escalating drink offers from the man two stools down. One quarreling couple get up from their booth, briefly drawing everyone’s attention as they make for the door. Children might be allowed these days; there aren’t any in sight.
In other words?
This is your standard weekday evening at Mortimer’s.
Mortimer’s Bar and Restaurant
2001 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
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