Thursday, June 13, 2019

My Favorite Place in Superior (So Far)

The Spirit Room is my favorite place.

I tend to start my "every bar in Superior" posts with "_____" is my new favorite place, provided I actually like the establishment.  But The Spirit Room has been my favorite bar in Superior ever since I discovered it.  So "new" gets dropped from the description.

Bulleit Rye Manhattan perfect with olives, up.  That's my absolute favorite drink, and I remember the first time I ordered that at what I consider the best bar in Minneapolis, the Monte Carlo.  The person I would come to refer to as "my bartender" said, "Sir, I'm going to need to see your I.D. because most people who ask for that drink are at least twenty years older than you."

Hey, I know what I like.  So once I moved here, asking for this drink became my measuring stick.  If I could find a place that 1) didn't balk at the description, and 2) actually succeeded in making the drink at least as well as I could do at home, then I knew I'd find my people.  One bartender at a different location said, "So is a perfect Manhattan (it's Manhattan PERFECT. the descriptor comes after Manhattan in this case, and if you don't know that, just give me a beer) one with top shelf liquor?"  Another seemed to understand what I was asking for, but somehow made the drink WORSE than if I'd just gotten rye whiskey on the rocks.  The quest continued.

Until I found the Spirit Room, that is.  They know their brown liquor mixed drinks.  If I'm being honest, I can't say their Manhattans are BETTER than my old haunt, but it's kind of hard to immediately supplant a place that has over a decade and a half of solidly great drinks, food, and memories.  But I asked for my drink, and they didn't make me MISS the Monte Carlo.  Mission accomplished.  Plus, there's just something mesmerizing when it comes to watching a skilled mixologist put together a complex drink.  Forget those cupcake shows, that's something I could watch all day.

The top three (at least) mixed drinks in Superior are all made here.
Which is good, because the Spirit Room has no TVs.  Rumor has it they haul one out on a few special occasions throughout the year, but you won't find the sportsball contest du jour shoved in your face from seventeen wall-mounted screens.  (I know I said this was a positive feature at Shorty's, but not every place has to have it.)  In fact, most of the time I'm there I find little to no reason to even pull out my phone and scroll through the most recent social media notifications.  Bring a cribbage board and a deck of cards, and it's a guarantee that you'll start up a game with either a barkeep or a few patrons.

Why is it called The Spirit Room?

There are three reasons behind the name.  The obvious one is a play on words, spirit being another word for liquor.  The second is that supposedly the building or at least this portion is visited by actual spirits.  The staff hesitated to use the word "haunted," because they didn't have any malevolent paranormal encounters to report.  Even when I asked for specifics, they just looked at each other and then back to me and said, "There's definitely some kind of presence," and that's all I got.  So on the scale of 1 being Patrick Swayze's "Unchained Melody" pottery assist and 10 being "The Shining" twins saying, "Come and play with us...forever, and ever, and ever," I'm going to rate The Spirit Room spirit as Slimer eating hot dogs.  The third reason for the name is a tip of the hat to Mother Superior, as in "The Spirit of the Lakes," and that allusion is depicted in the bar's logo.

Is there anything interesting about the business or the building's untold history?

The building deserves its own post or even series of posts because of its history.  But the cliff notes version is that it was built by famed architect Clarence H. Johnston.  From 1904 to 1970 it was the Superior City Hall.old city hall, and it later fell into disrepair and was at risk of being demolished.  The building was saved through what I like to call "incremental preservation."  If you had taken the whole price tag of what it would cost to bring the building back into full restoration and reuse, and tried to accomplish that all in one shot, you'd say there isn't a way to save it and it's just too bad but sometimes these older buildings just have to go.  A better way to go for larger-scale project like this is to take it in steps.  1. Shore up the failing elements of the structure that put the entire building at risk. 2. Find a use and a tenant or partner for one room or one floor, and restore that.  3. Go room by room or floor by floor and bring back each section of the building as time, money, and partnerships allow.  This building is an excellent example of incremental preservation, and The Spirit Room was an anchor tenant to bring that about.  I'll drink to that.

Is there a specialty drink or menu item?

Hoo boy.  Everything here is a specialty.  Throughout much of the year, they have a bloody Mary and mac 'n' cheese bar on Saturdays.  Betty White Russians on her birthday, complete with a Golden Girls' board game is another experience to put on the bucket list.  They have tapas, a Spanish word that loosely translates into "appetizer," but The Spirit Room context it really means "food that is so delicious you'll wish it came in much larger portions."  My ideal Superior bar food serving size is somewhere between Spirit Room tapas and Shorty's poutine.

And one of their menu items is bitterballen, a Dutch food that is a deep-fried ball of beef, broth, butter, seasonings, and bread crumbs.  A fellow Superiorite friend of mine from the Netherlands suggested this as a menu item, they took him up on it, and added a northwoods Wisconsin twist of wild rice.  Spirit Room bitterballen is a hidden gem in Suptown.

But their pride and joy really is the variety of brown liquor drinks, especially their Old Fashioneds.  (Or is the plural olds fashioned, like attorneys general?)  I've wavered between getting my standby of a few favorites that they consistently knock out of the park, versus trying something new.  No matter which I've chosen, I've never been disappointed.  They even do varieties of a gin old fashioned, which sounds heretical to this aficionado but they pull it off.

"Last Dance with Mary Jane" running total:  no change, but trust me, the next few posts will drive this up by a LOT.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Rose Girls

I'm not sure if "rose girls" is a Superior/Twin Ports phenomenon or if it extends a little farther out into northern Minnesota or northwest Wisconsin.  But the Twin Cities bar scene does not have women who come around selling flowers for patrons to give to their sweethearts.  The Cities do on occasion have people, mostly men, who sell such wares at stoplights.  So that was the immediate connection I made, and was reminded of a terrific song by crooner Nick Lowe called "Stoplight Roses."  That song is all about a lover who knows he's screwed up and decides at the last moment to pick up a rose from the eponymous salesperson in hopes that gesture will smooth things over when he gets home.

Stoplight roses, in their sad array,
Love's promise in cellophane lace, or a dead giveaway,
You'll need time to devise a stylish plan,
And you'll do it driving over to the stoplight roses man.

So whenever I see someone selling these, my mind creates a northern Wisconsin series of events that would cause a guy to buy a bunch of these roses in a panic.

"Oh crap crap crap, I came in for one drink and the guys decided to have a whiskey shot drinking race contest and somehow I lost track of time and missed the piano recital AND the little league game and is it our anniversary?  That particular detail is always kinda hazy.  This is bad.  Think, damnit, THINK!  Ok, it was Brett Favre's last game and - no, I used that excuse six times already and I don't think it'll fly again.  I was on a winning streak on the electric slot machines - wait, I have way less money than when I came in so that won't work either.  The Brewers' game went into extra innings - it's NOT EVEN baseball season so scrap that.  Ah-HA, the RERUN of the Brewers' game went into, not important enough.  All right, I got nothin'.  Better just go home and apologi--ROSE GIRL saves the day!  I'll take one, no, make it a dozen!  This is PERFECT, she'll be SO HAPPY!"

I'm pretty sure this is the primary clientele for the rose girls.

On a serious note though, from what I'm told, the women who sell these are often in really tough spots.  And so far everyone I've seen doing this has been a woman.  The whole system is geared to make it difficult for these women to do well with the sales.  The flowers are frequently excess inventory and they don't have much time left looking appealing enough for people to buy, even in the dimness of a Superior bar.  The inventory has to be purchased up front, and there's no reimbursement for anything that doesn't sell.

So even though I don't have anyone in particular to bring a rose home to, I find myself occasionally buying one or a few roses because I know it's really helping someone out.

Ooh, that's a good one.  I was being chivalrous!  I'll keep that excuse handy, if I ever need it.  Although the song ends with this sage advice.

And if you believe those same old used-to-be's
will see you through
You'll last about as long as
stoplight roses do.

Superior Talks About Bridges Differently

The Two and the Fifty-Three.

If you're not from Superior and your main interaction with the town has been to drive through it, that's what you call the respective bridges here.  Because Google Maps or Mapquest or the Rand McNally road atlas would label it that way.  (For the kids reading this, a road atlas was where you'd pay someone to print out a statewide Google map and put in a huge book form.)

But try and say that in reference to either bridge to someone in town and you're likely to bet met with a blank stare.  I've spoken to more than a few Superior lifers who say they couldn't even tell me which highway goes on which bridge because no one here refers to them that way.

"The Bong and the Blatnik."  That's what you'll get.  And if you ask which one is which, you'll be met with a blank stare or a "well, one of them is the high bridge."

Okay y'all, Ive been on both of them and let me tell you, they're both really high.  I mean, I think one is higher than the other, but at the point when I'm driving, there is really only one height I'm primarily concerned with.  I'm really high above the water and I would prefer not to find out exactly how high.  I'm not trying to look across the bay and ascertain which one is highest so that I know what the locals are talking about.

I guess the high bridge is the Blatnik.  Which I can never pronounce correctly either.  I have had this conversation at least a half dozen times.

"No, Blaht-nik."
"Ok, Blot-nik."
"No, Blet-nik."
"Can I just call it the fifty-three?"
"Nobody calls it that and I'm not even sure if that's right anyway.  It's the high bridge."

Which brings me to another point.  I used to kind of snicker at the name "Bong bridge."  Once I learned about the heroism of Richard I. Bong's service to our country, I refrain from such juvenile behavior.  So this is my one and only time I will stray from that commitment here.  From the perspective of an outsider who's having trouble keeping the bridge nicknames straight, it would be a LOT easier to remember if the one the locals designate as the "high bridge" was the Bong.

As it turns out though, the Bong Bridge replaced the Arrowhead Bridge, which used to be pretty much right at the level of the water.  So from that perspective as you'd drive on it, the Blatnik was easily the higher of the two.  It's little tidbits like this that fascinate me.  "The high bridge" is a local parlance that made its way into our lexicon based on something that doesn't exist in the same form anymore.  It's one of those pieces of local jargon that, if you're from here, well everyone knows this.  But if that hasn't seeped into your consciousness from lifelong cultural osmosis, then there's no way you'd get the information unless it's explained to you.

Ah, the life and times of trying to understand this town.  So it goes.