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.

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