Palmer’s Bar has been a West Bank institution since 1906. It has survived prohibition, bootlegging, two World Wars, the smoking ban, cathouse raids due to an upstairs brothel, and various urban renewal projects.
A core trait of Palmer’s has been that everyone is welcome. You see that in a collage of regulars including professors, cabbies, hipsters, hippies, musicians, poets, and university students. At any time, the bar hosts a diversity in black, white, gay, straight, trans, rich, poor, left and right people. Needless to say, it’s the character and characters of the bar that remains iconic in the Twin Cities.
“I think in this day of taprooms, you get less and less of a character in a lot of these places. We’ve been serving people for 113 years. You really get to feel like part of something special. And that’s kind of what keeps me going.” ~Owner Tony Zaccardi
The history of Palmer’s Bar is thick with relics and stories. Rumors of tunnels beneath the bar and previous owners finding hidden corsets upstairs from the scandalous days of the brothel are folklore. From hosting the Zombie Pub Crawl during it’s largest period of growth to continuing the tradition of Palmfest for 19 years, this West Bank bar has witnessed a lot. The area has also seen it’s fair share of music venues and longtime establishments disappear. The 400 Bar, Triple Rock Social Club, and the Vikings Bar have all vanished over the years. Written on the wall of the venue is the tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Sorry, We’re Open.” Palmer’s has stayed open and remained a neighborhood icon.
Displayed around the bar are keepsakes from the community. There is a “Wall of Shame” behind the cash register comprised of the people who have been 86’d (booted) from the bar over the years. A signed picture of Bonnie Raitt hangs on the wall. She used to hang out and do crossword puzzles at the bar. In one corner there is a Memorial Wall, dedicated to the patrons who have made Palmer’s special over the years. Looking around, you see paintings, artwork, and reminders of the connection that the community has had toward the establishment. The history speaks for itself and reminds us that it’s the people that make businesses succeed.
“You don’t just buy a bar, you buy the community with it,” shares Tony Zaccardi.
When Tony Zaccardi purchased the bar back in 2018, he understood the nostalgic attachment and all the history hanging on the walls. He knew that making large changes would spell immediate failure with the community. Respecting that past was crucial. His initial changes have been minor, but they’ve netted some important advancements. Palmer’s has only accepted cash in the past. Now there are credit card machines. He installed a digital jukebox that has close to 20,000 songs in it. The sound system has been updated with a new mixer, microphone stands, and speakers. It’s these touches that have rejuvenated the bar.
As one of the smallest stages in Minnesota, the trapezoid corner of the bar stands 11′ wide in the front and 5′ in the back. It’s a mirage for bands when approaching the stage, the assumption is always that they aren’t going to be able to fit. But time and time again, bands make it fit and walk away with a glowing experience. There’s a closeness to the audience and band when tucked onstage. Bands as large as 8-9 members have made it work and oftentimes utilize the edge of the bar for an extra thrust into the audience. The stage has hosted various collaborations and jams over the years, where the size of the stage is always forgotten due to the size of the talent performing.
Palmer’s describes themselves as “a church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities.” Over the years the long list of local artists and legends have carried this church, from “Spider” John Koerner, Charlie Parr, Cornbread Harris, to Willie Murphy. It’s seen resurgences over the years but one thing that has remained true is the adage, ‘you never know what’s going to happen.’
One prime example of this is the weekly Hippenanny event on Wednesdays. A group of West Bank hippies started this event at the Vikings Bar, then moved it to the 400 Bar. Now into the 20th year, Palmer’s has continued the tradition. A typical evening involves three to fifteen or more people showing up with recorders, guitars, keyboards, mandolins, and whatever else makes noise. They then call out songs and encourage anyone else to join. From the Ramones to Nirvana, David Bowie to Rolling Stones, you never know what could be played next.
Another strong example is Palmfest. Next year will be its 19th year and, what started out as a one-day event with 6 bands, has evolved into two days with 20 bands. The small $6 cover gets you into a barrage of local folk, country, and bluegrass music. Last year they had over 900 people attend the event on their back patio. This unique block party brings together the community and collaborations that inspire music.
The spontaneity of never really knowing what you’re going to see when you walk through those doors has always been a prime draw for Palmer’s. National touring bands have been known to wander into the venue after their shows. Special guest appearances and artists peeling away from their bands for a collaboration are normal occurrences. You just never know what you’re going to see when you enter Palmer’s.
Tony Zaccardi, Owner and Musician
Owner Tony Zaccardi was a bartender for 19 years before deciding to purchase Palmer’s. He’s played in a ton of bands, most notably Romantica, and has remained very active in the music industry. So when he went to sign the paperwork, he thought he knew everything about working at a bar. He jokes with Pat Dwyer, his previous boss at Grumpy’s, that within a week of owning a bar, he understood everything he saw him doing. Every move and every decision finally made sense. Tony also shares that he didn’t realize how much stress would be encompassed in it all.
“Kind of like the weight of the world on your shoulder, especially because it’s not as if I just bought a bar, but it’s Palmer’s. Everybody knows Palmer’s, you know?”
Tony has brought his wealth of experience as a musician into the venue. He’s been able to identify small improvements to expand their music diversity and promote more shows online. As a musician who has toured all over the country, he knows the value of having a venue that has character and a strong reputation.
They had a Canadian punk rock band called Pkew Pkew Pkew that showed up to play. The band was scheduled to perform on Jimmy Fallon the week after. They were used to playing in 300-400 capacity rooms. When Pkew Pkew Pkew walked in, they were legitimately bummed at the size of the stage. Tony went outside as the band was standing against their van. He started talking to them and sharing that he’s a musician and has toured the entire country many times. He told them to go stand up there for a second and get a feel for the space. “It actually works, I promise,” Tony stated. They played to a bar of 200 people that night. After the show, the band shared that it was one of their favorite shows they had ever played.
Tony’s ownership of the bar was initially met with some reservations. The regulars and musicians who have been coming to Palmer’s for years oftentimes don’t encourage change. But Tony has been a welcome addition to the venue and understands those concerns. It shows that he understands a lot more than he may think he does.
The Guest Room – Mumblin’ Drew
“Everyone like loves Palmer’s and everyone’s got an opinion about it. No one wants it to change.”
This month will be two years that Mumblin’ Drew has been keeping the folk flag flying on his Sunday evening residencies. He’s continued to vary his evenings with guest acts, solo sets, and evenings with a full band. This summer he spent every Sunday performing outside on the patio with his band, reveling in the space. His first time on stage was back in 2011 when he performed in a lineup of folk and punk bands. It was a feeling he still remembers fondly and has brought him back to the venue over and over again.
“I think its the history of the bar, just that it’s lasted so long through all the changes in the neighborhood that I appreciate. Even just like all the different immigrant communities, how it used to be called Snoose Boulevard, which is a big Scandinavian hub and now it’s a big East African hub,” shares Drew. Over the years he’s seen a variety of music there and no matter what brings you through those doors, everyone is always respectful and open to the music.
Due to the amount of communication that happens up there, the stage is one of the perks for his group. Being close together means being able to communicate who’s going to take a solo, how to adjust to changes, and how to groove as a group. Drew expresses that he loves seeing rock bands forced to be on top of each other because it always leads to a tighter performance.
One of his favorite memories from Palmer’s happened years ago when he first discovered Spider John. He went down to catch a show and wondered, where are all the people? It was him and a few of the older regulars. It felt surreal because Spider John was so amazing to watch. That moment inspired him. Now he gets to see and talk to him all the time just hanging out at the bar. He’s become better friends with John and realizes it’s super precious to be able to have that relationship with someone he admires so much.
Keep your eyes peeled for special partnerships with The Cedar. Tony has started hosting after-shows at Palmer’s where you can get in free if you attended The Cedar show. It’s a sneaky way to rub elbows with the band and catch special little performances. You just never know what’s going to happen.
The full schedule can be found here.
Music venues are the lifeblood of our community. By providing musicians the opportunity to showcase, collaborate, and experiment with their craft, venues are essential in their development. This series will continue to promote and support our local venues across Minnesota. Please see the previous articles below and go support local music. Our hope is these articles show the importance of supporting venues and places where creativity can thrive.
Pioneer Place on Fifth – St. Cloud
Sacred Heart Music Center – Duluth