Glory Days on Washington Avenue

Updated: April 30, 2007 - 10:50 am

761 N. Washington Ave.

I opened the door, and immediately memories of my St. Thomas college days came rushing back to me. Bands like Mango Jam, Tina & the B-Sides and GB Leighton – still a standing act! – lured us from across the river to Bunker\’s.

In the early \’90s, the Warehouse District wasn\’t exactly an appealing Friday night destination. Compared to our conservative Summit Avenue neighborhood, it felt like a different, devious world. That was half the fun. Besides, Bunker\’s rarely


Bunker\’s is still the kind of place you can let your hair down and simply have fun. Jackie Kelly has owned the bar since 1978 – shortening its name from Archie Bunker\’s in the mid-\’80s. During my three visits there this spring, I was struck by how little the crowd had changed. It\’s still a blue jeans and T-shirt kind of joint with no pretenses – what you see is what you get. Although, rumor has it, some of the music biz\’s best and brightest (e.g. Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Lang) stop in to have a drink or stretch their vocal chords when in town.


Bunker\’s is loud. Even on a Friday afternoon, before the music gets underway, it\’s boisterous. People are yelling across the bar, a Twins\’ game is blasting on TV, a dog is noisily chasing a ball across the floor. The stench of stale cigarettes is so overwhelming even I light up, and I don\’t really smoke.

The regulars seem to know each other pretty well, and the bartender is often shooting the breeze with patrons sitting throughout the bar. (This can make it difficult for an unfamiliar face to get noticed, no matter how thirsty said face is.)

The east corner of the bar contains the music stage, dance floor and tables against the wall. Further back are the pool tables and sound station for the night\’s act. When the music begins, the die-hards edge up to the stage, positioning themselves in front of the huge speakers. Those of us who want to talk to the friends accompanying us settle in closer to the well-worn bar.


The crowd grows younger when the music cues up. Lunchtime or happy hour often attracts local industry folks. Because Bunker\’s does such a good job booking local favorites (James Kline, president of Blue Sky Productions and Kelly\’s husband, is headquartered above the bar and lines up all talent), the bands often bring their own built-in followings. This keeps the evening\’s demographics interesting.

On the Friday evening I visited, former Hillcats\’ frontman Billy Johnson was strutting onstage to the delight of patrons, even encouraging live requests. This particular night\’s patronage featured a mix of couples on dates, bar-stool regulars and Johnson\’s vocal throng of fans.


Pleasantly moody. No one would agree to be quoted for this review. This \”Who cares what he writes, we are what we are!\” attitude struck me as oddly appealing, authentic.

Put it this way; if you frequent Bunker\’s, your reception is probably different from those who just drop in from time to time. The folks behind the counter are in no rush to get to you – often finishing (or starting another) conversation before they eventually make their way to you. A seven-year Bunker\’s vet did warm up to my companion, Deanna, and me one afternoon, buying us a Bunker\’s original: the Orange Peel. \”Seven\” claims to have invented the dreamsicle-tasting shot after years of practice.


More than reasonable. Like the bar\’s small-town feel, Bunker\’s offers small-town prices – especially during happy hour. It officially gets under way Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. and features $2 bar pours, $2 bottles of beer, $2.50-$3.25 cocktails, $2.75 wine/wine coolers/ciders and free chicken wings on Fridays (while they last).

A full menu is served daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Try the Mushroom Swiss Burger or Tuna Pepper Melt – Deanna and I stand by each!) For those with the \”bar munchies\” ask for the popular \”Bunkers\’ Burgers,\” served nightly until midnight. The infamous Orange Peel is $3.50 a pop and goes down nice and easy.


Rumor has it that Steve Raitt, Bonnie\’s brother, used to be the Thursday evening sound guy for the TC Jammers. Big sister has been known to drop in when she\’s in town for a concert (as she did last summer before her State Fair gig with Lyle Lovett). Prince, Shelia E., Steve Miller and Kenny Wayne Shepherd have also taken the stage over the years for impromptu jam fests. Bunker\’s unassuming atmosphere and low-key reception to customers allows for such surprising private concerts.


The keep-it-real attitude combined with its authentic stature in the Minnesota music scene keeps Bunker\’s engaging and fresh – regardless of how terrible your clothes will smell the next morning.