Photo by Caitlin Abrams
The bar at Commodore
The Deco Bar
Of all my photocopies, none is more treasured than the one I made at the Minnesota Historical Society of The St. Paul Daily Dirge, Mortuary Edition, a sort of faux newspaper that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald handed out for the price of “a sweet kiss” at the Bad Luck Ball on Friday the 13th, January 1922. The soiree took place at the University Club in St. Paul, near the rental house where they were living with their two-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Scottie, right around when F. Scott wrote “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” To welcome the child, they had moved out of the opulent, brand-new Commodore Hotel, which F. Scott considered to be one of the top 10 hotels in the nation.
The St. Paul Daily Dirge is a silly thing, chock-a-block with inside jokes written for the attendees of the ball. It opens with a supposed recap of the night, “a frightful orgy” in which “four noses were broken.” There’s a bit about how Mr. John G. Ordway, son of the 3M founder, is interviewed in his bathtub and reveals “Bolshevism is the only thing that will save us.” There are a great number of Prohibition jokes, about doctors fined for gin prescriptions and “No Stills in Stillwater [prison] Says Convict.” My favorite part is a faux advertisement about Zelda: “Grows Eyelashes Over Night” blares the headline. “Matron Surprises Friends by Her Vivid Orbs: Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald had always wanted eyelashes. She had used every preparation, including stove polish and blackberry wine with no result. She went into a store and bought a set of Pigman’s Portable Eyelashes and now she is not ashamed to go anywhere. ‘Pigman’s Portable Eyelashes go on easily,’ she writes, ‘and a pair of pliers will remove them with success.’”
Why am I so nuts for this bit of ephemera? Because I’ve always been a sucker for the romance of F. Scott and Zelda, and because this little joke they published for their friends 94 years ago this month shows them at the height of their urban, insider, rebellious fun, before things got so dark. In an attempt to return that particular flapper-insouciant fun to St. Paul, Commodore has risen from its slumber—not as the hotel that housed the Fitzgeralds on two separate occasions, but rather a lovingly rehabbed version of the hotel’s bar and restaurant. I, for one, recommend it. I especially recommend the old bar, now called the Deco Bar, with its ceiling of glowing golden domes, faceted mirror and glass bar, and odd red louvered wall that brings to mind some kind of opulent train (it’s supposed to suggest an ocean liner; you be the judge). The Fitzgeralds never actually saw the bar, as it was designed by a Russian-born Hollywood set designer in the 1930s. But its spirit is all jazz age: flattering golden light, glamorous curves and glass bubbles, and cozy low seats for sitting in louche, loungy, slouchy reflection. There is much to reflect on.
First, the history. The Commodore Hotel opened near Western and Summit avenues in 1920. You can’t stay there now—it’s condominiums (save for the bar and restaurant). Current owner John Rupp has possessed Commodore going on 30 years. Rupp also owns the University Club as well as W. A. Frost, the latter of which is located in the building that once housed the Fitzgeralds’s favorite soda fountain and drug store. Call Rupp the mayor of Fitzgeraldville. Until the 1980s, the bar at Commodore was open to the public. After that it was used for private events—weddings and the like. In 2012, Rupp began renovating the space to make it friendlier to the public. He added a lobby bar, modified the ceilings in one dining room to echo the gold domes of the original bar, and better connected the old Commodore dining room to its bar. He did a great job. The place feels authentic and historical, and you’d really have to be a detective to suss out the modifications made to connect the less historic parts to the truly historic bits. One sure thing: The black-and-white-tiled room was the original Commodore dining room, and it’s just about guaranteed that F. Scott and Zelda ate in it.
The bar, run by W. A. Frost veteran Bob Crew, is very good. It specializes in local micro-distillery spirits, and it’s charming to see all our newborn local brands getting this deep connection to St. Paul’s cocktail history. (Underground parking long ago erased the actual Fitzgerald-era speakeasy at Commodore.) My favorite cocktail is its Fitzgerald, made with Du Nord Fitzgerald gin and housemade sour. It’s a lemony, brisk, and fresh delight. Its Blood and Sand, with 11 Wells peated whiskey and cherry liqueur, is smoky, sweet, and seductive.
The food, on the whole, is typical country club fare, done well enough. Hands down the best thing on the menu is the appetizer of lobster deviled eggs: creamy eggs topped with a fresh bit of lobster salad and served with a light curry mayonnaise and a flurry of micro-herbs. Everything else pales in comparison. There are fried balls of risotto served with some very sweet accents including a balsamic syrup and a maple brown butter; an unremarkable classic shrimp cocktail; and a beef tartare that’s sour, salty, and chill, and tastes as if it was made efficiently earlier in the day in large batches. French fries made with rosemary pair excellently with the whiskey cocktails, and the burger is good but overwhelmed by the very sweet French onion mélange on top (pro tip: get the onions on the side). This excessive sweetness carries over to some of the entrées, including a delicate poached salmon overwhelmed with a sweet fig relish. Likewise, the pork scaloppini with apple and a spiced pan sauce veered too far into apple pie territory. The chef, Chris Gerster, makes a solid roast half-chicken and a fine pan-roasted rib-eye, though for my money his best entrée is a delicate braised rabbit in a white wine sauce with mushrooms. It’s a perfectly creamy, mild, and delicate dish—the kind that was popular in the mid-20th century and absolutely deserves to make a comeback.
Desserts at Commodore are another high point (perhaps unsurprising given the heavy-handed sweetness that shows up on much of the menu). The eggy crème brûlee makes a swift bid for best in town, and the brown butter cake is light and nutty in the most appealing ways. The chocolate soufflé is a charming throwback—it’s light as hope, and as welcome.
Between the classic American menu and local hooch, there’s little at Commodore that F. Scott and Zelda wouldn’t recognize—though today the gin is made legally and served aboveground. Is this infusion of new gin what St. Paul needs to free the ghost of jazz-age fun? I’m reminded of a conversation from The Great Gatsby, when Nick tells Jay Gatsby not to expect too much of Daisy: “You can’t repeat the past,” says Nick, to which Gatsby replies, incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Or, at least in present-day St. Paul, you can have a heck of a good time trying. 79 Western Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-330-5999, thecommodorebar.com