Saint Paul, Minnesota
When Leo Gadbois purchased a dive bar on the corner of Dale and Ashland in Saint Paul, no one else could see his vision for the neighborhood. The historic building had seen better days, and the area had a reputation for being worn out. But Leo saw an opportunity to turn the page on that story and create a lively corner of the world where people would flock for good food, strong drinks, and a good time.
Sweeney’s Dry Goods and Tom’s 96
The building Leo Gadbois purchased on Dale Street was originally Sweeney’s Dry Goods Store. The Sweeney family opened the store in 1886. Business was good, but by 1933 the family was ready to try something different.
At the same time, the repeal of prohibition was looming large over the country. Fast-talking entrepreneurs were quickly snatching up properties they could turn into bars and restaurants they hoped people would flock to when the repeal went through.
So in 1933, Sweeney’s Dry Goods was sold, and Tom’s 96 Bar and Cocktail Lounge opened in its place. The new owner remodeled the exterior to remove the shop windows and add a modern art-deco vibe to the old building. Inside, a long bar with art-deco embellishments was added, along with new lighting and cozy tables around the dancefloor.
As the city changed, so did the neighborhood. People were moving out of the city’s older areas into shiny new houses in the suburbs, leaving the once-luxurious residential hotels and bachelor’s apartments run down and occupied by more transient people.
The crowd at Tom’s 96 changed, too. The once classy watering hole had turned into a (well-loved) dive bar frequented by locals and students from nearby universities.
When Leo purchased the building in 1979, it needed a lot of work. He saw an opportunity to restore the charm of the old building. Leo set about uncovering the original exposed brick walls, ripping up layers of linoleum to reveal the original oak floors, and giving the art-deco bar pride of place. He added a tin-look ceiling, vintage hanging lamps, and old soda fountain stools at the bar.
Friends joked with Leo that, given the bar’s location, more money would go to burglars than he’d take to the bank. And that might have been true at first, but it didn’t take long for crowds of young couples and thirty-somethings to find the cozy bar.
Beer was vital to the success of Sweeney’s. Leo imported beers from across Europe and built a strong reputation for serving local brews. He had a great relationship with the August Schell Brewing Company. He was often one of the first bars to get new varieties of Schells to try at the saloon. The brewery would go on to brew three types of Saloon brand beer exclusively for Sweeney’s.
The Champagne Bar
After a couple of years, Sweeney’s had gained a good crowd of regulars. Leo next turned his attention to opening a wine bar in the same building. After months of research, he turned the space into a champagne bar offering several types of champagne and sparkling wine with an upscale menu.
In contrast to Sweeney’s neighborhood saloon, the champagne bar atmosphere was one of quiet elegance. Tables were widely spaced for privacy, white linen covered the tables, and servers were dressed in tuxedos. More than 100 champagne and sparkling wine varieties were offered by the glass or bottle.
The dinner menu offered chicken in a creamy champagne sauce, scallops in a garlic champagne sauce, prime rib, glazed trout, and more. All meals started with a house salad and a dark shellfish consommé.
Sweeney’s Champagne Bar was honored in “Wine Speculator” for having one of the finest wine selections in the nation. At the time, the Lowell Inn in Stillwater was the only other Minnesota establishment to receive the honor.
The champagne bar never found the success of the saloon. Reviews for the wine list were raves, but the food was noted as being overpriced and nothing spectacular. Often, reviewers preferred the food in the saloon to that in the champagne bar. So the champagne bar closed. I couldn’t find an exact date for its closure, but there’s no mention of it anywhere after 1989.
Sweeney’s Saloon is still open. They offer good food and drinks in a friendly atmosphere. Take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy your meal on the lovely deck at the back of the building. You can find Sweeney’s at 96 N. Dale Street.
- 1 cup chili sauce
- ¾ cup ketchup
- ⅛ cup horseradish
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2½ teaspoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon worcestershire sauce
- dash Tabasco
- In a stainless steel or plastic container, blend all ingredients well.
- Serve chilled.