Hart of the City
Wes Burdine on continuing the legacy of St. Paul’s oldest gay bar as soccer comes to the neighborhood.
Photos by Aaron Job
Wes Burdine has spent the last six months giving a facelift to the former Town House Bar in Midway St. Paul. It has new floors, a new window, some de rigeur Edison bulbs dangling above the bar, and a handful of new craft beers on the tap tower. But despite the fresh coat of paint, Burdine has been adamant that the ethos of Town House will live on at the new Black Hart of Saint Paul.
“Even before I took over, a lot of my time was spent just being here drinking with people,” Burdine says. “People had legit reasons to worry about a straight white guy coming in and buying St. Paul’s oldest gay bar. […] They had no idea what to make of it.”
He understands the confusion. Burdine is steeped in the local soccer community—he’s the co-owner of the soccer podcast FiftyFive.One, and many of the reports that first announced the bar’s sale played up The Black Hart as the eventual fan-central for supporters of Minnesota United FC, who will play their home games just steps away at the new Allianz Field.
The longtime clientele had questions. Is it still a gay bar? Or a soccer bar that’s gay-friendly? Is Burdine getting rid of the drag shows? (The answers, respectively, are: Yes, Yes, and Hell No!) He had conversations with several folks who first encountered the Town House decades ago as their first-ever gay bar, a refuge in a Twin Cities that was much less hospitable to the queer community than it is today.
But as he was filled in on the gravitas of the building, he had to reconcile it with the fact that many of the same folks had moved on to other watering holes as the years progressed. So Burdine has spent the last six months navigating the strange circumstance of operating a space with a rich legacy that needed a fresh start. “It’s a bar that was doing fine for years but had been losing clientele,” he says. “All the regulars told me that they wanted to see something new come in. They want their bar to be full.”
Burdine’s vision for the space has soccer, the queer community, and the Midway neighborhood as three equally important and overlapping components of the same Venn diagram, with The Black Hart at the center. He hopes that a pre-match pint for Loon fans will become just as much a neighborhood tradition as the Pumps & Pearls Revue.
“The regulars have been the best advocates for it, because they’re members of the queer community and also they want this place to succeed,” he says. “And they want me to succeed as long as I don’t fuck things up. They’ve been the best part of it—getting to know more people. Sometimes I work behind the bar, but mostly I’m just here listening.”
Burdine has been working on fine-tuning the bar’s programming, noting that soccer matches rarely overlap with evening events. But he’s embracing the bar’s multiple identities, explaining: “One thing that happens in any good space is that you’re bringing people together who might not necessarily mix.” He cites a preseason soccer game that drew the attention of some regulars, and straight soccer fans who have stuck around after games and experienced their first drag show. “There have always been a lot of different things
happening here—this has always been an eclectic space.”
It’s been a long renovation process over an equally long and punishing winter, but Burdine is happy with the progress so far. The pre-smoking ban carpets are gone and some striking new wallpaper has gone up near the bar—but Heggies pizza is still on the menu. The signs are new, but the faces are not.
“We kept all of the staff, and that was one of the most important parts of making sure there was continuity in terms of the culture here,” Burdine says. “We wanted all the regulars to know that the shows they’re coming to every week or month would be there and the people that helped create the atmosphere would still be here. We’re not changing this bar. We’re adding to what already works.”
Burdine’s bold prediction for the Loons this season is a sixth-place finish and a playoff berth. His prediction for Black Hart is much less bold: “We’re not changing things too drastically,” he smiles. “We’re keeping this just a step above a dive—a neighborhood bar.”