By contributing writer Caleb McEwen
Our nation sheds a tear today as The Joe Lunchbox Bar and Grill in Saint Paul closes its doors. This icon of Americana has stood for more than one hundred years, but its destiny has manifested in the name of Twin Cities’ urban renewal, and it will be destroyed to make way for loft condominiums and a combination massage parlor/waste water treatment facility. Many romances began at Joe’s, and several lives ended. As this venerable establishment fades into the tapestry of nostalgia, let us take a moment to remember.
Actual records of the bar’s opening are spotty at best, but most historians agree that it originally began as a front for organized iguana fights. Popular in southeastern Minnesota before the turn of the century, “reptile rumbles” of this sort were frowned upon by local law enforcement, but, ironically, strongly supported by the church. Local clergy would frequent the bloody affairs while loudly proclaiming that evolution was a hoax, as sometimes the fittest would not survive.
The scaly slaughterhouse took a huge hit after a disastrous gimmick match between a Malaysian Water Monitor and a Komodo Dragon, which the mentally-challenged iguana wrangler mistakenly identified as a very large skink. Most in attendance at the match were killed and devoured. Living up to its reputation, the Komodo Dragon then used personal effects of the victims to track down their families and loved ones, killing most of them as well. The vindictive serpent went on to serve two terms as alderman before being defeated for reelection in the midst of a labor scandal. The Water Monitor escaped the match unharmed.
For a brief period in the early 20th century, Joe’s actually seceded from the union and declared itself an independent protectorate of Germany. While Germany never officially recognized this declaration, they did supply Joe’s with a detachment of soldiers and a phalanx of Fokker Tri-Planes, which Joe’s used to destroy rival eatery Polly’s Lunchpail.
During World War I, Joe’s also invaded a neighboring hardware store. The Saint Paul City Council adopted a policy of appeasement, which eventually led to Joe’s taking over an orphanage, a butcher shop, and a haberdashery. Eventually, Joe’s bid for power was put down due to the German defeat in Europe and increasing pressure from Russia. The orphanage and butcher shop returned to their original ownership, but the haberdashery was annexed, eventually becoming what would be the non-smoking section.
During Prohibition, Joe’s refused to sell alcohol. Instead, the bar sold opium. After the repeal, Joe’s continued to sell opium. Eventually, opium was phased out in favor of light beer.
Throughout World War II, Joe’s converted to a USO club and put on a number of extremely popular musical revues. The most popular of these, Professor Perry’s Pleasant Puma, was transplanted to the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, but its run was cut short when audiences realized the show was very bad. Performances at the establishment were brought to a close after an ill-fated, cross-gender casting production of No, No Nanette set entirely in a U-Boat.
The 1950s represented the golden years for Joe’s. Managed during this time by retired alderman K. Dragon, the local landmark expanded its offering of meats topped and stuffed with other meats. It was during this period of culinary experimentation when the T-Bone Stuffed Porterhouse with Ribeye Sauce became the signature dish for hungry Minnesotans. Mr. Dragon was pressed on many occasions to divulge the secret ingredient of the recipe, leading to a number of nasty, septic, bite wounds for customers. The rumor was that the secret ingredient was love—laced with large amounts of opium.
During the 1960s, Joe’s actually protested itself for the better part of the decade. The establishment also fell on rough times as a result of its controversial support of the National Guard’s decision to fire at the Kent State protestors. The sign posted in the front window, “SHOOT FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS LATER, THEN SHOOT AGAIN,” raised the ire of local citizens and businesses. If not for the loyal patronage of the National Guard, the eatery would surely have closed.
The 1970s were completely uneventful.
The 1980s saw the conversion of Joe’s to a trendy, Yuppie hangout. Unbeknownst to the clientele, however, this was purely a ruse to lure Yuppies into vicious beatings. Local police turned a blind eye.
The 1990s and the early years of the new millennium have seen the sad decline of Joe’s. What was once a bustling Mecca for alcoholics and reptiles alike has become simply a shambling Mecca for alcoholics. Gone are the days when Teddy Roosevelt would pop in for a quick drink and an exhibition knife fight with a rabid moose. Gone are the trained rats that scurried about hauling tiny wagons filled with boiled cashews. Gone are the many nights of opium-induced visions of a world made better by a complex system of pneumatic tubes that could quickly and efficiently deliver popsicles to anyone, anywhere, anytime. All of these things will be demolished along with the institution that was The Joe Lunchbox Bar and Grill.
So if you happen to pass by Joe’s today as local Cub Scout Troop #82 is burning it to the ground as part of their “Arson for Progress” community service program, stop for a moment and remember. Then, move along quickly, as none of the gas lines in the building were ever up to code—many of them actually being common garden hoses—and there is a high probability of explosion if the Cub Scouts don’t execute an extremely controlled burn.
Joe’s, you will be missed.