The Commodore’s History Is Filled with Secret Passages and Notorious Guests

History can often inspire us and in the case of the Commodore Bar and Restaurant, its history was the inspiration behind the reopening.

It’s been over a year since the Commodore reopened with a buzz surrounding its bar scene, but when it first opened in 1920, there was no bar. If you know your history, you’ll realize that’s because it opened right after the start of the Prohibition —when the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States.

This, of course, caused the black market booze scene to pop up and the Commodore to thrive.

General manager Lorin Zinter says the Commodore was built as a luxury hotel, and it was common at the time for these hotels to be longer-stay hotels where people would live. “They were essentially like condominiums,” he says. “During the rum-running time, when the Chicago gangsters needed to lay low, they came to Saint Paul. And when they came to Saint Paul, they came to the Commodore.”

There was a speakeasy through a secret door and down a few stairs next to what is now the lobby bar, Zinter says; today that space is simply a portion of the parking garage. It’s a part of history that has been lost over time. But during its height, “we had a lot of high-profile gangsters here,” he says. It was in the Commodore that gang leader Ma Barker and her boys planned the Hamm’s heist, where they kidnapped William Hamm of Hamm’s Brewery and held him for ransom. Al Capone was another infamous gangster known to spend time at the hotel, and it is believed John Dillinger was a guest as well. “The Saint Paul-Chicago connection was a very real, and a pretty big, thing at the time,” says Zinter.

And then there’s the other famous (or infamous) duo known for their escapades around Saint Paul: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The couple lived at the Commodore on two separate occasions in the ’20s, Zinter says. “They were known to enjoy life,” he says. “As [Fitzgerald] liked to say, he drank gin because you couldn’t smell it on his breath. Which is kind of peculiar. I don’t know what gin he was drinking.”

But the Fitzgeralds had fun, Zinter says. “Zelda was known to take her clothes off” as she kept drinking, he says. “And so, after enjoying life a little bit too much, they were asked by the ownership to leave the Commodore.” They rented a house in Saint Paul for some time, but ultimately wanted to return to the Commodore. So they returned, asking for a second chance. “The owner said, ‘That’s fine, you’ve learned your lesson.’ But they were promptly kicked out again,” Zinter says. “And then they were asked never to return.”

In the present day, the Commodore is returning to some of the ideas born in the rum-runners age. “When we developed the concept, it was based on using local spirits as much as possible and having everything be within a bootlegger’s distance, which is considered a day’s drive,” says Zinter. Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth are prevalent on the spirits list, as are liquors and beers from throughout the Midwest.
So when you order your gin drink, you can trust it came from somewhere nearby. And when you take a sip, you can imagine Zelda and Scott drinking something similar and dancing on the bar, almost 100 years ago.

Bar manager Jonathan Borchardt says the Commodore Bar and Restaurant draws inspiration from various points throughout cocktail history, including pre-Prohibition cocktails. “You know, things related to a classic old fashioned, the probable prototype of the martini—the Martinez—the Manhattan,” says Borchardt. And then Prohibition hit and tastes changed. “If you’ve heard the term bathtub gin, you know people were doing what they could to get their booze,” he says. These liquors, like moonshine, “are not known to be delicious,” so more sugar and flavorings were added to cocktails. And the Commodore does all of the above (sans moonshine).

With all this history, there are things Borchardt has noticed in recent trends. “I have found that people are getting more adventurous,” he says. “Daily, someone will come in and say, ‘I’m kind of feeling like a rye whisky tonight. I’m thinking maybe not citrusy, maybe spirit-forward. Go. Make me something.’ There’s a lot more faith put into the bartender or drinkmaker. We’re being more open-minded.”

If you’re looking for a gin drink that will make you feel connected to your favorite 20th-century writer, Borchardt could make you the Fitzgerald, a gin sour that’s both sweet and tart. Or you can make it at home:

The Fitzgerald
2 oz. gin
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
½ to 1 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker (filled generously with ice) and shake. Serve on big ice cubes, as they do at the Commodore, or up in a martini glass. Depending on how tart your lemon juice is, adjust the simple syrup to taste.