It all started with a Manhattan.
One classic cocktail changed the course of Stefan Van Voorst’s life and led the rest of us to Public Domain, a new cocktail bar in Minneapolis’ North Loop that will showcase seemingly endless ways to discover a new favorite drink without ever cracking a menu. And it’s opening this month.
The journey to Public Domain began years ago, at another North Loop cocktail bar. Van Voorst, an artist, musician and nonprofit leader, was an affirmed Scotch drinker who perpetually ordered it neat. Parlour had just opened, raising the neighborhood drink game, and the bartender engaged Van Voorst. With a couple of questions and a nudge, a Manhattan appeared.
“I knew there were such things as Manhattans, but I had no idea what it was,” said Van Voorst. With one sip, he dove down a rabbit hole that would lead him to some of the greatest bars around the cocktail’s namesake borough — and into restaurant and bar ownership.
Van Voorst was now a student, spending time educating himself on how to build great drinks. And with that came a deep appreciation for the art of bartending — that give-and-take between two people, matching energies and nudging a bad or good day into a better one.
His research eventually led him to the tiny but lauded bar Attaboy in New York City. Drinkers wait in line outside for a chance to get a little standing space or a coveted seat at the Manhattan bar. Inside, there’s no menu; the bartender simply asks a few questions about taste and preference before disappearing and reappearing with a custom drink.
Van Voorst went for his 40th birthday, and ordered a Manhattan. “Because by this point, I’d had a lot of Manhattans,” he said. “But then he said, ‘Do you like it more bitter or sweet?'” Considering the specifics hadn’t dawned on him, but the result was the second mind-blowing cocktail in this story, an Old Chancellor, which uses blended Scotch and port in place of whiskey and sweet vermouth. Suddenly, others at the bar where ordering the same thing, sipping it and sharing in the revelation.
That’s the kind of experience Van Voorst hopes to give at Public Domain. To help him get there, Van Voorst has turned to now-mentor Brandon Bramhall, from Attaboy Nashville. Bramhall has helped train Public Domain’s staff with the goal to have bartenders who not only understand how to mix drinks, but who can also create a connection between guests and those serving them.
“It’s one of the things I learned several years ago,” said Van Voorst. “Passionate people don’t have secrets.”
What won’t be a secret is the price. All cocktails will be $16.
A menu of Caribbean bodega eats
Walking into the space, at 119 N. Washington Av., most of the ghosts of Haute Dish, the restaurant that occupied it before, are gone. The historic building has surprisingly high ceilings, which swoop together with small, cathedral-like points. Light woodwork is everywhere, carvings decorate the walls and the floor is covered in era-appropriate penny tiles. The bar, wide and long, dominates the front room. Topped with white marble, the look is timeless.
Van Voorst says he’s held the lease on this space for about a year, but construction has been slow going, working with his brother and father to do much of the handiwork.
In the back of the restaurant is where culinary director Nettie Colón has been building a menu of small plates that pair perfectly with cocktails. Colón, a Minneapolis transplant by way of New York and Puerto Rico, might be best known for her Red Hen Gastrolab pop-ups. She and Van Voorst had crossed paths years ago, before the pandemic, when his idea of a meet-them-where-they-are drink and service model was still forming.
“The food will be a beautiful accessory to the cocktail,” said Colón, who brought on chef de cuisine Gary Sherwood, formerly of Boomin’ Barbecue and the Gnome, in March.
To prepare for Public Domain, Colón researched the history of prohibition and the original rum runners, and dove into the culture and history of drinking in Little Havana with Ernest Hemingway. “Like, what would he have been eating while drinking a daiquiri?”
The result is a menu that’s a mix of what they’re calling Caribbean bodega eats, snacks that pair well with drinks and dishes they would like to be eating while drinking.
Colón shared bites of picadillo meatballs with collard greens, smoked ribs with guava barbecue sauce, chicken thigh confit in coconut dulce with calamansi. Big flavors in small bites — hearty without being heavy.
The bar is preparing for its debut at the end of the month, and everyone is ready. “The bartenders have been training since February,” said Van Voorst.
Joy Summers is a St. Paul-based food reporter who has been covering Twin Cities restaurants since 2010. She joined the Star Tribune in 2021.
© 2023 StarTribune. All rights reserved.
Claim your offer here