Do you remember that song from Sesame Street: One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong?
How perfectly that ditty describes the vibe at Union Bar & Grill, the newest incarnation of the main level of Union in downtown Minneapolis. While the sign says Bar & Grill, the room still screams upscale restaurant. The dichotomy of plasma TVs and a country music soundtrack in a space that was most recently Workshop at Union, culinary playground for Stewart Woodman, takes some getting used to.
Since the restaurant opened in 2012, the upper level, with its retractable roof and year round greenhouse feel, has thrived, but the lower level has been through four concepts in as many years: originally a more formal, steak-centric sibling to the airy, rooftop restaurant, then Union Fish Market, and the aforementioned Workshop. According to the owners, Kaskaid Hospitality, patrons said they wanted something more casual, so say hello to Union Bar & Grill.
While the restaurant’s identity has changed frequently, the décor has not. Sure, they’ve slapped up about a dozen large screen televisions throughout the bar and dining area, but the dining room still has a masculine, clubby steakhouse feel, with plush leather booths, upholstered chairs, and a trendy open kitchen. While you’re looking up at whatever game is on TV, you gaze past the gorgeous light fixtures left over from the original concept. Even the hipster bartenders seem like holdovers from a previous incarnation.
The whole effect is jarring, like two worlds colliding: be-jerseyed sports fans and investment bankers duking it out for the soul of the restaurant. However, truth be told, there are not many of either species making this bar their hangout. Despite assurances from a server that “it’s really busy at happy hour and on weekends,” on a recent weeknight it was slow enough that said server had plenty of time to sit and visit with a friend at a nearby table.
The menu includes what you expect from a sports bar, with plenty of appetizers to enjoy with a beer during a game, and lots of burger options. The food is a step up from your neighborhood sports bar, and the variety means everyone on your team will find their sweet spot. There’s both a “snacks” section and an “appetizer” section, although they seem virtually interchangeable. You’ll find wings, nachos and calamari, but there are some more intriguing items, like tuna sashimi served with Asian slaw, and arancini, tasty fried balls of risotto stuffed with Italian sausage and served with marinara sauce.
Burger options abound, including one that is topped with fried mac & cheese bites from the snacks menu. The burgers are served on a wonderfully pillowy and slightly sweet bun, accompanied by perhaps the prettiest fries ever. They are lovely, swirly ribbons of potato, slightly puffy and perfectly crunchy outside while almost creamy on the inside. For variety, there is a pulled pork burger as well as a turkey and a tuna option.
Among the other sandwich choices are a Cuban, with pulled pork, ham, and garlic aioli; a Reuben; and an ode to Thanksgiving with smoked turkey, Brie, mashed potatoes, cranberries, crispy onions, and gravy. Entrees cover all the bases as well, from steak to salmon and chicken to a build-your-own mac & cheese.
The beer list is extensive, as you might expect at a sports bar, with 17 tap beers and a selection of Tall Boys. The cocktail menu reinforces the odd coupling of downtown fancy bar with down home sports bar with offerings like the Mini-Apple Cosmo and the Perfect Pear (Grey Goose La Poire, strawberry, and mint). There are nods to the new theme with drinks that have sports-inspired names like the Golden Gopher (Ciroc Pineapple, blood orange, and white cranberry), and the Purple Pride Martini (Grey Goose, Chambord, and pineapple). But when was the last time you went to a football party expecting overly sweet alcoholic beverages served in martini glasses?
Is the fourth time the charm for this ever-morphing space? It’s too early to tell, but hey, if the Cubs can make it to the playoffs, anything is possible.
731 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
3 p.m. - midnight Monday - Friday, 10 a.m. - midnight Saturday and Sunday
Happy hour 3 p.m. - 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; late night happy hour 10 p.m. - midnight Sunday - Thursday