Chef Doug Flicker’s meta-dive bar is fighting creeping anxiety by experimenting with ramen
This article is part of our “10 Bars for 2020” feature. Read more stories of bars that are defining this moment in drinking.
When Chef Doug Flicker cashed in his fine dining chips and traded his sous vide rig for a popcorn popper back in 2017, he and his wife and business partner Amy Greeley had a vision for the perfect neighborhood bar. It would be a place with all the creature comforts of their favorite windowless Midwestern watering holes, with a kitchen that applied the same exacting standards to cardboard buckets of fried chicken as Flicker once did to prix fixe tasting menus. A place where friends and families could relax against the soft flex of wood-paneled walls, linger over a frosty Deer Brand, and lick cheese curd grease from their fingers for hours on end.
These days, the bar’s still there, the cheese curds are still glorious, and the beer is still cold, but Doug and Amy are missing their neighbors something awful.
“A bar that feels empty, it’s not that enjoyable. It’s really great seeing people in the bar once in a while, but part of me is like, ‘I don’t know why you’re here because that activity, that buzz is gone,’ you know?” Flicker says, about Bull’s Horn’s new post-coronavirus reality. “I hate to say that.”
Prior to our latest national freefall, Bull’s Horn had been seeing their neighbors quite a bit. The bar had been experimenting with themed events like their ‘90s homage Rage Against the Cuisine, featuring guest DJs like Har Mar Superstar and special one-off menus created by Flicker. Bull’s Horn had also taken advantage of a change in local regulations and installed a liquor program for the first time, cheekily thumbing their noses at the Twin Cities cocktail scene by opting for Phillips rails and a soda gun instead of Aviations and Penicillins.
“We say we don’t shake, complicate, or mixoligate,” Greeley jokes.
The early days of COVID-19 were a dark and confusing time for Bull’s Horn. Greeley says that being forced to lay-off the majority of their staff, many of whom she and Flicker consider personal friends, was devastating. Bull’s Horn was fortunate to have installed an online ordering system just a few weeks before the virus broke out in Minnesota, and that their menu was built around the kind of comfort food that folks were craving in a crisis. The couple worked overtime with their general manager and one cook to stay on top of a flood of takeout orders from their faithful regulars and neighbors, all while lining up extra government funds and staff meals for their workers.
Since they’ve been able to reopen their patio and bar for half-capacity, Greeley says business has been steady, but definitely slower, and she and Flicker have been working to find ways to get more customers to return, safely. Inspired by the couple’s pre-COVID trip to Japan and a need to escape his own anxieties, Flicker started experimenting with cooking and serving ramen for the first time.
“I love ramen,” Flicker says, “it’s so history-rich, it fits into Bull’s Horn because it’s like that working-class food. Inexpensive, it’s filling, it’s delicious, but it can be elevated to an absolute, Michelin-starred experience.”
Greeley says that Bull’s Horn plans to do ramen service on Wednesday nights starting in August by mimicking the quick-turn style of the ramen shops they observed in Japan, meaning stand-up-only dining and short reservation windows. They’re hoping it will be a fun way to help weather the storm until all their friends and neighbors can return to the bar together once again.