If Minneapolis were one big high school, Tony Zaccardi would win the vote for class president in a landslide—but he wouldn’t be happy about it. In fact, he’s the most humble, unassuming 43-year-old popular kid you could ever meet.
Before becoming the owner of the iconic Palmer’s Bar in Minneapolis’ West Bank in 2018, Zaccardi spent nearly 20 years at Grumpy’s Northeast, where he became the head bartender and general manager. He’s also been a bassist in various local bands over the years, most recently Romantica and Eleganza.
While a lot of people around town both work in the service industry and play music, what’s really special about Zaccardi is his singular ability to level with every person he meets. It’s the secret sauce that’s ensured the success of Palmer’s since he bought the 114-year-old bar and its 140-year-old building. It’s also likely the reason he was unexpectedly thrust into the national spotlight as a face of Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd, interviewing with everyone from Newsweek to CNBC to CNN with John King.
“The best part was, I’d just gotten a cutout of the Hamm’s bear, and I’d set it up in the background,” he says of his interview with CNN, where he spoke on-camera from Palmer’s. “So for three minutes, there’s a split-screen of John King, the Hamm’s bear, and then me.”
This same inclination to reach across aisles and invite people of different backgrounds together can be felt at Palmer’s—there’s only one simple rule for anyone who walks in the door, as far as he’s concerned. “One of my favorite mantras about Palmer’s, is that it’s very much Black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, trans, left, right, it kind of doesn’t matter,” he says. “Everyone’s welcome here until you’re an asshole. It’s how I live my life, I guess.”
Zaccardi credits this strong sense of community he’s built to his time at Grumpy’s, learning the ropes under owner Pat Dwyer. “[It’s] being fully accepting of everybody who walks through your door—everybody gets a chance. That’s something I was raised on at Grumpy’s. That was an aesthetic that was already happening here as well, but it was nice to walk into this place with that same ethos. People really appreciate that from me.”
His experience of buying Palmer’s was a nine-day whirlwind that, between the amount of paperwork and appointments required, was “like buying 10 houses at once.” The day he closed on the building he had no more than $300 in the bank, but he was over the moon.
“How many people get to say their dreams are actually about to fuckin’ come true? And then they did,” he says. “I was in shock for quite a while—like, ‘why do I have the keys to Palmer’s?’” Though he was with Grumpy’s at the time and hesitated to buy a bar that would be in direct competition, Dwyer encouraged him all the way.
“I certainly wouldn’t have left that job for any reason but the chance to own a bar,” he says. “And I wouldn’t have just done it if it was some sports bar in Champlin, or something—like, Doug’s, or whatever—but it’s just such an iconic place in town.”
Unlike other bar-owners in the grips of a pandemic, Zaccardi isn’t in any rush to reopen. For the past few months, he’s taken advantage of the bar’s closure to tackle renovations he’s never had time or money to handle before: some fresh coats of paint, a full ceiling restoration, new bathrooms, and an expanded outside patio. He’s excited to reveal the new and improved bar, once he feels comfortable with opening. “It’s been a hazard to be in here for the last two months, but it’s pretty neat,” he says. The outside patio is on-schedule to open by July 31, but he has no intention of opening the inside space before fall, if even then.
“I’m gonna try to be a dick about it,” he says of his COVID-19 policy. “I want signs, big posters, that say, ‘Don’t fucking suck for us.’ Literally. Because somebody gets sick, then we’re closed down for two weeks, and I just don’t want it. I just don’t want to be a hotbed for it—I’m scared about that part.”
The biggest project he’s taken on under lockdown is the restoration of the building’s original tin ceiling, which has been hidden under a drop ceiling for over 60 years. But rather than just throw away the old ceiling tiles, he and some friends came up with the idea of selling them on the bar’s website as an exclusive souvenir. Now, he’s shipped them across the country from Los Angeles to Vegas to New York. “There’s a lot of history. Apparently there are bullet holes because somebody shot into the ceiling a couple times in the ‘80s. And there’s liquor all over them somehow—who the hell knows,” he says. “I still giggle every time I sell one, but I love it. It helps me, and it really helps pay for a big chunk of the ceiling restoration.”
While the bar might look different now than it once did—the men’s bathrooms are no longer a hazardous zone, and the bar now accepts credit cards—Zaccardi says he’s been sure to maintain the character that makes Palmer’s such a beloved watering hole. “When I go into a different city, I want this. I want to find a Palmer’s,” he says. “I just want to find the nitty-gritty, where the real drinkin’ happens.”
He’s ambivalent about reopening in such a dangerous time but can empathize with people who are desperate for some familiar company. “Bars are community for a lot of people,” Zaccardi says. “People need to be somewhere amongst people. They just want the chit-chat, the office cooler shit.” While the inside won’t be open to the public for a while, he admits that a few select patrons will have a seat at the bar. One notable regular is “Spider” John Koerner, local folk music legend who was an early influence on Bob Dylan. “If we’re open at that point in the day, he’ll get the exception to sit inside,” says Zaccardi. “He’s got his own spot.”
After experiencing the limelight for the past couple months (and getting a Twitter follow from Barack Obama), Zaccardi is just looking forward to devoting his full attention to Palmer’s—though he does sheepishly admit to sending a direct message to Obama late at night after throwing back a few drinks, ending the note with “…anyhow, we all miss you so so bad. Appreciate your love for this country.” (He still hasn’t heard back.)
“I want to get back to trying to make this place kick-ass,” he says. “If some of that helped—or made people feel better about things, or give people a sense of hope—then I guess that’s all I ever wanted from that.”
In the end, whether it’s on-camera or behind the bar, it’s that unconditional love for his community that drives Zaccardi. “I just really make sure that everyone who walks through the door is appreciated,” he says. “Because they are, and they’re needed.”