10 Bars for 2020: Salut to Summer

City of Stillwater allows for extended service areas for bars and restaurants 

The speakeasy patio from Velveteen in Stillwater // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

This article is part of our “10 Bars for 2020” feature. Read more stories of bars that are defining this moment in drinking. 

While some bar and restaurant owners in Minnesota may feel on their own in working through the changing government guidelines and restrictions on reopening, there’s been a constructive, collective effort between entrepreneurs and their local leadership in the riverside town of Stillwater. 

On a beautiful afternoon in July, I met with Mayor Ted Kozlowski outside of The Velveteen, a speakeasy located downtown Stillwater. The Velveteen is known for serving inventive cocktails in its dark, Prohibition-inspired basement bar, but today we are sitting on their newly constructed patio area on the street outside of the building. 

After it was announced that restaurants and bars could partially reopen outdoor dining starting June 1, Stillwater was one of the first towns in Minnesota to change city laws to carve out new spaces for bars’ and restaurants’ ability to serve outdoors. In addition to transforming on-street parking spaces into expanded patios, the City of Stillwater also allowed for alcohol consumption at Lowell Park, a popular spot along the St. Croix River. 

As we sip a couple of cold drinks, Mayor Kozlowski talks about what went into changing the city laws to allow for alcohol in Lowell Park, and the process required to allow for extended service areas for bars and restaurants. “From the start members of the city council were all on the same page,” Kozlowski says. “We were all in agreement that something needs to be done to support our local businesses, encourage people to enjoy our town, and do so in a safe and responsible way.”

In order for alcohol to be served in the new areas, state rules require cities to hold public hearings before amending liquor licenses for bars and restaurants. “When we realized that our path forward in supporting our local businesses was to amend liquor licenses to allow for extended service areas, we held public hearings, and we went to work. Ultimately, we reviewed, approved, and amended approximately 30 applications from local bars and restaurants.” 

 “The biggest issues we faced were concerns about public drinking and limited parking.” Over the years, Stillwater has transformed from a sleepy town known for its antique shops to a riverside food and drink destination with a number of notable restaurants and bars. 

The on-street patio at Velveteen in Stillwater, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

As soon as the city amended liquor licenses, local business owners and staff went to work erecting outdoor structures in parking spaces and filling them with tables and chairs. 

Just across the street from The Velveteen is Domacin Wine Bar, another local spot that is a part of the heart of Stillwater. Like The Velveteen and so many others, Domacin has been working hard to meet safety standards and provide a safe environment for its guests, like wearing face masks and placing plexiglass dividers between tables on the patio that has expanded into their parking lot. According to owners and staff, “People are ready to go out. We are here, ready to serve them.” 

The pandemic is still a major cause of concern for the city’s bar and restaurant owners, who don’t know what kind of business to expect from night to night. But based on feedback that Kozlowski has received from local business owners, “The extended service areas have been a positive step in finding a way forward.”

“It is important for people to know that we are not trying to be Vegas or New Orleans by allowing people to drink in the park or making parking spaces into dining areas,” he says. “The change is to support local businesses. Our goal is to create space for bars and restaurants to operate, invite people downtown, and if you’d like, grab some food and drink to go and picnic in the park.”