“What do we do?” I whispered to Mark.
We’d decided to try out the recently opened Luft Bar in Bismarck. It’s located in a building that is still under construction, so we’d kind of hesitantly climbed stairs to the top floor understanding that the unfinished hallway molding and the duct-taped stair bumpers were part of that process.
See, here’s the thing.
There was a heck of a lot of hype. This happens when the building takes about sixteen hundred years to build (+ or -), and word goes around about this amazing open-roofed bar at the top of the building and you can see, gradually, some sort of modern construction happening up there as time passes. And I quote the owner: “it’s going to be something they’ve not seen before, certainly not in North Dakota.”
Well shucks. I like a spectacle. It looked awesome from the ground. I heard there was a tree! Lawn bowling! Sleek! Modern! Like something from New York! And about 20 other to-die-for things about it! So I figured anything short of launching the space shuttle can and will happen up there. Everyone I talked to couldn’t wait for it to open. It opened, and we went.
And there we were, confused.
“Do we just go sit down?” I whispered.
“I’m not sure…” he replied.
It’s not like we’d never been to a bar before, or an upscale one. But the initial impact of the decor and lack of usual indicators was confusing. We eyed the tables warily. Was this a backyard party? A street corner? Were there servers? Did you just do whatever?
Flanking the entry doorway is a wall with cheap-looking unfinished pine lattice strips in a large criss-cross pattern, with a wainscoting made of white brick/rock that looks like the kind you’d see on a 1970′s ranch-style house or basement fireplace. Beat-up tables, chairs, and picnic tables rocked unevenly on a floor made of what seemed like exterior patio tile you could get at Lowe’s that you might put in your garden. Barn wood lined the walls near the bar, and across the entrance door. Draped across the overhead sliding glass roof was an army green tarp with slashes in it, straight out of MASH. There were some sort of faux barn/Cape Cod lanterns setting on the floor in the corners.
We sat down at the end of one of the cafeteria-type picnic tables, and it started to tip up. We quickly stood, and decided to go out on the patio. Pity that the most interesting view, that of Main Street below, had the least amount of patio room. Three people were there, and it was full. Instead, the majority of the exterior patio is on the sides, where you could get a view of the roofs of the neighboring buildings, which are one story lower.
(I’m taking this moment to alert the building next door to the Luft Bar that they have a TV antennae broken and lying on the tarred roof.)
We sat at a sketchy wire-and-metal high-top table. Mark’s chair came apart every time he moved it. No joke. He had to pound it together in order to sit down.
He went to the bar and got a beer for himself, and I had a Diet Coke. He came back and said the staff was very friendly, and I was glad to hear it because I was noticing how empty the place was. For a Saturday night when all of the other bars and restaurants downtown were hopping full, there weren’t many here.
“What is this place supposed to be?” I asked. “What’s the theme, or idea here?”
“Is there anything to eat?” I asked.
What’s with the fixation on the decor?
You’re probably waiting to hear about the food and drinks, the normal staple of a review. I agree. I’d like to hear about the food, too, but that’s the problem. Remember that something from New York, that big-city feel so many had likely thought would be elegance and modernity?
It’s a New York City-style hot dog street cart. In the corner of the bar. With an umbrella. Selling bratwurst.
There are a few select foods you don’t want to eat on a date. A big, greasy, messy, suggestive bratwurst is one. But, if you want to eat, that’s pretty much all there is. On Sunday, according to the hot dog stand chalk board, there was some kind of brunch (biscuits and gravy), and there was also a salad.
But mainly, bratwurst. If you asked the staff if there was any food, that’s what they told you. Just bratwurst. You’re up here on the roof, lovely summer breezes, aiming for that upscale city feeling, and oh yeah. Eat this bratwurst out of a paper carton.
We didn’t eat a bratwurst. I hate bratwurst. We decided to just finish our drinks and then go eat at the Blarney Stone nearby for dinner. Mark felt that the beer selection was OK, but nothing out of the ordinary. He noted there were larger beer selections in other places in town. The price was $8 for our two drinks, fairly typical and not outlandish. We noticed our receipt had “Humpback Sally’s” as the business printed on it. I have heard that that is the restaurant that will be in the building and so, perhaps, this bar will be an extension of it and at that point, the food issue will go away. It’s not clear if that’s the case.
If you promise high-end, you have to deliver.
This is our first review, and the experience was a dud. There was so much pre-opening hype for this place.
— North Dakota Eats (@NorthDakotaEats) September 22, 2013
I’m an art major and not an interior decorator, but I’m pretty sure whoever came up with the decor isn’t an interior decorator, either. I couldn’t pick out one single visual or conceptual theme that intersected or formed a sense of cohesion anywhere. Shabby chic? Barn? New York street corner? 1970′s ranch home? Korean War? German beer garden? Modernist architecture? WTF? Will Dennis Franz come around the corner in lederhosen and dance?
The doors, railings, and gorgeous glass roof fall away into a kind of Mad Max rummage sale of interior design. The decorative ambiance at the Luft Bar is schizophrenia.
I wanted to weep for the beautifully designed sliding glass roof that has to, for the rest of its life, look down on a what appears to be every idea a designer somewhere ever had ever, in one place. My guess is that it was a classic case of having an original vision that either blew a budget and had to be adjusted and finished quickly, or too many cooks spoiled the broth and the vision and design ended up confused. Perhaps it is not finished yet, but opened early before it was completed. I don’t know.
Mark pointed out, as we finished our drinks, that the nearby Radisson hotel guests would have a tantalizing view of the lights of the Luft Bar, and reminded me of our trip to San Juan. “Do you remember that barbecue place at the top of the El San Juan hotel?” he asked.
I did remember. It was a place that you could see from the Intercontinental, our hotel, and the lights are what drew us to the place. We were surprised when we got to Brother Jimmy’s, the name of that rooftop restaurant in San Juan, because it wasn’t what we had expected. We thought it would be glamorous, but it was more down-home. However, it had decor that was cohesive and let customers understand the place they were in and so we ended up enjoying it a great deal. Interior design isn’t just a trendy whim. It is part of what helps customers make sense of the experience and have a positive experience. A place has to make sense.
The Luft Bar makes no sense.
The posters lining the stairwell on the way up promised “beer – food – sky” but forget to add some fine print, such as “pretty much just bratwurst.” The Luft Bar has a lot of potential, but right now, is mainly confusing.
Date of visit: September 21, 2013
Would we recommend this place to friends? No.