“They changed locations recently,” I said to my wife. We were on the Blatnik Bridge, Lake Superior lay calm to our left with the St. Louis Bay on our right. “Oh really, I don’t remember their old location. Where did they move?” she replied. “They’re in an old train depot, it looks neat,” I said. Our goal was an easy dinner, we had begun a winter trip to Duluth. Pizza sounded the ticket, and craft beer wouldn’t be bad either. Thirsty Pagan it was.
I like trains. I’m no railfain, but the fact that I know the term says something in itself. There is an allure to the industry. It’s cloaked in history—a great deal of cities in the United States owe their existence and growth to the expansion of rail. The fact that so much of our economy still relies on that network continues to impress. No wonder that some of my favorite taprooms happen to neighbor rails, especially when they’re still active. That signature rhythmic sound of the wheels hitting the joints in the rail—it stokes my coals.
Thirsty Pagan moved to their new location in 2019, a train station built in 1908. For most of its life it functioned as a passenger depot, gathering travelers for the Soo Line. A marvelous retro neon sign remains above the building. Rebrands can be an improvement, but when I look at Soo’s new logo compared to their old one I shake my head. What a waste of a beautiful thing. And if you were a 90’s kid and watched the movie Iron Will, you saw this building in it. Much of the charm of an old passenger depot remains. There’s vintage millwork, narrow width hardwood floors, tall ceilings, large windows, and the taproom wanders through hallways and rooms that conjure the past. The wooden doors still have handwritten letters denoting their former purpose. Unless there are still superintendents or general engineers on premise.
We tucked our children on the inside of a booth in the largest area of the taproom. The Wednesday evening crowd was sparse, only a handful of people in the bar (brought from the original location) and a small group of in one of the smaller rooms. Our server approached while we were still settling the kids. We glanced at the beer list and put in our order. The longer we visit breweries the more we lean towards standard styles, of which Thirsty Pagan has many. We stuck on the flagship side of the list, tasting the North Coast Amber Ale, Derailed Ale Pale Ale, and Burntwood Black Dark Ale.
The food was a blur. They sling hand-tossed pizzas with a wealth of toppings. Samantha and I split a Chicken Alfredo pizza while the kids shared cheese bread and snacks. Always snacks. One of the biggest adjustments with having two small children is that restaurant dynamics are a constant wrestling match—with two wrestlers who don’t know the rules and two referees creating them as they go. Our parenting theory is not laissez-faire, we approach things with the mindset of teaching the kids to function as good citizens. But it means a constant stream of “don’t dump marina sauce on the booth” and “don’t shove the bread in dad’s face” and “please just eat.” A little exhausting, but they figure it out eventually.
As we sat and enjoyed our meal, a musician setup on a small stage near us. A few more people had gathered now but it was still intimate. After a few songs, a train rolled through the tracks, visible through the windows behind him. Near forty, novelty is rare. This was an experience I’d never had before. The click clack of the train providing a percussion track to the guitar and vocals was a toe tapping delight. I think about it often when I remember that trip up north. I encourage you to visit Thirsty Pagan and see if you can catch your own lightning in a bottle.