The “rookie door,” the test of whether you are a newbie or a seasoned patron, is just one of the quirky traditions that come with the territory at Duffy’s Tavern, turning 50 in its Fargo location Friday, March 17th. Yes – that is St. Patrick’s Day!
A neighborhood pub with an eclectic crowd and friendly bartenders, Duffy’s has been a staple of near-downtown Fargo for fifty years.
Brian Quigley has been coming to Duffy’s since 1968. The bar has changed, according to Brian: “It used to be peopled by doctors and lawyers and it was smokier than hell in here.” But he adds, “This joint is still an old-time Cheers saloon.”
The Duffy’s jukebox was the last to use CDs in Fargo. It was removed in January and the bar now has a Touchtunes. This has many patrons waxing nostalgically on the end of an era.
I asked patrons what some of their favorite songs on the “old jukebox” were. I am using first names to protect the guilty. Tim says, “Led Zeppelin.” Stacy says, “Johnny Cash.” Jack says, “I liked all the Irish tunes.” Melanie says, “I loved all the Beck.”
Chris Litton, bar manager and son of the owner, loved hearing the bands Morphine, Tool, and The Doors along with old standards like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Corey Litton, who helps keep the bar “the cleanest bar in Fargo” among other things like being a DJ and announcing and producing for auto racing, even knows the numbers for some of his favorites from the old juke: “9801 was the number for the song ‘Way Too High’ by the local band Ded Walleye. 8616 was for the awesome ‘Centerfold’ by the J. Geils Band. 2602 was Cake’s ‘The Distance.’ And another favorite was 1213 – Johnny Cash’s ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box.’”
Corey remembers fondly when long-time bartender, Sean Dwyer, who recently left bar service to work as an electrician (putting himself through school by bartending at Duffy’s), would hit the skip button for the jukebox when the band Journey would come on, and yell out “Anybody call a cab?” Good times.
Corey has found that many of the old songs patrons used to play on the older machine are still in frequent rotation. “The awesome jukebox still transfers over because of the people. Our patrons still play cool stuff.” And, truly, the atmosphere seems unchanged with the change-out of the musical apparatus.
Duffy’s is raffling off the jukebox with all proceeds going to the charity or charities of the winners choosing. The raffle will occur once 1,000 tickets are sold. At the time of the interview, around 200 tickets remained.
Duffy’s was built in 1966 and opened on March 17, 1967. Patrick and Miriam Ruddy opened the bar and brought the Duffy’s name with them from Grand Forks where they owned another bar named Duffy’s since 1957.
Duane “Duey” Litton bought the business from the Ruddy’s and opened up in November of 2006 under new ownership. His wife, Kathy, and both sons and daughter-in-law all are involved in the business at some level.
Jack Sunday, who has been coming to Duffy’s for quite some time, talks of the “olden days” at the bar: “Back then, every lawyer in town came in here.” Jack remembers watching a certain Catholic priest come in every St. Patrick’s Day and get happy and dance with every woman. Jack also recalls, “a bunch of regulars who fashioned themselves to be barbershop quartet type singers who would break out into traditional four part harmony quite often, singing songs like ‘Danny Boy.’”
Jane Reff started coming to Duffy’s when it opened. She is a retired Mathematics teacher, and former bartender at Duffy’s, and she remembers when all of her schoolteacher colleagues would come in – “they would fill up the bar.”
Jack says, “Duffy’s is drastically different now. Back in the day, it was not busy late at night as often as it is now.” He also notes that people did not use to drink many shots, unlike the frequent pourings of Fireball, Dr. McGillicuddy’s, and energy drink shots that are common today.
Several patrons, when asked about Duffy’s, mentioned Tom Conmy, a retired lawyer who put himself through law school while bartending at Duffy’s. He comes back annually for every St. Patrick’s Day to get behind the bar, at least briefly.
Chris describes Duffy’s as a primarily “working class bar.” Indeed, everyone is welcome, and the crowd, depending on time of day, includes teachers, lawyers, City of Fargo employees, university professors, blackjack dealers, tattoo artists, bar and restaurant servers and cooks, hairdressers, electricians, construction workers and retirees. In the later evening, a younger college-age crowd comes in.
Because of the layout, it is also a “people watching” place. Most regulars have preferred sitting spots. Some like the corner for a full view. On most mid-afternoons, just prior to happy hour, jovial regulars populate the upper deck with the comfortable wooden chairs. This is the prime location to see who is coming in the door.
Duffy’s has its idiosyncrasies. For example, the corner booth is lovingly called “the mafia booth” and can hold many people. It is popular for groups and has held many post-funeral wake gatherings, club meetings, reunions, wedding parties, and twenty-first birthdays.
As mentioned, the front doors to Duffy’s are unique. The outside door is locked on the south side because a strong north wind could break the door. The inside door is locked on the north side because there used to be pay phones there and the owners did not want the door to get banged into anyone. Chris says, “We’ve kept the doors that way as sort of a ‘rookie’ door system. Patrons like to see who doesn’t know about the doors.” Believe me, after two or three times, you will remember.
Patrons are known to try to perfect the trick of rolling a quarter along the inside edge of the bar from one corner to the next. People will cheer if you make it.
There is also a “countdown” to St. Patrick’s Day clock in the southwest corner of the bar.
St. Patrick’s Day is epic. Duffy’s was once the only Irish bar in town and had a monopoly on St. Patrick’s festivities. Duffy’s still has a fiercely loyal crowd on the holiday, many of whom show up at 8 a.m. The specials on St. Patrick’s Day are quite good, including $2 “you call its” all morning and specials on green beer. They even have a special Anniversary t-shirt.
Some current patrons had thoughts on Duffy’s turning 50:
Anonymous: “When I started coming here, I would get off of work, and sit by myself on the low side of the bar. I kept to myself. Then one day, one of the regulars sitting on the upper side invited me to sit on the other side of the bar. And since then, over the course of a year, I’ve made great, great friends. It’s just this place.”
Tom: “The owner, Duey, will sit next to you and bulls**t for hours on end and it is always a pleasure. He can catch you when you are having an off-day and he will sit next to you and ask, ‘How’s it going, Tommy’? There are days that Duffy’s would not be the bar that it is without Duey.”
Melanie: “After I moved back to Fargo, Duffy’s became my second home. I’ve had numerous good times laughing my butt off, having silly dance parties, and even leg wrestling in the bar. But, last year when a good friend passed away who was a regular, I came to the bar the following day. I walked in, and all of my friends were here. The Duffy’s family helped me though that hard time so much.”
Tim: “I think every regular who goes to this bar should go through a state-mandated liver testing program.”
Jessie: “I sprained my ankle dancing to the Duffy’s jukebox. That’s really my only story because I’m always drunk when I dance.”
Jack: “I remember one St. Patrick’s Day I did my radio show in the corner ‘mafia’ booth. And the Flying Karamazov Brothers came in – they were performing that night. I invited them over to the booth and on my show.”
Joe: “I remember one New Year’s Eve when the weather was so bad. I walked from my house on 17th Street and 13th Avenue South, in my boots, knee deep in snow because I wanted company. I remember walking in the door of Duffy’s and my good friend Kim was there. Everyone was there. And they all yelled happily at me ‘Happy New Year!’ That’s what’s great about Duffy’s.”
Show Duffy’s Tavern some love on its 50th birthday – St. Patrick’s Day – March 17. If you have performance anxiety about “the rookie door,” there is also an entrance off the alley. Regardless, you will be greeted well when you walk in whichever friendly Duffy’s door you choose.
WHAT: Duffy’s 50th Anniversary and St. Patrick’s Day
WHEN: Friday, March 17, 8 am – 2 am
WHERE: Duffy’s Tavern, 16 12th St. S., Fargo
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