By Alicia Underlee Nelson
After a year of darkness, the windows at the corner of First Avenue and Broadway – the building that sparked the Downtown Fargo renaissance – are once again aglow. Friends shrug off their coats and servers scurry through the crowd with perfectly poised plates heaped high with bangers and mash, spicy shrimp and crispy chicken salad. As the door to the new Blarney Stone Pub at the Hotel Donaldson swings open, a rush of warmth and laughter spills out into the chilly January night.
The name on the sign has changed, but the result is the same; A Fargo landmark is alive again.
If you’re just visiting or if you moved to town during the pandemic, this will probably feel like just another restaurant opening. You’ll note the loving preservation of the historic building, which has housed a hotel on its upper floors for over a century. You’ll admire the atmosphere, the exposed brick, the stellar people-watching before digging into the comfort food on the Irish pub-inspired menu. You might even wonder about the electric collection art woven throughout the dining spaces.
But for longtime residents, regional artists and anyone who came of age in Fargo within the last few decades, The Slainte Group’s purchase of The Hotel Donaldson (including the 17-room boutique hotel, restaurant and bar, and basement and rooftop event spaces) last spring feels like the passing of a torch. It’s hard to explain just how much this place shaped a generation of artists and downtown denizens and jump-started an explosion of growth in the neighborhood. Owner Karen Stoker was among the first to imagine what a vibrant place downtown Fargo could be. Her investment in this historic property gave other visionaries a gathering place.
The Hotel Donaldson (or The HoDo) was where you went when you wanted to see and be seen. This was where deals were done over cocktails and the site of many celebratory dinners. But it was also a place where artists could nurse a beer at the bar between a cluster of college students dressed to kill and a few incredulous visitors wondering exactly how and when Fargo got so low-key cool—and why nobody seemed to be talking about it. Even if you weren’t a regular, you probably have a HoDo story.
Jim Poolman understands the weight of this legacy. He’s the president of Slainte Holdings, which also operates Blarney Stone locations in Bismarck, West Fargo and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He’s also a Fargo South graduate who has watched Downtown grow and change. He’s confident that The Blarney Stone’s approachable vibe, elevated pub menu and strategic renovations will take the restaurant, event space and boutique hotel (which has remained open during the pandemic) to the next level.
“I loved this building and I loved it when Karen took it over and redid it,” says Poolman. “She did such a marvelous thing for Downtown. And I wanted somebody to buy it that would appreciate the historical significance and appreciate what Karen did. And of course the building is iconic. You can't find a better location. We're going to have to make changes, but still keep the integrity of what had happened here before. We wanted to build upon what was already provided here.”
The hotel, which has remained open throughout the pandemic, was remodeled in shifts, a few rooms at a time. The restaurant and bar, shuttered since the summer of 2020, was revealed to the public on January 12.
The majority of the art has stayed in place. That includes a fan-favorite painting by Modern Man, the now iconic mural that takes up an entire wall, and 17 art-filled rooms, each decorated with works by a different Great Plains artist.
The restaurant and bar spaces, which seat just under 200, still occupy two distinct spaces on the ground floor. But they’re now united under one name and one menu. Look for a new zinc bar and a small stage for live music on the Broadway side. The side along First Avenue now holds a brand-new bar and a double-sided fireplace. When the weather gets warmer, they’ll install overhead doors and a railing to blur the line between indoors and out and allow the energy to spill out onto the street.
Current Blarney Stone patrons know that watching the Vikings or Bison game is very much part of the Midwestern pub experience. So there are a few televisions strategically located throughout the dining spaces to welcome Blarney Stone regulars and the sports fans that come downtown on game day–and every day. The televisions are more than technology—they’re a bridge between the old clientele and the new.
“I know that there was a little bit of consternation from some folks about adding televisions,” says Poolman. “We're not going to have them running all the time. In fact, we've got a program that will show different art up there too.”
The comprehensive food and drink menu will be familiar to Blarney Stone customers. It includes hearty fare like Guinness Irish stew, shepherd’s pie, steak stroganoff and a strong selection of sandwiches and burgers. Fargo foodies will be happy to hear that Tony Nasello has returned as general manager—and that the menu features several favorites from the previous kitchen.
“We’ll have the bison burger that was served here, we'll have the General’s chicken which was always popular here, the filet that was popular here,” says Poolman. “We're adding a meat and cheese board for an appetizer. And we’re bringing back a couple of the cocktails that used to be popular here as well.”
The number of beers on tap increased from six to 32. They include local options from Fargo Brewing Company and Junkyard Brewing Company. Fans of wine and spirits will have more options too.
“We'll have a significantly larger wine list here in all price ranges," says Poolman. “And a lot of different types of whiskies and bourbon for folks to try.”
The atmospheric wine cellar bar and event space, rebranded as the LoDo, will be open for events. The popular rooftop bar is back, with expanded amenities. The guests-only hot tub is out and a second bathroom, built-in bar and expanded seating is in. There will also be pergolas for shade and firepits to warm up those chilly spring and fall nights.
The new management refreshed a few hotel rooms at a time, as veteran staff members continued to serve guests. The result is a clean, understated look that showcases each room’s unique art.
“We made no structural changes to any of the rooms except one, where we added space to make it larger,” says Poolman. “We redid bathrooms and carpet and paint and furniture to continue to elevate the experience. And we're going to continue to keep the level of service that people expect. “
That level of service includes valet parking, turndown service, and the hotel’s signature wine and cheese hour. Guests can enjoy the fitness center, steam room and complimentary breakfast. Room service is available as well.
A new marketplace by the front desk makes it easy to purchase snacks, toiletries and even a bottle of champagne for the room. Branded items like coasters, robes and chocolate truffles like the ones that guests find on their bedside tables commemorate a luxurious stay.
After months of work, the transformation is complete. The revamped Hotel Donaldson and new Blarney Stone location offer an elevated, art-filled and approachable experience for guests, whether they’re enjoying a cocktail on the rooftop, a quiet morning in bed or dinner with friends.
“It kept the integrity of what the Hotel Donaldson was known for—art, sleep, meet, dine,” says Poolman. “All of those things that made this hotel different are still the same. They're just improved and more up to date. You only have one chance to make an impression and we wanted to do it right.”
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