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This Red Herring is the real deal: Bar and arts venue's grand opening starts tonight

Bob Monahan of Duluth, owner of Chaperone Records, sits at the bar of his new venue, Red Herring Lounge, on East First Street in Duluth on Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 3
The sign on the exterior of the Red Herring Lounge promotes the soon-to-open bar and arts venue. (Clint Austin / / 3
The performance area at the Red Herring Lounge. Owner Bob Monahan says the bar will feature live music. (Clint Austin / / 3

The space at 208 E. First St. was a dry cleaner in its early years.

It has been a vegetarian restaurant and a fish company. It was best known, perhaps, as Rocket Bar and best rumored as having been a speakeasy.

It had been abandoned for decades when Bob Monahan noticed the building, built in the late 1800s, from his band’s practice space across the street and decided he wanted to own it.

In the past two years, Monahan’s business plan has shifted from upscale restaurant to coffeehouse to recording studio.

In the end, he eased to a decision: the Red Herring Lounge, a bar-slash-arts venue.

“It came together organically,” said Monahan, the 35-year-old who is also behind the boutique local label Chaperone Records. “At first, I was like ‘How many nights should we have music? Should we have trivia, films? Are we going to have a fashion show?”

This led to a realization:

“People just want to hang out, to have a cool place to hang out and have drinks,” he said.

The Red Herring Lounge’s three-day, multi-band Grand Opening Bonanza kicks off at 7 tonight with music by Toby Thomas Churchill. More than a dozen acts will perform, closing with Minneapolis musician Mark Mallman at midnight Saturday.

Inside the Red Herring

The lounge’s entrance is adjacent to a garage door. The approximately 2,000-square-foot main level is dark inside with exposed brick, wood floors and bare-bulb fixtures hanging above a bar along the east wall. Monahan pointed out lamps from Craigslist and pieces from The ReStore, Habitat for Humanity’s Superior-based discount home improvement store.

There is a small stage along a south wall.

The restrooms are offset with a wave of woodwork. A basket in the women’s bathroom holds deodorant, body spray, mints. There are organic tampons in a drawer.

“It’s the little things,” Monahan said.

A room, filled with odds and ends, furniture and lamps, overlooks the back alley. This will be the office space for Monahan’s other project, Chaperone Records, a label that has released albums from artists like Retribution Gospel Choir, Actual Wolf, Charlie Parr, Southwire and Fever Dream.

Monahan plans to add a recording studio in the lower level — where marks on the wall indicate that the space might have had a false floor, giving weight to the rumor that this was once a speakeasy. He plans to add a green room for musicians, with apartment-style necessities including a bathroom and kitchenette.

One of Monahan’s partners in this venture is Rob Giuliani, who also helped his brother Alex Giuliani open Clyde Iron Works.

Rob Giuliani, a chef with decades of experience at Minneapolis restaurants, calls Monahan “the Wild Card.”

“I shoot from the hip,” Monahan said. “It’s really kind of a perfect pair.”

Giuliani is billed as the level-headed one.

One of the appeals of this space, Monahan said, was its location “off the beaten path” of Superior Street. While attention has been given to the revitalization of the road that runs parallel, this puts a focus on development in a different area.

“It’s going to be good for the town,” Giuliani said.

So far, the lounge’s website includes live music, open mic nights and films.

A bit of history

Tony Dierckins of said the spot was listed as having been Parisian Dry Cleaners. The local historian passed along its entry from the National Register of Historic Places and a 2005 report revealed that it was built in 1886. It has been significantly altered since it was erected: There were originally two additional stories; two bay windows were filled with brick; and about 90 percent of the peach Cararra tile, added in the late 1940s, was removed.

Contributors to community website Perfect Duluth Day posted a newspaper advertisement for Lake Superior Fish Company, which was housed in the space in 1913.

It was Rocket Bar for about 30 years and, after that, Hippo Restaurant.

The current owners bought the building from Jack Arnold, who built Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake, for $40,000.

Arnold said he had the space for a decade — he’d planned to “do something with it” — but ultimately used it as a space to work on cars and boats.

Monahan and company gutted the building, using “nine of the biggest dumpsters they have,” he said.

There were updates to the roof and the floors, and more than two months were spent on building a bar.

Monahan got his entrepreneurial start with the Duluth Bio-Diesel Co-op, which advocated the use of alternative fuels.

“I learned I could be a contributing member of a cohesive unit that is doing stuff,” Monahan said.

Earlier this year, Monahan shelved some of his duties with Chaperone Records and started forging ahead on the Red Herring Lounge.

“I’m just now starting to get excited,” Monahan said. “It’s really coming together the last few months. The last two or three were … ‘Holy crap, this is going to work out.’ ”

One sign: Monahan answered his phone on Tuesday afternoon with “Red Herring Lounge.”

“That was the first time I’ve ever answered ‘Red Herring Lounge,’ ” he said to the caller.