Merlins Rest opens on East Lake Street

Mark Youngman (left) and Bill Watkins talk over a pint (or two) at the bar.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Original Molly Quinn’s owner brings back “neighborhood pub”

On a recent Tuesday night, more than 50 people — many of them familiar faces — poured in to Merlins Rest at 3601 E. Lake St., where the Guinness flowed continually, accompanied by the wild Celtic melodies of the band Bedlam. (On an even more recent Tuesday, the Minnesota Police Pipe Band surprised and thrilled patrons by parading through the bar, bagpipes blaring and drummers beating, outfitted in full kilt garb.)

Merlins Rest is the transformation of the former Popeye’s Bar, and it fills the void left in the hearts of regulars of the original Molly Quinn’s, which thrived just seven blocks east on Lake Street until Halloween 2002. (A second Molly Quinn’s incarnation lasted less than two years at 3300 E. Lake St.)

“We needed a neighborhood traditional-style pub here,” said General Manager John Dingley, former owner the first Molly Quinn’s and the now-closed Irish Well in St. Paul. “The old Molly Quinn’s filled a niche. Now Merlins Rest fills that niche once more.” The Molly Quinn’s community was in limbo, said Bill Watkins, owner of Keltcom design company, who was brought in to make Merlins Rest representative of the British Isles (and thus called an “Isles” pub). “We wanted to keep the musicians and the clientele together,” he said, “the family of who we are, right where we are.” The owners kept a database of the original Molly Quinn’s clientele and contacted them about the early-May opening.

Last August, Dingley inquired as to whether Popeye’s was for sale. It was, and he and Lee Tomlin, the new Merlins Rest owner, jumped at the opportunity. Starting in February, volunteers and staff worked 12-hour days to renovate the former Popeye’s. Everything in the kitchen had to be renewed and brought up to code, said Watkins, and sewer and gas lines had to be replaced. The spacious burgundy booths were thought to be black — until they were scrubbed clean.

What once was dark is now filled with light, as the nicotine-stained plastic brick façade was removed, revealing huge block glass, picture windows and beautiful 1930s wood paneling. The spacious room on the east side of the round bar has a stage and a screening area for films. Merlins Rest will offer exclusive documentary films on weekend afternoons in the future, said Dingley, who hosts a popular Sunday quiz dubbed “the Dingley torture.” Other nightly events include live music — such as long-missed open jam sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays (which is also kilt night); Monday open mic nights; and Papa John Kolstad & the Hot Club of East Lake on Sundays.

The walls feature photos and iconography representative of America, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The pub’s name comes from Merlin, a figure common to all countries in the British Isles. The name fits on several levels, including legends of Merlin as a shape-shifter or a wizard of change, symbolic of the bar’s transformation. Merlin is also a hawk, a bird looming large in Celtic folklore; Dingley is a wildlife enthusiast, and bartender Bob Chapman is an ornithologist.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Dingley, who has opened a sidewalk café and plans to expand the limited menu of pub fare, and add Wi-Fi. “We’re moving slowly, to get the right staff, the right menu and the right entertainment. We want to be a community and cultural center, as well as a pub with entertainment.”

Merlins Rest is open every day after 4 p.m. For more information, including a list of weekly and upcoming events, visit or call

last revised: May 30, 2007