Restaurant Reviews

St. Paul Building Boom

One of the big stories of 2013 developed slowly but left St. Paul transformed with the openings of solid neighborhood cafes from Highland to Lowertown to the East Side.

St. Paul Building Boom
Photo by Katherine Harris

St. Paul and Minneapolis are very definitely fraternal, and not identical, twins. They each have strengths and idiosyncrasies distinct to themselves and a habit of seeming on certain days to not even be related, while on other days they’re unquestionably twins. When it comes to restaurants, St. Paul is by spirit and tradition conservative, in the non-political sense. It does not embrace change; it embraces tradition. Any local restaurant critic knows it. Over the last decade there have been a few years when any of us assembling year-end top-10 lists couldn’t find many St. Paul restaurants to include—nothing much had opened at all, never mind anything good.

Then again, St. Paul’s natural aversion to opening restaurants willy-nilly leaves it insulated from capitalism’s vicious boom-bust cycles: Restaurants may not open in the last city of the East very often, but they don’t much close, either. Consider The Spot Bar on Randolph and Victoria—going strong since 1885. There’s Cossetta—open since 1911. St. Paul Corner Drug’s soda fountain: 1922. Gopher Bar: 1931. Green Mill: 1932. Yarusso Bros.: 1933. Mickey’s Dining Car: 1939. Serlin’s Cafe: 1946. Mancini’s: 1948. Cecil’s Deli: 1949. Dari-ette Drive In: 1951. St. Clair Broiler: 1956. The Copper Dome: 1960. Red’s Savoy: 1965. Keys CafĂ©: 1973. W.A. Frost: 1975.

Sure, Minneapolis has some old restaurants, but per capita I’d bet that St. Paul has more. And now St. Paul might have more new restaurants too, as 2013 saw a slow but steady blossoming of great neighborhood spots. Of course, in St. Paul fashion, they don’t like to brag—Ward 6 opened a full year ago in December and tried to keep it as quiet as possible. When I talked to co-owner Eric Foster, he told me they kept delaying a grand opening for fear of calling too much attention to themselves, but they’ve finally decided to—combining first anniversary party and grand opening in one thrifty shebang. “If you were in Minneapolis you’d have sent out a dozen press releases before the paint was dry,” I quipped. “And had to retract them all with two dozen more,” he replied. Spoken like a true sibling. But would Minneapolis be as innovative without St. Paul’s ant to Minneapolis’s grasshopper? We’ll never know—but we can celebrate St. Paul’s great year before this crop of new restaurants modestly go forth to their own centenary celebrations.

The Buttered Tin

Alicia Hinze may have grown up in the suburb of Shoreview, but she has lots of St. Paul cred, coming from St. Paul families on both sides, with a grandfather who’s an every-Sunday regular at Yarusso’s. She went to Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights and worked at Cupcake in Minneapolis for a few years before deciding she was ready to go out on her own. In St. Paul fashion she told a cousin of hers about her dreams—which led to that cousin’s husband remembering he had a cousin who also wanted to open a place. That’s how one St. Paul girl, Jennifer Lueck, met another, Alicia Hinze. And when the two first sat down to chat they realized they had independently come up with dream menus that were exactly alike—and that each included a tomato soup in the style of the thick one at Christos at the Union Depot, loaded with salty feta. Then they began comparing favorite St. Paul flavors. Red’s Savoy? Check! And, of course, Yarusso’s red sauce.

The duo decided to go into business together, hired chef Jason Schellin, formerly of Muffuletta, and opened The Buttered Tin last summer. Open from 7 am to 3 pm, the place serves breakfast and lunch, is counter service only on weekdays, and is a must-visit for any fan of sweet treats. The straight-up layer cakes with old-fashioned buttercream are some of the best in Minnesota, the pumpkin pie is feather-light and fragrant, and the bakery case of ever-changing options is a catalog of delights: the homemade Twinkies in particular are a butter-and-vanilla dewy joy. The all-day breakfast is stupendous, including bananas foster French toast proudly bearing forth gooey candied pecans and banana segments perfectly lined with grill-sear markets, as well as biscuits and gravy with feather-light biscuits and a weighty cloak of gravy so thick with Fischer Farms pork sausage it might have the rib-sticking texture of sloppy joe filling. For the health-minded, there are giant, jam-packed salads; the spinach with poached eggs and blue cheese is particularly gratifying.

“When Jennifer and I first talked, we realized we love comfort food but wanted to do a restaurant that did comfort food that was like wow—it’s not exactly what you were thinking, it’s like what your grandma likes, but so much better.” As we say in Minnesota: “Yah.” (Nods head skeptically, as if expressing explicit approval will bring a lightning bolt of destruction from Paul Bunyan himself.) But let me express some explicit approval: The holiday leftover sandwiches, like turkey with mashed potatoes and stuffing or Easter ham and scalloped potatoes, are one of those foods that you take two bites of and think: Hot damn, why haven’t we been doing this in restaurants since the dawn of time? So smart, so good, so unflashy, so right. 237 E. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-224-2300, thebutteredtin.com

Seventh Street Social

No relation to Eat Street Social or Northeast Social, Seventh Street Social is a restaurant Brian Glancy opened with his wife’s parents, who run a successful beverage catering operation and thought it made sense to have their required liquor license as part of a place they owned. So they bought the site of the former Parrish’s Supper Club, and Glancy is now running a local-beer-centered contemporary pub with a menu designed by restaurant consultant Tobie Nidetz (who is also behind the likes of Ike’s and Rye, among others).

There’s a lot to like at this new spot, especially the Summit-battered onion rings, which are some of the best in Minnesota: big and fat and light, concealing substantial sweet onions. The house-ground burger, made with prime rib, in a hat tip to Parrish’s, as well as short rib, is excellent: I particularly like it as a “single,” one lone three-ounce patty in the middle of a soft house-baked bun. As a single, it hits that juicy and crisp and soft magic that very few local little burgers achieve—fans of the Lions Tap in Eden Prairie, mobilize! I love the all-local tap list of beers—Summit, Boom Island, Surly, Flat Earth—it feels great to have a place celebrating local beers right down the street from the former Schmidt brewing compound.

I tried a lot of things at Seventh Street Social that weren’t quite ready for prime-time—bland fish tacos, a creamy but underseasoned four-cheese macaroni and cheese, and dry fried chicken. The bread pudding, though, was sized to serve four and was creamy and rich in all the right ways. I also appreciated the warm kro-nut filled with morsels of smashed Nut Goodie from the Pearson’s plant next door.

Good St. Paul beer, great St. Paul onion rings, and a St. Paul dessert? The place has a good neighborhood feeling, and I got the definite sense that with a little menu editing and a little neighborhood input, Seventh Street Social could grow into a tourist-worthy local classic. 2176 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-330-4688, seventhstreetsocial.com

Ward 6

Opened a year ago by St. Paul neighbors Eric Foster and Bob Parker, Ward 6 is a gastropub in one of the old Hamm’s brewery tied houses—that is, the pre-Prohibition bars that were owned outright by breweries. The wooden bar is the same one you could have drank a Hamm’s at a hundred years ago, though today you can have local upstart brews like those from Pour Decisions or Steel Toe or Summit (which the beer menu helpfully notes is in St. Paul’s city council Ward 2, not Ward 6). Between Prohibition and now, the bar was a clubhouse for the biker gang Hell’s Outcasts (for those too badass to be in the Hell’s Angels) and was even a plain old house—with a fantastic pre-war bar in the middle of it.

So why bet it all on the East Side? “My line is that my wife and I were in Indiana, she had finished her time in the academic world, and we were both casting about for the next thing, so we conducted a nationwide search on the best place to live, and the answer was the East Side of St. Paul,” explains Foster. Why? The housing, the people, the potential—and of course the wealth of beer history. “The East Side has a personality, it’s a hardscrabble place, a place people take pride in, and it’s not widely understood, even in the rest of St. Paul,” says Foster.

Since they opened, they’ve been sent customers by Serlin’s, by Morelli’s, by all the East Side classic business owners. I’m going to guess the goodwill has been extended at least partly because of the irresistible boozy milkshakes—the rum raisin with, um, ice cream, rum, and raisins, as well as cinnamon, is a swoon. Fresh strawberries and amaretto make for a big dose of summer joy. In the solid food department, I liked the modern interpretations of midwestern classics—a generous relish tray, red-wine-stewed Wild Acres local chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, crisp and fresh fried cod, and a solidly good Peterson Limousin Farms beef burger.

Of course I asked Foster if there would be a Ward 5 anytime soon—and of course he told me to hold my horses. “The East Side is underserved when it comes to good neighborhood bars and restaurants. Back in the day, every couple blocks there would be a neighborhood bar, and I think that’s where we should be heading. Every neighborhood should have a nice family-friendly place with good food and good drinks.” At this rate, St. Paul might just get that good neighborhood restaurant every few blocks—and be the envy of its fraternal twin. 858 Payne Ave., St. Paul, 651-348-8181, ward6stpaul.com

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