It doesn’t take much to get me ticked off these days, but one way to do it for sure is for me to go to my local movie complex, clothing store, or supermarket expecting to find some film, shirt, or comestible that the rest of the country is enjoying on a regular basis, only to find that in our market, it’s not available. I remember all too well the skirt steak incidents of years past! Try to find real pastrami in this town, or a good prepared-foods store. They don’t exist.
But I digress. So I went to Iceland a few months ago and fell in love with skyr, a low-fat/high-protein cheese that looks like thick yogurt. You sweeten and mix things into it, and it’s phenomenal. Then I read my Food Section update this week and saw that Whole Foods was carrying it!
When I went to the St. Paul store, no skyr.
Why are so many Whole Foods around the country twice as well stocked, twice as efficient, and twice as appealing as our local versions? It drives me crazy.
My friend Katie sent me an e-mail re: a post I wrote a few weeks back about St. Paul restaurants generally and, specifically, a comment I made about Margaux closing. I got a lot of e-mail about the same post, most expressing the same opinion. Katie wrote that Margaux had:
. . . hit-or-miss food and not a bad location. Everyone who lives in that neighborhood was sad to see it go. Meaning, I'm speaking for me, who lives a block away. It always seemed like there were lots of people there. I went for drinks quite a bit. Everyone [in] downtown St. Paul that I've talked to wants somewhere good to eat and fun places to hang out and would go there if they built it. We're dying for it! I wish people'd stop saying St. Paulites wouldn't go there. My whole neighborhood is wishing for a grocery store and some places to hang out—the Embassy Suites bar doesn't cut it.
I agree with a lot of this, but let’s be honest. Margaux had hit/miss food when they opened, and it all went downhill from there. There were never enough customers there to sustain the business, and that is why these places close.
When it comes to dining in St. Paul's downtown, I think we are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Look at Atlanta. Their downtown business district rolls up at 5 p.m. sharp. No one dines downtown at all. The restaurants that want to do more than just lunch business have all opened where the customers are . . . which is to say, outside of their downtown. I've said it before: Grand Avenue should be St. Paul's restaurant row. The Grand Avenue Business Association should be working to bring independent restaurants to the avenue, not chasing them away because of ungrounded fears that competition stunts growth. It’s the opposite. And the city council should be relaxing rules and restrictions to allow those businesses to flourish. Liquor licensing and café seating regulations are unduly harsh and need to be eased up on. Grand Avenue does not need another crappy coffee bar or a booze trough masquerading as a burger bar. It needs restaurants that can cater to the diverse clientele that lives around the avenue, from students to titans of industry.
Consider how ethnic dining has flourished on University Avenue. We ought to focus on putting restaurants into neighborhoods that can support them, then let Downtown grow at it’s own pace. If Meritage opened on Grand Avenue, it would do twice the business and have a longer life expectancy than it will opening downtown in the old A Rebours space. I am hoping Meritage succeeds, but location makes it a tougher row to hoe.
The idea that Margaux’s failing represents anything more than a bad restaurant not finding customers is a canard, and while it's less sexy of a topic, the more interesting closing is Copper Bleu shuttering up in Lakeville. I think that closing is a nasty indicator that our economy is not well in the 'burbs. Yes, it was a glorified Applebee's, but it was a notch up food-wise and with respect to price point, and it planted itself within easy reach of customers. It calls to mind enjoy! or the Bellanotte project in Blaine. Are they doing well? Does anyone out there even go to these restaurants? It would be interesting to know. I avoid restaurants like these like the plague.
And what is the early buzz on Heidi’s? I have been away for a while . . . .
On a happier note, David Kamp (The Food Snob's Dictionary and The United States of Arugula) has added "Mexican Coke" (cane-sugar sweetened cola) and "Pitmaster" (BBQ master) to the food snob lexicon. And he has a website of snobolicious fun for food and what modern food snobbery is. You can even take the food snob quiz, if you like.