Dining in St. Paul

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Photo by Adrian Schramm

St. Paul is a city that is  “…put together in solid blocks of honest brick and stone, and has the air of intending to stay…” as Mark Twain wrote in 1882. You hear about the history; how charmingly quaint and quiet (though, for better or for worse, that is changing quickly) it is.

But a unique, innovative place to wine and dine?

Even though St. Paul is opening new and interesting restaurants left and right, it’s still Minneapolis that is thought of first as food-forward. But, that could be changing as well. There’s more than enough drinking and dining in St. Paul to fill an episode of a travel-based television show, impress any out-of-towner coming to visit, or, most importantly, serve the people who live here.

Here is a quick look at a few of the the must-see, must-taste, must-feel places for a day of eating and drinking in the city.

 

In the morning:

There is no shortage of brunch on the weekend. Virtually every restaurant in St. Paul does some sort of brunch, and people come in hungover droves for Bloody Marys and mimosas; for pancakes and Benedicts and burgers topped with fried eggs. Tongue In Cheek, Strip Club, Meritage, and Heirloom all come to mind when talking about fantastic dinner restaurants that also serve brunch on the weekend, and we’ll talk more about them later when it gets later in the day.

Mucci’s serves awesome, old-school Italian for dinner. On weekend mornings, however, they also do donuts. There has been much fanfare surrounding these, and it’s worth getting in line to see for yourself for a quick breakfast treat. Although be warned, when they’re gone, they are gone.

The Buttered Tin‘s locally-sourced ingredients provide that wholesome Midwest soul that will impress anyone you bring with you. The baked goods alone make it worth a trip. The Lowertown restaurant offers table service for a more relaxing brunch experience on the weekend (and with their recent expansion you won’t have to wait nearly as long as before), and counter-service on weekdays.

Cook on Payne Avenue, with it’s Korean-tinged comfort food, is a must no matter what day of the week, and Colossal Cafe, with their enormous “flappers,” never disappoints either for weekday breakfast.

And for a classic neighborhood diner serving bacon and-eggs-style breakfast, there’s always Ward 6.

 

Midday:

Lunch is often treated like a throwaway meal. Unless it’s a business lunch, or a “let’s just be friends” lunch, nothing spectacular ever really happens at this meal. It’s, “have you had the sandwich from Real Meal Deli? It’s the best.” And while Real Meal Deli does make awesome sandwiches, it’s not really the best; it’s just lunch, quick and meant to get us through the day.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

For a long, leisurely, decadent lunch, Meritage does it better than anyone. Get the pork rillette or steak tartare, or just go for the classic hamburger. While you’re there, do not miss out on the selection of fresh oysters (best in the Minnesota); given that Minnesota is right smack dab in the middle of the country, we aren’t limited to east or west coast varieties. These are so good, so juicy fresh that even someone who’s lived on either of those coasts will be impressed.

Cafe Latte‘s selection of salads, sandwiches, and soup set a whole new standard for lunch fare, and it’s all so healthy you can justify a slice of their award-winning cake for dessert.

St. Paul is also home to some truly fine pizza:

Pino’s Pizza, run by NYC expats that serve up some of Minnesota’s best slices (NY-style, floppy and fantastic), is a hidden gem in the skyway system. But then there’s Punch Pizza, founded in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood that does neopolitan-style with the best of them. Or Black Sheep‘s Meatball and Ricotta, with a Farmer’s Market Salad, always made only with what’s available from local farmers, on the side. The new Big River Pizza in Lowertown does it’s own Minnesota-style pie that really shouldn’t be missed.

For true leisure, and something a little different for lunch, make the trek over to Lake Como for The Como Dockside‘s New Orleans-inspired fare. Sit back and relax on the water while you enjoy a meal.

Or take the Green Line LRT to the Little Africa neighborhood near University and Snelling. Lunch at Fasika, perhaps the best Ethiopian restaurant in the Twin Cities, is a can’t-miss opportunity to get lost in layers of spice and depth of flavor often absent from “traditional” Minnesota cooking.

 

Happy hour:

Drinking on Cathedral Hill is the easiest way to get a cluster of awesome St. Paul beer bars, like the Happy Gnome and the Muddy Pig.

Sweeney’s is a good option as well for that hidden-gem charm (and patio in the summer) and dirt-cheap happy hour specials on Summit brews and tacos.

And if we’re in the neighborhood we have to pop into Moscow on the Hill as well  for a shot of the house-made horseradish vodka. And then probably another. It’s sacrilegious to visit the area without getting the chilled shot glass filled right to the brim with a “здоровье!” and pickle chaser.

If you make it across Robert Street bridge to the West Side (the west side of the Mississippi, actually located south), also know as District del Sol (confused yet? Don’t worry, it’s easy to get to), make sure to check out happy hour at El Burrito Mercado. The massive supermarket has just about everything, including El Cafe in the back serving $5 margaritas, and $1 tacos that are so much better than the price suggests.

St. Paul also boasts some of the world’s finest dive bars, and sometimes all you want is a cold beer sans pretense, or decor, or website. That type of blue-collar functionality has defined much of St. Paul for years, and even as things are changing across the city, there are many neighborhood institutions that have stood the test of time. A trip down Randolph Ave and into the West End shows off the city’s unique neighborhood bar culture, where you’ll find Skinner’s Pubthe Spot (since 1885), then turn onto West 7th and there’s Skarda’sShamrock’s (sister to The Nook) and Joe&Stan’s. Maybe then stop by the lounge at Mancini’s for a martini and finish up at gangster-era DeGidio’s for a quick one and a sobering plate of pasta.

And then, probably, a nap.

 

Evening:

Take a trip to Little Mekong where Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants cluster together and create a culinary journey through the flavors of Southeast Asia (by way of Minnesota). Of course, the decision of where to go after you get there is the hard part. Bangkok Thai Deli for some of the Twin Cities’ very best Thai? Little Szechuan for incredible hot pot-style Chinese dinner? Thai Cafe for their famed, and lethally spicy, papaya salad? Or Cheng Heng for pickled veggies and chicken? iPho? Royal Bangkok? They’re all right there in front of you, so we’ll leave it up to you to make the decision.

But if you head to little Mekong one night, then the next should be dedicated to the Midwestern cuisine that has helped give Minnesota food its own identity. dedication to local ingredients extends far beyond hot dogs and hot dish and the ever-changing dinner menu is an enthusiastic display of what the Minnesota and its direct neighbors have to offer.

Hit up-and-coming Payne Avenue for dinner at Tongue In Cheek. Focused on sustainability and humanely-raised animals, you’ll find a changing array of affordably-upscale plates that at once challenge and champion the idea of “New American” cuisine. Trout in gin tomato consomme, or fried chicken roulade in bacon broth, a daily vegan option, and a whole array of amuse bouche-size “teasers” with just enough added science create a dining experience you won’t find anywhere else in the city.

Heirloom, on the other side of the city, is also a must-try. Experimenting with the “no tip” model (which has been slowly gaining traction, more about that here), the restaurant’s farmhouse-style cuisine has been firing on all cylinders. It’s not your grandma’s farmhouse dinner however. Items like the parsnip custard, pork neck, bavette steak, and ocean trout pastrami have really shined.

Red Lantern, a new addition to downtown, can seemingly do no wrong with their ramen (and sushi).

Saint Dinette offers creative and delicious French-Canadian, Creole, and Mexican inspired brunch and dinner. It’s known to have one of the best (if not *the* best) burgers in all of Minnesota. We usually opt for the octopus, the dumplings, and the shishito peppers, but the burger is certainly not a bad choice.

And, speaking of, The NookBlue Door Pub, and Red Cow also offer some world-class burgers as well. St. Paul is a burger kind of city.

 

Late night:

Mickey’s is an obvious choice for drunk cravings or just a midnight snack. A dining car that’s been featured on the silver screen, hosting a cast of characters that includes the Terminator, Meryl Streep and etc, etc. But while it might be a visitor hot spot, it’s often completely devoid of tourists when there isn’t an event going on. And nothing about Mickey’s is a tourist trap (although you can buy a t-shirt); it’s still just an old fashioned diner churning out classic recipes from 80 years ago. It’s the type of all-night greasy spoon where you’ll meet interesting people while eating pancakes and patty melts to try and sober up while the guy working the grill tells you stories about the good old days.

Peking Garden in St. Paul’s Midway is also epic for late-night eats as they’re open until 2AM on weekends (midnight on weeknights). You can eyeball the lobster, crab, and langoustines in their tanks, and roasted ducks hanging in the kitchen, before you have them for (a late) dinner. You can find a feast for 4, 6, 8, or 10 people at a flat rate and sit down for some of the best Chinese food, late-night or not, in the city.

Los Ocampo‘s Seeger Square location, just outside of downtown, serves up awesome tacos, enchiladas, tortas and more until 4AM on the weekend, and 1AM on weeknights.

Dark Horse in Lowertown is ideal for a quick bite after touring the bars. The eclectic menu served until 1:30am offers a unique way to fill your stomach at the end of the night. From Baozi (Chinese dumplings) to melt-your-face-off ghost chili wings, cubano sandwiches, a wedge salad with the thickest cut bacon we’ve ever seen, and enormous pizzas, it’s a welcome addition for late-night eating in the neighborhood.

And then we fall asleep, full and a little buzzed, to wake up in the morning to drink and dine all over again.