After the announcement that St. Paul’s beloved Strip Club Meat & Fish would be closing in July, adding to the long list of local restaurants to shutter in the last 1-2 years, we took a mandatory moment of silence.
During that moment, we all started thinking: While there are plenty of new places opening, what is left of old St. Paul? The St. Paul that wasn’t making it into City Pages’ Best Of lists, that you had to be a local to know and appreciate?
What is still standing after the end of Heartland, Strip Club, and so many others?
St. Paul is a strange city all its own, and the restaurants reflect that. It’s a city, author Sherman Alexie said during his 2015 visit to the Fitzgerald Theater, that is “fully aware that it’s awesome and eccentric” without trying to be something it’s not. It’s a city, he said, where “you can still get food poisoning,” but he said it fondly; the charms of St. Paul lay in her resistance to change, her blue collar sensibilities, and her aversion to passing fads and trends.
But this is changing quickly (and we’ll be the first to argue that it’s changing for the better), so we take the time here to honor the tried and true restaurants, the front line warriors that have served hungry St. Paulites for the years before the recent resurgence. Places that have been open ten years or more, that will hopefully be here for many more years to come.
St. Paul restaurants still standing
El Burrito Mercado: It’s a market, grocery, cafeteria, and bar/restaurant all rolled into one. If you’re in a hurry, the cafeteria or grab-and-go case is a good option. But if you have time, sit down and stay for dinner and a margarita in the recently-expanded El Café near the back of the space. It’s a trip to Mexico without ever leaving St. Paul.
Cecil’s Deli: If a New York deli and a Minnesota potluck had a love child, it might look something like Cecil’s. It’s been a staple in Highland Park for decades, and the enormous, gooey sandwiches, crisp pickles, and selection of take-home salads, soups, meats, cheeses and more, has never fallen shy of excellent. You have to look for the restaurant, tucked behind the deli, but once you’ve been shown to your seat you immediately feel at home. Every time.
Black Sea: Quick, delicious, and so easy on the pocketbook. Black Sea has served doner (like gyros but more sandwich-like in pita pockets) to hungry Hamline students, and everyone else lucky enough to have found the small storefront on Snelling Avenue, for years and years. With the claim of being the first Turkish restaurant in Minnesota, they have since opened a second location in White Bear Lake. Nothing, though, beats the original.
The Nook: What some people argue is the best burger in St. Paul can be found here. Simple and delicious, with no need for frills or gimmicks, they are delicious, meaty, maybe a little greasy, oh-so-good (our favorite is the Paul Moliter, a simple Jucy Lucy stuffed with pepper cheese). With the bowling alley downstairs, it’s an awesome place to grab a bite and a beer whether or not you give it the title of #1.
Black Dog Cafe: A recent remodel, and subsequent press, means that Black Dog certainly hasn’t fallen off the radar. But in a growing Lowertown, it’s easy to forget the small cafe and music venue’s impact on the neighborhood. It’s barely a $$ restaurant, as many menu items are fairly thrifty and you can still get awesome thin crust pizzas, but they also offer upscale monthly specials that might catch longtime patrons by surprise.
DeGidio’s: Our favorite low-key Italian can be found at this 84-year-old restaurant on West 7th. Its gangster past adds an allure (founded by Joey “Kid Bullets” DeGidio), but it’s the red sauce that keeps us coming back. The pasta is always cooked right, smothered in the savory-with-just-a-touch-of-sweetness tomato goodness. Something that would make mama nod her head in approval. Italian is family food, and thus Degidio’s is a place perfect the whole family, whether in celebration or not. But if you’re in a hurry, there’s no shame in grabbing a quick plate at the bar, with a cold Peroni on the side.
Mancini’s: Just down the street from DeGidio’s, another St. Paul staple blinks red neon, on and off, welcoming customers from every generation, of all ages and backgrounds. What do they come for? Steak. And lobster. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s old school in the very best sense. Stuck in the past, maybe, but you wouldn’t want it to change. Why would you? The steaks are tender, done just the way you want them. The service is always impeccable. The atmosphere is of days gone by, and you won’t want to return to the present.
Forepaugh’s: The haunted mansion that houses Forepaugh’s is worth a visit for that reason alone. It’s a truly gorgeous piece of Victorian architecture. But the story of Joseph Forepaugh’s maid, who hanged herself out of the third-story window, is just a bonus: Restaurants should be about the food, and the French-inspired Forepaugh’s is always a good choice for a special night out, the pre-prom or post-wedding dinner, that date night you won’t soon forget.
Joan’s in the Park: Quietly one of the best restaurants in Minnesota (with the accolades to prove it), Joan’s is a necessary piece of the St. Paul food landscape. Not because it serves one of the best steaks in town (especially post-Strip Club), or because it always manages to be innovative without trying to reinvent the wheel, but because, in an unassuming space on Snelling Avenue, it proves that world-class food can exist on quiet corners, on forgotten stretches of St. Paul streets where the closest neighbors have also dedicated their lives to the city.
The Lexington: Technically we shouldn’t put this on the list. Or maybe we have to. The restaurant is standing tall once again. And a three-year hiatus, in the midst of the restaurant’s 80+ year history, doesn’t seem so long. Plus, while there are certainly updates and it’s certainly, certainly better than ever, it’s still exactly what it was always supposed to be: Classic supper club. Pickles and pot pie. Meat and potatoes. Good wine and long conversations. Everyone, it seems, has a Lexington story. Everyone in St. Paul knows someone in St. Paul for whom the Lexington has played an important role. It’s a tried and true Silver City classic, and we couldn’t be more excited for the forthcoming iteration.