We have always loved St. Paul. Unashamedly so. While Minneapolis was looking down on its twin with an air of superiority, St. Paul just kept on being St. Paul – a little weird sometimes, with ups-and-downs as a city seeming constantly in flux. It’s a city that keeps its secrets – one that has history hidden around every corner and no need for any pretense about it, full of creative people doing creative things, if on a smaller scale, still trying to find its way post urban renewal.
St. Paul is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, getting its groove back in new and exciting ways. The most exciting of those ways, certainly, lies within the restaurant industry.
It’s important to note that there has always been good food in St. Paul. Respect to Fasika, Ngon, the restaurants of Little Mekong and Hmongtown Marketplace, Homi Restaurant and El Burrito Mercado, and early trailblazers like Joan’s in the Park and (one of our favorites) Tongue in Cheek.
The following restaurants are ones that truly established St. Paul as a dining destination over the last few years – innovative ideas that for years struggled to find a home in a capital city full of supper clubs – building on a food foundation that existed already to put the city on the map: If St. Paul is now a “vibrant” town for drinking and dining, these are the restaurants that deserve credit.
10 St. Paul restaurants that changed the game
Our offices were once located in the West 7th neighborhood of St. Paul, not far from the Glockenspiel. We miss the Glock, with it’s tall beers, schnapps shot boards, and hearty goulash. But Pajarito, by almost every standard, is a much more exciting replacement. Their beef torta is a go-to favorite, as is the yucca and rajas, and, surprisingly (or maybe not), the nachos during happy hour. There is plenty of tequila, and everything else as well – the rum is just as good. The warm space, and service, make it as much neighborhood watering hole as upscale eatery.
The two-year anniversary pop-up dinner this Wednesday, featuring Justin Carlisle of Milwaukee’s Ardent, and local baking phenom John Kraus, is testament not only to Pajarito’s continued innovation in food, but staying power as well.
To get tickets for the event, go here: Pajarito turns TWO!
Pajarito | 605 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 340-9545
The (new) Lexington
We mentioned supper clubs above, and, perhaps disingenuously, without much love. The Lexington is something of a supper club, but one that has embraced the new era of eating, elevated to destination restaurant status: It might be for your grandmother to visit and recall yesteryear, but also with a date on Valentine’s Day or dressed up on prom night. It might be for a casual Friday of cocktails, small plates, and live music, and it might be for tiki drinks late after supper on an upstairs patio. It might be low-key steak classics, or exciting new takes. It’s a four-star neighborhood-meets-destination-restaurant mainstay that has earned its accolades.
Read our full review of the Lexington here: Why the Lexington once mattered, still matters, will matter for years to come
The Lexington | 1096 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 289-4990
Just/Us occupies a somewhat obscure storefront in downtown St. Paul. But it sets itself apart with one quality that is perhaps the one that so many restaurants miss: Creativity. They’re not afraid to take risks – the model itself is a risk, changing menu every few weeks, keeping ideas open for their chef/owners to have free reign, and foregoing decor in favor of gastronomy – which is a cool way to explore food, and rare in a city where the focus often remains on crafting the perfect burger.
Though, Just/Us does do burgers – no need for pretense about a Minnesota favorite – and open mic on Tuesdays as well, striking a somewhat surprising balance between fussy, fine-dining plates worthy of pictures and applause, and that welcoming neighborhood restaurant where you’ll always feel at home.
Just/Us | 465 Wabasha St N, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 424 -1080
We should also mention another Tim Niver restaurant that arrived in the wake of The Strip Club’s closing, Saint Dinette, which helped Lowertown maintain its rep as a growing foodie city before most of these other places opened their doors to the public.
(We discuss Saint Dinette’s famous burger here: Meat on meat on meat: The best burgers in the Twin Cities)
As we mentioned in the lede, St. Paul is a city that keeps its secrets, and Niver’s second venture after SC, Mucci’s, is hidden away in a residential neighborhood a few miles from downtown and from the upscale bustle of Crocus Hill. It’s a secret that should be found night in and night out for pizza and pasta – and maybe some of their Fanta-based “Mucci’s Juice.”
Though, while we keep going back for red sauce dinners, we’re actually there more frequently on Saturday mornings for donuts and Roman breakfast pizzas with a cup of hot coffee, and neighborhood regulars enjoying the same in seats around us.
Mucci’s Italian | 786 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 330-2245
There’s not much (if anything) to dislike about Kyatchi: Sustainable sushi, ramen, hot dogs with Japanese potato salad on the side, and a few other Japanese classics in a comfortable Lowertown warehouse space. The aesthetic is a perfect we-didn’t-try-too-hard-we’re-just-naturally-cool way, updating one of our favorite place, Tanpopo Noodle Shop, into something arguably even better.
The sushi is incredible, delicious, and their focus on avoiding those over-fished varieties and looking for less-used, more creative cuts is admirable. The presentation is traditional, but you can tell the chefs have a good time with the plates they put together (you can sit on the line and watch them for proof).
Kyatchi also has the best happy hour deals, on their sushi especially, in Lowertown.
Read more about the Twin Cities best sushi, including, of course, both Kyatchi locations, here: Sushi in the Twin Cities
Kyatchi | 308 E Prince St #140, St Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 340-5796
Octo Fish Bar (and the rest of the Market House Collaborative)
Octo is the anchor of the first of the metro’s exciting new food halls to open – before Keg and Case, while the future of Lowertown dining was still uncertain after the departure of Heartland.
The restaurant is based around innovative seafood dishes; a new way to look at the things both coasts take for granted, and the enthusiastic dive into the worlds gulfs, seas, reservoirs, oceans for rarely-seen (at least in Minnesota) presentations.
But we should talk about the collaborative as a whole – there’s no doubt that Octo could and would thrive as a standalone restaurant, but it’s enhanced by both Almanac Fish and Markethouse Meats (the attached fish market and butcher shop, respectively) and the option for a craft brew technically “someplace else” through the door to the right, and one of the finest cafes in the city leading toward the ballpark. Markethouse is the beautiful sum of its parts.
Read our coverage of the the Market House Collaborative’s opening here: Why the Market House Collaborative is so important
And a follow up here: Salty Tart is exactly what Market House was missing
Market House | 289 5th St E, St Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 202-3409 (Octo#)
Chef Sameh Wadi didn’t stay quiet for long after closing his much-loved restaurant Saffron, though Grand Catch is a very different animal than Saffron was (and World Street Kitchen, his fast casual restaurant, as well). It extends Wadi’s win streak deep into cajun territory with spicy seafood boils, po’boys, and other dishes made classic in New Orleans – at the exact opposite end of the Mississippi from St. Paul.
Grand Catch | 1672 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 348-8541
There’s one in Minneapolis, and, while certainly popular, the Parlour on Washington Ave. always felt like the more relaxed, accessible cocktail spot amidst its flashier North Loop neighbors – places like Marvel Bar, Spoon and Stable, and the pulse-pounding super clubs of the nearby Warehouse District. Parlour actually felt like something of an escape from the hustle bustle of the Twin Cities’ trendiest stretch.
A place that might, perhaps, fit in well in St. Paul? Apparently, we weren’t alone in thinking so.
Adding an elegant, though, again, still casual and completely accessible, touch to the burgeoning district around the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul, Parlour boosted the capital city’s nighttime credibility, especially among those visiting for an event, concert, game, etc., with a fantastic burger and inspired small plates, even better drinks, and an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality that seems as though it as has been there much, much longer than it has.
Parlour | 267 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 207-4433
Make a reservation, if you can. Or wait/fight for a seat at the bar. Grand Avenue’s new standard for warm, comforting Italian (&surrounding region) food has been popular with just about everyone since it opened just a few months ago. Yes, the owners returned recently from Brooklyn, but it’s clear they understand St. Paul; Hyacinth is is everything we want from a restaurant: Simple food made incredibly right. Classics like bucatini with cacio e pepe, risotto with local squash, a celery salad that will make you rethink your feelings about celery, and deserts that pair all too well with a small glass of fernet. And while the decor is simple, the backsplash of tile behind the bar, the rich indigo of the banquette, the simple elegance of the dishware and silver, make it one of the most aesthetically-pleasing restaurants around.
We’ll talk about the newest – and largest – In Bloom next, but not before saying Hyacinth just might be our favorite of St. Paul’s new-and-improved restaurant scene.
Hyacinth | 790 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 478-1822
In Bloom (and the rest of the Keg & Case Market)
We were at In Bloom three nights in a row starting opening night, sliding into seats at the bar, making the mistake of wearing the same tie two of those nights to playful barbs and comments from the bartender who recognized us.
“You’re obsessed,” he said.
The obsession was, to pare it down, the smell of open-flame cooking, the measured hum of conversation in a stunning space, and the Minnesota-made menu: Cattails and mushrooms, venison tartare, pheasant in porcini veloute, a s’more turned somehow fine dining.
Really, though, it’s the entire space – the communal relationship of all Keg and Case’s vendors under one roof. That there was this much talent scattered in and around St. Paul/the Twin Cities just waiting for a project like this to bring them all together, speaks volumes to the culture of food – growing, cooking, making, baking, jarring, freezing and everything else – that exists, sometimes still hidden from the spotlight, here.
And, in true Minnesota fashion, you will take the smell of a lazy fall bonfire with you when you leave, courtesy of the raging fires at In bloom.
Keg and Case | 928 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 237-9630
Read our full article on Keg & Case’s opening: Keg and Case Market secures St. Paul’s spot as true food city
We chose the top ten restaurants we felt have had the most impact; that have changed the game. But there are plenty of other places that have opened recently that deserve a nod for their role in creating a dynamic food scene as well:
These restaurants, no longer with us, were trailblazers – the first to bring creative dining on all levels to a sleepy city known only for diner hashbrowns, supper club steaks, and dive bar beers. These were the places we were excited to go, and excited to bring our friends to, before St. Paul was known as a city where one could actually do that. We salute the following:
Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market
The Strip Club Meat & Fish
Tanpopo Noodle Shop
To explore the less-than-sunny-side of a booming restaurant scene, read this article next: That restaurant you forgot about? It just closed for good