When a city sees a rapid influx of new business, as St. Paul has recently, and new restaurants specifically, it is inevitable that we’ll end up with more than a few of the same products on the menu.
The question is this: Is that a problem? A bad thing at all?
As with most things, there is no solid “yes” or “no” answer to that question. It’s not a black and white/salt and pepper situation. Like in Little Mekong, where maybe a dozen different restaurants serve their own variation of phở; we wouldn’t want a single one of them to close in favor of the favorite or most popular or even the one that we most often find ourselves at.
I.e. They’re all doing their own thing, and we’re all the better for having options.
New restaurants, familiar plates
The same logic can/should apply to new restaurants, can’t it? “Too many” pizza joints is not a inherently a bad thing – or, some would argue, a thing at all. And a plethora of places making pasta in the style of their grandmama/hometown/childhood memory doesn’t make for a staid dining experience.
Still brand-new Hyacinth (and one of our favorite new restaurants – the homemade pasta, the bright flavors of the Mediterranean, the cocktails…) opened last August in the former (small) Golden Fig space when Golden Fig moved into the (larger) Bombshell space next door. Luke Shimp just opened his second location of Red Rabbit, also serving pasta, and pizza, right next door to Hyacinth and a block away from Punch.
We’ve loved Punch Pizza for years. We remember when Grand Ol’ Creamery opened a pizza joint inside their storefront across the street – both pizza places are doing well; there’s no denying Punch’s presence as one of the best, and most beloved, pie shops in the city (state), and pizza pairs nicely with ice cream.
Though, interestingly, they serve Izzy’s Ice Cream at Punch. Not GOC.
And Red Rabbit is an improvement no matter what: It took over the vacated Wild Onion space, and nobody appreciated the Wild Onion for its food, or much of anything besides Birthday Tuesday.
So who cares if two restaurants serving pasta opened next door to one another? Does it matter if Red Rabbit serves pizza, along with Punch and Grand Pizza down the street? And Green Mill a mile west?
It should be noted, in the first place, that we can actually have this conversation in St. Paul now. There is something resembling a restaurant “scene” in the capital city for the first time in recent memory, and it’s (finally?) worth talking about what might happen if Grand Avenue actually had too many places worth our time and money. Or downtown/Lowertown for that matter. Or Cathedral Hill. Or Midway. Or West 7th. The discussion is as much where and why we need to eat at one versus another, not just when because we’re hungry.
We’ve talked about mediocre food, and the too many middle-of-the-road restaurants drowning out more interesting counterparts, and what it means to support a restaurant that’s actually worth supporting; what it does for the community around it and the city as a whole. It’s nothing new to appreciate restaurant/dining trailblazers and flock to the most exciting new thing. There’s nothing wrong with comfort food and familiar classics when that’s what you’re in the mood for.
Now that St. Paul has options, choices, places to go to that fulfill both obligatory sides (upscale and casual) of the restaurant coin, it’s simply up to us where we go. We do have to make decisions. If you’re out shopping with mom on Grand Avenue, it’s no longer as simple as “…let’s just go to Cafe Latte because that’s the best thing around.” Now you can go to the Lexington, Hyacinth, or Red Rabbit. Or Brasa. Or Punch. Or if you’re craving a blue collar burger you still have Billy’s. If you’re on the other end of the avenue (the Macalester end of the avenue), your choices don’t get easier: The veteran Shish, the new Grand Catch, or the fantastic and underrated St. Paul Meat Shop for something quicker (they make the best Reuben sandwich in the Twin Cities).
Who was it that said “Variety is the spice of life”?
Variety doesn’t have to mean every restaurant has to starkly/vastly/dynamically different from the last – how do you create a foundation for a local style of cuisine if you’re constantly tearing down the old to build anew? As long as the restaurants that open are all opening to serve something interesting, something personal, something that is theirs, it will remain a positive thing.
We all have our favorites. We always will. And, as we’re seeing on Grand Avenue, there will always be new places to try, even if the menu looks more than a little bit familiar.
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