River Reverie

The River Room at Dayton's
411 Cedar St., St. Paul, (651) 292-5174
Hours: Monday to Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday noon-3 p.m.

Your devoted Eater was doing what she does best--plowing through a Caesar salad while respectable people are hard at work--when she was overcome with a strange, queasy, dizzying feeling. Yesterday's bad mussels? I used my tabletop computer--cleverly hidden in a largish crouton--to access the Food Critic's Self-Diagnosis satellite. Woozy? Yes. Uncomfortable? Decidedly. Experiencing strange momentary hallucinations? You betcha. The crouton was alarmed. All signs pointed to poisoning--but by whom? The steak-house cartels? The café mafia? So many enemies, so little time to wring the antidote from their balsamic-vinegar-stained paws. I sank back into a plush, gray velour banquette and tearfully rued the day I picked up fork and pen.

Suddenly my crouton blared an alarm--WARNING! CODE RED!--and I found myself transported from the soothing environs of the St. Paul Dayton's River Room into the sticky mists of a full-fledged flashback. Glowing fog swirled about my desert-boot-clad feet. The year was 1980, and fourth grade was my daily misery. Anna and Debbie D. and Debbie T. and Shakira had ganged up on me again, exiling me from all the lunchroom games--there was no need for a fifth at Trouble! No room for my Barbies in the obscene Barbie escapades enacted near the handball courts. Alone! Alone.

Wrung dry from my friendless week of handwriting workbooks, multiplication tables, and abject suffering, I retreated home to the sylvan, raisin-studded oasis of the TV room to drown my sorrows in my very favorite television show. It's a Living was on for two seasons, tops. Its lowbrow, low-cut premise involved five bosomy waitresses with tight, tarty French-maid outfits who worked in a glamorous, skyscraper-top bar and coped humorously with life's foibles and their hard-boiled lady manager, who had a heart of gold. There was also a dweeby, sexually desperate piano player (in the noble tradition of Larry on Three's Company), who was always trying to convince one of the waitresses to repair with him to his boudoir. The star of the show was Ann Jillian, a platinum blonde who wore her lemon-icing hair in a Möbius-strip-cum-sausage-curl framing her face. She had breasts as big and buoyant as Mickey Mouse's ears.

My ten-year-old self found the show bizarrely compelling. Here were grown-up women who looked exactly like Barbie dolls, and they were best friends. Everyone liked them, even when they were mean. (As a bonus, occasionally someone fell face-first into a cake.) If the preoccupying question of adolescence is "Who am I?" the dominant theme of a certain girly strain of female preadolescence is "How can I make attractive schoolmates be--and remain--my very best friends in the whole wide world?" It's a Living held the answers to that conundrum.

My flashback spit me back out groggy and confused, romaine still poised on the fork before me. Why me? Why now? I wondered, as I carefully stifled my screeching crouton in a (scrupulously refilled) cup of coffee. Then it hit me like a two-ton Waterford chandelier: The River Room is exactly like the restaurant in It's a Living. The ultra-1980s style. The pink shades on the chandeliers, the silver-gray chairs and banquettes, the black-wood pillars and accents, the comfortable, TV-room atmosphere, the glittering wraparound view. The only difference is that in the TV show the view was a skyline, and at the River Room it is walls of rose-tinted mirrors, which reflect the four enormous Waterford chandeliers again and again, so that the room ends up looking like a bubble in an ocean of chandeliers.

And what could the diners in It's a Living have been supping on but marvelous drinks? That's what Dayton's St. Paul River Room has in spades--big, bountiful drinks, enough glittering ambiance to shoot Under the Cherry Moon twice over, and popovers. Don't forget the popovers. Just as in the Minneapolis Dayton's Oak Room, every diner is treated to a roasty, toasty, moist-bellied popover as lush as an It's a Living waitress's lip-glossy kiss.

Tearing into a popover with a martini in hand is afternoon department-store bliss. I usually don't think of drinking and Dayton's together, but here the cocktails flow like free-gifts-with-purchase at the Clinique counter. Large Manhattans with a big red cherry rocketing around the glass ($4.50), gimlets made with Ketel One vodka ($4.50), Martinis both plain and blue with curaçao ($4.50), and (be still, my ten-year-old heart) a first-rate Brandy Alexander ($5.50) served in tall stemware. Here, the beloved concoction is a compromise between an ice-cream shake and a brandy sauce--a thick blend of vanilla ice cream, brandy, and dark crème de cacao topped with whipped cream, Bailey's Irish Cream, and a pair of hazelnuts, all served beguilingly with cocktail stirrer and spoon. The River Room even has a couple of microbrews and a 20-bottle wine list with a couple of nice options--a sparkling glass of Domaine Chandon's Blanc de Noirs runs only $6, a virtual jubilee sale compared to Minneapolis's Aquavit restaurant, where a glass of the same costs $8.

The River Room's glamour-packed atmosphere is distinctly settle-in-and-stay-awhile, and the servers are as nice as kittens on pillows on nice, fluffy beds. Really, this black, pink, and gray oasis is at the top of the list for places where I'd like to hunker down for a day, even though the food is dreadful.

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