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.

On that score: The grilled-chicken Caesar salad ($7.95) that witnessed my journey to the dawn of the Reagan era, though topped with a decent chicken breast (tender, char-grilled, and served still-hot), featured goopy, thickener-filled dressing, silver-dollar-size croutons topped with melted snakes of cheese, and repellent refrigerator-mushy slices of roma tomatoes. (Why does a Caesar salad need tomatoes at all, never mind spoiled tomatoes?) And the Caesar was far superior to the Mandarin salad ($7.95), which had oranges, bacon, almonds, and a sickly-sweet dressing, or the Braeburn apple and butternut squash salad ($7.25), which I wouldn't even mention in polite company. It arrived without any dressing whatsoever, and the nice candied walnuts couldn't hide the old-tasting gold beets and squash.

I didn't fare any better with the cooked dishes. An appetizer of walleye fingers ($6.95) was nearly tasteless. A barbecued-duck quesadilla ($6.50) had a reasonably tasty filling sequestered in tortillas the texture of paper plates left out in the rain. The chicken with puff pastry ($8.95) tasted like a TV dinner. The menu's priciest item, the almond-crusted walleye ($12.95), was greasy, but came with some good mashed potatoes. The next time I'm at the River Room--and there most assuredly will be a next time, because the enchanting decor and easygoing staff make me want to move in and stay indefinitely--I'll just stick to the sweet, creamy wild rice soup ($3.50) or a burger with fries ($6.75) and ice cream.

Actually, let me revise that. The next time I'm at the River Room, I think I'll just double-fist ice-cream drinks and drink-drinks, in the hope that more secrets of childhood will be revealed. I hadn't thought about It's a Living since fifth grade, when I transformed myself into a math-team nerd and whiled away the next couple of years with a lot of boys who were forever breaking their eyeglasses. Which restaurant will reveal what the rocket kids watched on television? Stay tuned.

 

TABLEHOPPING

THE PIZZA CONNECTION: You know that oft-touted stock-market-hemline correlation according to which stock prices are supposed to soar when miniskirts rise, and bull markets follow hemlines below the knee?

Well, McSweeney's (www.mcsweeneys.net), the Internet magazine brought to you by the previous editor of now-defunct hipster mag Might, has come up with a much eerier, more contemporary way of correlating the uncorrelatable: Domino's Pizza consumption. Somehow they got Domino's PR people to provide sales figures for key dates in recent history. Their findings? On the day Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London, Americans felt "conflicted as Spain imposed its law, perhaps not quite legally, upon the deposed dictator from Santiago. While we gave the matter some thought on October 17, we phoned Domino's--and sales shot up 5.8 percent over those of a typical Saturday." The 60 Minutes broadcast of Dr. Kevorkian's assisted suicide got people hungry--sales up 6 percent! When Frank Sinatra died, pizza sales zoomed up 12.1 percent! Thinking that anybody's tragedy is Domino's triumph? Not necessarily. Consider the poetic justice evident in the fact that when abortion provider Barnett Slepian was murdered in his home in Buffalo, Domino's--which is owned by pro-life funder Tom Monaghan--saw a 3.2 percent slump compared with ordinary Fridays.

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