A Black Hawk helicopter swoops overhead. From here, the St. Paul skyline appears to be a vertical mirage rising out of the frozen tundra, the Capitol’s golden dome shining like a beacon.
I ascend a single flight of stairs to a limestone Art Deco building, designed by the first licensed black architect in Minnesota and used as a backdrop for the 1972 film Slaughterhouse Five. Entering a sparkling foyer, I hear glasses clinking, laughter trailing across the parquet floors.
At this point, unless you’re some kind of geography mastermind or Vonnegut trivia geek––or just happen to be among the miniscule percentage of Twin Citians who have ever journeyed out to Holman Field––you’re likely wondering where on earth this mysterious spot might be.
Holman’s Table at the St. Paul Downtown Airport, that’s where. (And if you’re exclaiming, “Wait, I had no idea that St. Paul had its own airport!” you’re likely not alone.)
Launched in January by Troy Reding and Brad Sorenson, who also run Plymouth’s Rock Elm Tavern, Holman’s Table is an inviting all-day dining spot whose historic digs––have you ever sat down to dinner smack underneath a circa-1939 air traffic control tower?––place it in the running for St. Paul’s most unusual new restaurant.
One step into the historic former terminal building, and you’re transported back that nostalgic pre-9/11 fantasy, the golden age of flight. No security lines. No X-ray baggage scanners. No foreboding signs declaring that today’s alert level is orange. Nobody demands a retinal scan or a passport as you step through a fetching retro lobby into the restaurant.
This is one of those rare spots where there’s not a bad table––because every table features a bang-on view of the runway, where commercial and private planes take off and land at a leisurely pace throughout the day. The menu suits the ambience: It’s classic, polished, and well-prepared. There are enough contemporary touches that while dishes do nod to certain nostalgic longings––a steak sandwich here, a French onion soup there––they don’t feel outdated.
On a recent weekday lunch, I admired the pretty, colorful salads passing by me from the kitchen––a smoked salmon-farro with heirloom cherry tomato, a red and gold beet with arugula and chevre––and settled on the Harvest Salad, generously laden with apples, pumpkin seeds, brie, and cranberries. Serviceable in itself, it was made nearly sublime by a tart cider vinaigrette. Mediocre salad dressings abound in otherwise good restaurants, and the house-made dressings at Holman’s Table shine: an auspicious sign for good things to come.
Next came the Vat 17 burger, christened for the tangy Deer Creek white cheddar that crowns it. (The cheese comes from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, while the beef is locally raised in Olivia, Minnesota.) It was a traditional beauty of a cheeseburger, with toothsome twist or two: candied bacon, garlic aioli, nestled against slender, skin-on fries. It ably passed the “should I come back for dinner?” test.
As natural light floods its rosé-colored walls and gleaming gold bar, the retro dining room is fetching enough by day that you can’t help but want to return, come nightfall, for a daiquiri with house-blended rum. (When’s the last time you ordered a daiquiri? Here, it tops the cocktail list, giving you explicit permission.) The dinner menu spans an ambitious range of elevated comfort food (hanger steak with gnocchi, short ribs with smashed fingerlings, wild boar pappardelle) and adventurous versions of classics (a fruits de mer platter with saffron broth and squid-ink linguine, diver scallops with pork belly and kimchi).
“We dim the lights at dinner, “ my server says, “and you watch planes take off on the lit-up runway.”
Ever since that gut-wrenching goodbye on the foggy airport runway in Casablanca, airport runways at night have never been the same. Fortunately, the bar mixes exactly the kind of cocktails that Humphrey Bogart might have sipped in the terminal bar after watching Ingrid Bergman’s plane lift skyward into the starry night. Try the Old-Fashioned, crafted with Minnesota-made Isanti Sunken Bobber Bourbon, or the Last Word, a Prohibition-era cocktail with Gustaf Navy-Strength Gin from Far North Spirits out of Hallock, Minnesota. (Sadly, there’s no cocktail called “We’ll Always Have Paris.” At least not yet.)
Jetsetters, take note: If you prefer to fly your own plane to Holman’s Table, remember to book ahead. They’ll waive your landing fee if you’re on your way to dine in the restaurant.
644 Bayfield St., St. Paul; 612-800-5298