There's something about Saint Dinette that is classically St. Paul, like the Sunday farmers market, or the river.
Maybe it's because it evokes the saintly city's name or because owners Tim Niver and Jd Fratzke have been devoted to the capital for almost a decade with their Strip Club Meat and Fish (and soon-to-open Mucci's). Whatever the reason, after less than a year in business, Saint Dinette already feels right at home. It sits high on a perch, overlooking all of Lowertown, like a crow on a telephone wire: sleek, regal, seemingly all-knowing, yet familiar.
On the mezzanine level of the Rayette Lofts building, Saint Dinette is a modern stage for Old World technique. It's where Niver and Fratzke have spent their days thinking about French culinary influence in North America — New Orleans, Montreal, Mexico, and yes, even St. Paul. From these musings, the two men drew up a set of parameters for Saint Dinette, to make it a North American French restaurant. "And within this, you can do so much," says Niver.
To the casual observer, the North American French concept is not apparent. Probably it needn't be. For me, a lifelong St. Paulite, this is simply a St. Paul restaurant. Any establishment that lists dilly beans as its first offering is a St. Paul restaurant through and through. A little saucer of these before you, for just three bucks, along with a superb cocktail, can take the work out of ordering. Grab some straight away.
While you're at it, put the bologna sandwich on your list of starters. It's inspired by a Montreal specialty, and chefs all over the country have been going bananas and sticking versions of it on their own menus. Like most truly inspiring dishes, it's the sum of a few precious parts assembled to glorious effect. Paper-thin slices of bologna get fried until frizzled toasty at the edge, then pressed greasily into one of those squishy buns with melty cheddar and house pickles. The outcome is delectable, salty, savory, and elemental as a White Castle slider. It's also easily my favorite thing on the menu. They could close up shop and sell these alone and be wildly successful.
The Saint Dinette double smash cheeseburger is already at the top of everyone's list, as it models the au courant way to cook a burger. Two patties are smashed thin and cooked to medium, cloaked in bombastic amounts of processed cheese, and the whole thing is slipped onto that familiar squishy bun, garnished only with a green cluster of house pickles at its side.
Niver says this "two sandwich set," which they worked incredibly hard on, will never go away. Aside from that, there are no sacred cows on this menu.
If you're the sort of person who likes Minneapolis' longstanding 112 Eatery, then you're the sort of person who will probably also like Saint Dinette. Think of this as an across-the-river version of that urban bistro for all people and all occasions. Both are the sorts of places that are unafraid to mash up a crock of bar nuts with a seared foie gras preparation. Or a pot of French fries with tartare, which in fact both restaurants do. Both vary their price points from just a few dollars up into the $20-plus range, so that "everybody can eat here." It's an ideal they want to adhere to for as long as the restaurant exists, says Niver.
Everyone can also drink here, from $3 cans of Pabst to queenly craft cocktails for $10. Try the "La Adelita," which drinks like a diminutive margarita with beautiful tequila, herbaceous green chartreuse, sugar, citrus, and a blast of Jamaican bitters. Or drink wine because the selections here trend toward affordable, drinkable, and just barely on the other side of "everyday." Special, but not too much so.
It's apparent that Chef Fratzke is having a bunch of fun with this menu, tinkering not just with geographical and ethnic traditions but also celebrating kitsch and cleverness. The boudin comes garnished with potato chips. At the holidays he gave us a turducken, served with cranberry and pepper gravy that was every bite of Thanksgiving — so evocative of the holiday table it was almost disconcerting. Potato latkes came served with little synagogue-basement paper cups containing a dollop each of creme fraiche and apple butter.
He's also having a go at finer things: a smoky carbonara over fresh spaghetti finished with fried oysters; a Mexican-tinged octopus with chorizo and black beans. But the kitchen seems careful to never make things too cerebral. The tartare is served with Ritz crackers; the short ribs come with kraut and kielbasa.
In many ways, the place feels like it's been thrumming away forever. Fratzke and Niver are seasoned pros well into their careers, so this is no amateur restaurant. As with any operation where Niver handles the front-of-house, hospitality is tantamount. He says his training ethic is one where staff are allowed to be "who they are," while maintaining high standards of service. They're always friendly yet efficient, personable but super pro. They'll remember the last time you were in, and maybe even what you ordered.
And what you order need only be esoteric if you want it to be. If you suddenly find yourself breathlessly wishing in the night that you could dine at a French-influenced North American restaurant, well then, you're in luck! But if you're a St. Paul girl with a simple hankering for a bologna sandwich and a dilly bean or two, you're equally fortunate.
261 E. Fifth St., St. Paul
651-800-1415, menu items: $3-$25