Cue sepia film and old-time riverboat music. Turn-of-the-century ladies are dashing around Lowertown's industrial and warehouse district in trailing skirts and broad-brimmed hats. Natty gentlemen in bowlers and lounge suits light their pipes after making hefty deposits at the Merchants National Bank. They'll tuck a fat wad into their lapel before taking an audience with James J. Hill over cognac and wine in a tricked-out train car. The area is the first point of entry to the Twin Cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a crossroads of river and rail systems at the base of Lambert Landing, a natural break in the Mississippi River's bluffs at the foot of present-day Jackson Street. Lowertown is the place to be.
Cue the Great Depression. Building facades crumble, men sit on park benches in those natty suits because they haven't anywhere else to wear them. Factories with busted windows stare onto the street. Secondhand dress stores, pawn shops, and boarding houses abound. Lowertown goes derelict: an empty shell, a rivertown warehouse district of former commerce and plenty.
Cue the 1970s, and with them, the artists, and necessity, the mother of invention. Those empty warehouses? Space and light and inexpensive digs. Over 500 painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, and bohemians begin to call the area home and workplace. The neighborhood is infused with color, music, character.
Cue the hipsters (and before them, no small amount of city money). "Hey, this place is cool! I want to live here!" Coffee shops, bars, restaurants, ballparks, and public transportation options fall Tetris-like into the tiny grid of Lowertown.
The entire history of one of St. Paul's most storied places told in 250 words or less is naturally flawed and wanting. What isn't flawed and wanting: the current echo-chamber boom of Lowertown, where a rooftop Bent Paddle leads to a "Minneapolitan" pizza pie leads to a nice Arctic char leads to a Cubano leads to a ballgame and a light rail ride home, spent and drunk and happy and ready to do it all again. The new Lowertown is so elegant and deluxe it's practically gone "Uptown."
But it ain't. It's the new Lowertown. And it's exhilarating.
Big River Pizza
Steve Lott's is an irresistible story, whether true or not.
The Big River Pizza owner was five years old when he had his first taste of pizza. His parents were going out for the night, and Lott was atwitter because he got to spend the night with his babysitter, Jan.
"She was beautiful, man. Long blond hair."
Was she like the Brady Bunch Jan?
"No, better. Because she was real life."
But a kid can't live on love alone, so his mom and dad had a pizza delivered.
"As the door opened, and the aroma of pepperoni hit my nostrils, it was the first time anything ever rivaled my love of Jan."
Now that's a love story.
Pizza continued to weave in and out of Lott's life. He was one of four kids growing up in Chicago, and a pizza, a pitcher of beer, and Jim Croce on the jukebox was one thing his dad could regularly afford to do with the family. That and farmers markets.
"The mantra in my family was always, 'You know who grows your food, and the closer to home it is, the better it's going to be.'"
When Lott transferred to Minneapolis as a chef for a mid-sized restaurant group, he began to dream of pizza, of farmers markets, of food trucks. It came into focus: He wouldn't build a pizza oven inside of a food truck and park it downtown. Instead, he'd build a visible pizza oven on the back of a truck, sell at farmers markets, and make a menu out of ingredients from fellow market vendors.
"The best way to help your neighbor is to create a market for his goods," he says with strong conviction. And so now, if you think farmers markets and pizza in this town, you think Big River.
As a St. Paulite, Lott always dreamed of a spot at the St. Paul Farmers' Market "because it was everything when there was nothing." But the opportunity never presented itself (the market is notoriously difficult to break into). He eyed a space adjacent to the market. It opened up, he worked with the city, and now he's there, overlooking the market that inspired him, every day. He still makes a menu out of the goods from his neighbors.
Big River call their pies "Minneapolitan" because they use Neapolitan techniques, but as much local flavor as possible — Red Table Meat, Shepherd's Way Cheeses, local purple potatoes, cherry tomatoes as colorful and varied as gumballs, even edible flowers.
The pies are big, dramatic, floppy affairs, like one of those old-time wide-brimmed hats. Robust things, equal parts Minnesota and Naples just as Lott claims, these are more substantial and wacky than a pie boxed in by Neapolitan standards; they aren't afraid to be outliers. Take the Bacon Jam Slam with house-made bacon jam, or the Dr. Zeus, a nod to the Middle East with kalamata and feta but then finished with the bright acidity of lemon, of all things. Or try one of the few breakfast pizzas in town worth paying attention to, with a lovely runny egg. It's a real game-changer when heading into or out of the farmers market on a Sunday morning.
Because remember, these are made with more love than a boy can even muster for a girl.
Pro tip: Big River is working with the city to ensure more grab-and-go parking than they had at the outset, so know this, go, and grab.
280 E. Fifth St., St. Paul, 651-683-2186
Never to be typecast, the gentlemen who brought you east St. Paul's Strip Club have a decade later brought you Saint Dinette — and they've done a couple of double somersaults and a triple Salchow and come out looking like nothing you would have expected.
J.D. Fratzke is kind of a chef-poet. He likes to quote Westerberg and Rihanna but also the old dead white guys; he loves his kid and his wife with the ferocity of Shakespeare sonnets and he doesn't care if you know it. And he loves the changing of Minnesota seasons almost as much.
See him here, on his social media feed with a sunny hanging off his hook, and then there, frying that bad boy up in a pan. These things play out all over the Strip Club menu: sautéed walleye amandine, jumbo tater tots, garden vegetables of this second.
But if Strip Club is the turn-of-the-century saloon (and it is — the building dates to 1885) then Saint Dinette is the glossy indication that a new day has dawned.
All clean lines, natural light, and minimalism, Saint Dinette is right-now chic, and the chef has headed down South with the menu, then taken another detour — straight into the future.
Southern, and sometimes really, really Southern (as in Mexican) influences abound. Creole-style boudin, dirty rice, and smoked ham hock collards all make an appearance, as do beef ceviche, smoked marlin enchiladas, and churros. But it's not a Southern place or a Mexican place or even necessarily a Minnesotan place, though dilly beans and popovers and corn on the cob are also invited to this party. It's like a United Colors of Benetton ad, it's so diverse.
Fratzke didn't just plunk down at the menu-writing table and think, "Well, let's see here. We gotta have a seared salmon because people like that. And we should probably serve it with a starch, because people love potatoes, and hey! Asparagus. Asparagus for a touch of green...."
Instead, Fratzke is the kind of savvy chef who's gone at it more like this: "You know what I love? Veal breast! I had it that one time at the French Laundry, and it was great. And you know what else I like after a long, day? A bologna sandwich! With cheddar and pickle. And I think others will like it, too, because it's darn good. You know what's elegant as hell and will never go out of vogue? Seared foie gras. So hot damn! That's going on my menu!" And so on, like this.
The end result is the sort of place with a menu so varied you'll want to eat there every day. And you can, if you move into the ultra chic Rayette Loft apartment buildings, and you have the kind of cash to make Saint Dinette an extension of your own kitchen.
The total package of this fantasy (or reality, if you're lucky) is emblematic of what's going on all over Lowertown. This zip code includes a "high proportion" of people between 25 and 34 years old who use public transportation and rent their housing. And, we imagine, dine on J.D. Fratzke lobster roe corn on the cob as a matter of course a couple times a week.
Damn, it feels good to be a hipster.
261 E. Fifth St., St. Paul , 651-800-1415
Ox Cart Ale House
You may never have heard of chef Andy Lilja, though he's been on the dining scene since forever. You see, he's a "St. Paul guy" with all the self-effacement that entails. And the owners of Ox Cart Ale house, Kevin Geisen and Joe Kasel, are "St. Paul guys" too. They went to Lilja, two St. Paul guys to another, and tapped him for Ox Cart Ale House, one very St. Paul bar.
Lilja says he measures success not in the number of times he sees his name in print, but instead by the number of times dudes at the bar tell him that his are the best bratwurst they've ever eaten. Those bratwurst are handmade by Lilja — he's a butcher too, and an alum of Osteria I Nonni where he worked under Filippo Caffari, famed Italian butcher and notorious "fun guy."
"Filippo taught me a lot of tricks," says Lilja. Tricks like how to get smoked cheese inside of a bratwurst; how to make a stealthy take on chicken nuggets that are really beef sweetbreads that Minnesota dudes will eat and like; and how to make a handmade Coney Island dog.
And true to St. Paul form, Lilja insists he's not trying to be "fancy" or "frou frou," or "be all cheffy" and he's not, really. This is a burger-and-beer kind of place. But consider that he hand-makes his own American cheese to put on that burger, and that he puts a duck egg on his ham sandwich, and that he smokes his own bacon. In fact, the only item they don't make entirely from scratch is the bread, and that's because they don't have space.
So frou frou it's not. What it is: solidly, yet quietly quality. A St. Paul kind of place.
Pro tip: Ox Cart is going to have the first and only rooftop bar in Lowertown with "awesome" views of the Cathedral and Capitol Hill. It's still under construction but they're shooting for a fall preview.
255 E. Sixth St., St. Paul, 651-756-8909
Heartland Wine Bar
To take advantage of the fact that his threshold practically steps out onto home base at CHS Field, chef Lenny Russo has morphed his Direct Farm Market into Heartland Wine Bar, where sammies take on the Heartland name, and where wine is the beverage of choice after a game.
Beer is so closely associated with baseball it's a cliche, and with Ox Cart and the upcoming World of Beer (see below) as neighbors, why should chef Lenny Russo, who has always been a visionary, follow suit?
So, visit him (and of course the now-classic Heartland Restaurant, which is still there, and still churning ultra-local, upscale viands) for an elegant, anti-ballpark veggie hoagie with Provolone and oregano vinaigrette. Pair it with a Sicilian rosé and toast to vino, to fancy cheese, to never needing to leave St. Paul if you don't want to. To the good life.
Pro tip: A 10 percent game-day discount offers added enticement.
289 E. Fifth St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536
Our Four Favorite Lowertown Classics:
Barrio Tequila Bar
When you think sexy Mexican maybe you think Salma Hayek. We think of Barrio. Candlelight and nubile staff in formfitting T's set the backdrop for all the tequilas, plus excellent tacos, elote, and tamales that are no afterthought even though they could be among all this fine spectacle.
235 E. Sixth St., St. Paul, 651-22-3250
Shaking off the shackles of sushi for 15 years, Tanpopo offers fare that is what many Japanese really eat at home. Chef Koshiki Yonemura was so hungry for soba, udon, and set meals, she had to make them herself as a transplanted college student. Now, look what happened. She's got a restaurant and everybody else is hungry for it, too.
308 E. Prince St., St. Paul, 651-209-6527
Black Dog Coffee Bar
Want to remember what Lowertown felt like when it was all art and boheme? Visit the Black Dog, the kind of cafe that actually feels like one, rather than a vast electronic bosom for the caffeine and wi-fi fiending "creative class." There's live music, wine, idiosyncratic chairs, and art.
308 E. Prince St., St. Paul
The Buttered Tin
The Buttered Tin is one part diner, one part bakery, all parts community gathering place. Old guys in droopy socks wait an hour for loaded hashbrowns, clutching a bottomless cup of Colombian while little kids jump around jacked-up on their third Twin-key (better than the original), and then do it all again the next Sunday because it's that good.
237 E. Seventh St., St. Paul
World of Beer
The real-life epitome of "99 bottles of beer on the wall," only here they're on tap. It's the chainification of craft beer, with dozens of locations across the country and one coming this fall to 0x000ALowertown.
356 Sibley St., St. Paul
Dark Horse by Muddy Waters
From the team who brought you Muddy Waters, Dark Horse will be housed in the old Twin Cities Magic and Costume space, so they'll have even more mojo working for their already magical ways with food, beer, and coffee. Plus, fire pits on the patio. Opening soon.
250 E. Seventh St., St. Paul
New concept from Brasserie Zentral alum
One of the talented sous chefs formerly of Brasserie Zentral, Justin Sutherland, has an upcoming restaurant facing Mears Park. He's mum on details, but he says it's his very own neighborhood so it's going to be the kind of extra cool place he would like to frequent. Opening around the first of the year.
- Treasure Island's totally non-pirate ship docks at CHS Field
- "Keep Saint Paul Boring" T-shirt is a joke made out of love
- Downtown St. Paul is cool now, so you'll have to pay more to park
- Citizen Supper Club: A new downtown St. Paul restaurant that's not in Lowertown
- Dark Horse is a winner in Lowertown's glittering drinking and dining scene
- Duluth brewery Bent Paddle is bravely sacrificing sales to do what's right
- Handsome Hog and the delicate business of "Contemporary Southern"