"The bar is our centerpiece," says Eric Foster of Ward 6, the new eastside St. Paul eatery he owns with business partner Bob Parker. "I think that's obvious from the minute you walk in." Solidly constructed in 1903 when Hamm's Brewery owned this Payne-Phalen neighborhood building, the majestic mirror-and-oak bar is obvious indeed, but the fascinating history of this Payne Avenue building goes back even further, to a time before Hamm's, if you can imagine that.
Relics of the Hamm's Brewery ownership remain in a few incarnations inside Ward 6, from the logo in the floorboards to the beer on tap, but Foster tells me the original building was actually designed in 1885 and constructed by one Magnus Lindstrom, a Swedish immigrant. Over the next century or so, the building would serve as an unconventional home for a group of friends (functioning bar and all, which sounds awesome); as the "northernmost Italian bar on Payne Avenue"; and as the headquarters for the notorious biker gang the Hell's Outcasts. Before it came under the ownership of Foster and Parker, the building was most recently the site of a coffee shop called U and I, a business in the works for some time that never quite made it off the ground. "We kept the idea of being able to serve coffee and espresso drinks," says Foster. "But my vision, and my partner's vision, was to have a really great, casual, neighborhood bar. The food came next."
Foster says his liquor license, which does include a full bar (one you should definitely take advantage of, especially at brunch, with horseradish-heavy bloody Marys that impart great umami flavor instead of just saltiness), stipulates that 60 percent of his revenue must come from food sales. "We are definitely exceeding that number," Foster confirms. "But I want to keep kind of a 'walk in, grab a seat' feel to it, so it's good we have the bar component." To that end, Foster is keeping a no-reservations policy and says he doesn't even like to keep a waiting list if he can avoid it. Still, the restaurant seats only 50, and once word spreads about this place, I predict their peak hours and weekends will be as busy as they deserve to be.
So what is it like in there? In terms of prices, what it offers, and even some of the overall atmosphere, Ward 6 reminded me a little of the gone-too-soon Pop! in northeast Minneapolis, but with milkshakes. Adult milkshakes. And not the kind that Kelis sings about. These blend amaretto with strawberry ice cream or Irish cream with whiskey and chocolate — a great idea alongside a slice of the daily-changing, diner-classic pies. But main courses are the main concern. Perusing the menu on your first visit, you'll be tempted to go for the Fatty Melt, something Ward 6 describes as "the love child of a grilled cheese sandwich and a hamburger...with bacon," but if you can read that line and still have your wits about you, consider going for the Reuben instead. It's a tough leap of faith, especially in this town, where really good corned beef is hard to come by and stances on preferable ratios of kraut to cheese to dressing are as divisive as the age-old Ju(i)cy Lucy battle. Ward 6's version of the classic sandwich is on the lighter side — not the towering knife-and-fork Reubens of NYC delis, but certainly not lacking in flavor. It's melty without being too messy, and the dressing is rich, with an exemplary piquant finish. But the star of this sandwich, as well it should be, is the house-made corned beef, and the credit for that goes to Liz Olson, formerly of Pat's Tap and now the head chef at Ward 6. "Liz is the one driving our whole charcuterie program. Without her, we would not have that as part of our menu," says Foster. Well, they and the east metro should be thankful for her direction. Though charcuterie was absolutely huge in 2012, it's certainly not expected to be available at every little neighborhood joint, nor is it expected to be this good. Olson's handling of meat is rustic and approachable: Silky chicken liver pate, slightly smoky speck, rich duck rillettes, and pickled pork terrine were among the weekly-changing offerings, but be sure to check for them on the chalkboard in the entry area. No one pointed out the charcuterie or the specials to us at dinner service, and it would be a shame to miss out on either.
On the non-chalkboard menu, Ward 6's non-monstrous portions mean even these unfussy pub-grub favorites (with a few more forward-thinking classics like the gluten-free, Asian-style pork ribs with rice and cabbage slaw) are all made lighter by keeping the serving sizes fairly moderate. Even items like the beef-fat-fried fish and chips and a starter ironically called "health food" — a melange of battered and fried broccoli, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and mushrooms served with harissa-spiked hollandaise sauce — manage to not send you into a food coma and leave just enough room for a little affogato to cap off your dining experience. Yes, this bar with all the Hamm's regalia also serves affogato. Ah, the marvels of living in the modern age.
Breakfast is served daily, and Ward 6 does brunch until 2 p.m. on weekends, which includes savory bread pudding, eggs Benedict featuring the reprise of the harissa hollandaise, and a buttery, fruit-topped Dutch baby, which is eggy and airy like a popover but substantial like a skillet pancake. As I mentioned before, the bloody is a must-try if you like horseradish, but if you're inclined to something a little sweeter along with your breakfast meats, try the Ramos gin fizz, a beverage of egg white and sour citrus that drinks a bit like a more effervescent, alcoholic Orange Julius.
As is, Ward 6, with its rich history, unfussy food, unexpected charcuterie, and smartly mixed cocktails, is a most welcome addition to the neighborhood. With a few small tweaks, it could be a very good reason for anyone, area resident or otherwise, to visit this part of town. "The east metro seems to be lacking in places that have a good beer list — and ours runs the gamut, everything from Hamm's to Lucid to 3rd Street — and a varied wine list, and really good cocktails, plus high-quality food," says Foster. "I think this area has been underserved in general." If bricks-and-mortar locations of excellent food trucks and unassuming neighborhood pubs that serve solid food and drink are our local restaurant trends of 2013, then this will indeed be a happy new year.