The Riff: It's official: Lowertown rules

  • Updated: September 19, 2009 - 8:39 PM

St. Paul's Lowertown became the Cities' coolest place to hang this summer. Please explain.

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Karen DuCharme, Joe Wheeler, and Jack Noll, rear from left, enjoyed their beverages while seated outside the The Bulldog opposite Mears Park Tuesday afternoon.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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If the Twin Cities' entertainment districts had to file "What I Did for My Summer Vacation" reports, they could be pretty quickly summarized.

Minneapolis Warehouse District: "Dropped off the radar."

Uptown: "Sold out (again)."

Lowertown in St. Paul: "Became the coolest cat in town."

St. Paul's Little Hipster Hood That Could -- in the southeast corner of downtown, farthest away from the watchful glare of the Cathedral -- has been trying for years to put its historic buildings and plethora of street parking to good use. There were a couple of false starts. I wrote a story trumpeting its rebirth around the advent of the French Press Café and Black Dog Block Party in 2006, but those petered out.

This time, I really think the buzz is going to stick. There's a perfect storm of activity in Lowertown.

Condos are being sold (and not only in trendy new buildings that will look dated in five years). Two of Minneapolis' most bustling restaurants/bars opened equally hopping duplicates there, but in superior spaces (the Bulldog and Barrio). A new gay and lesbian club (Rumors & Innuendo) opened a couple of doors down from a longstanding hard-rock club (Station 4) without anybody getting hurt or crying foul. And Lowertown's oasis-like Mears Park now plays host to two of the metro area's best outdoor music festivals (June's Twin Cities Jazz Fest and last weekend's Concrete & Grass), plus many other fun events.

There's also a sunny forecast for other cool additions to the area, including: a light-rail stop at the old Union Station; a proposed minor-league ballpark down toward the river; a St. Paul offshoot of Minneapolis' best brewpub, Town Hall, and a yet-to-be-named music venue that hopes to rival the Dakota in class and comfort.

"It's quickly turning into a fun neighborhood to live in or hang out, in ways you don't see in Minneapolis except for a few small pockets," said Cities 97 rock jock Brian (BT) Turner, one of the partners in the proposed music room.

At the Concrete & Grass Festival last weekend -- near-perfect weather, perfect layout, perfect food, perfect, perfect, perfect! -- bassist Tony Zaccardi of the Americana rock band Romantica also raised the idea that Lowertown has ascended enough to finally give St. Paul nightlife bragging rights. Zaccardi lives in St. Paul but tends bar at Grumpy's in northeast Minneapolis. A lot of people think he's one of the coolest guys in town, too, whatever that's worth.

"Thanks for coming out and supporting live music, and for supporting this," he told the crowd, waving his hand around but struggling to define "this."

"The St. Paulness," Zaccardi concluded. "Minneapolis doesn't have 'this.' That's all I'm saying."

Northeast Minneapolis is probably the biggest rival to Lowertown at this point. And it's pretty terrific, too, with the way-old watering holes Nye's and Mayslack's rubbing elbows and beer lines with such hip new havens as the Red Stag Supper Club and Brasa. The second of three Bulldogs is there, too -- the one that put the pub chain on the map over its original Uptown site.

The opening of Lowertown's Bulldog last November was pretty clearly a turning point. For that reason -- OK, and maybe for its killer Belgian beer list, too -- the new Bulldog seemed like the perfect place to start asking around for pointers on how Lowertown finally got its "this."

"Lowertown is like its own little neighborhood," said Bulldog district manager Marc Dickhut, who meant "neighborhood" in the classic sense. "People really work together down here."

Both Dickhut and Barrio co-owner Josh Thoma credited the city for working closely with Lowertown businesses on things such as low-interest loans (which Barrio took) and city grants. I know as much about business as I do about "So You Think You Can Dance," but I do know financing is pretty much the linchpin for everything else in this day and age.

The Lowertown Entertainment District (LED) was created to promote the area and -- probably most important of all -- help plan and promote events, including the popular Music & Movies in Mears series that ran June through August. This weekend's big LED to-do was a pub crawl hosted by the Minnesota RollerGirls.

I don't want to overstate Lowertown's happeningness. Certain blocks still feel like a ghost town, in ways that Uptown or the Warehouse District never see -- especially on outlying streets where cool businesses such as Señor Wong's restaurant and the Hat Trick Lounge lie, clinging to Lowertown semi-desperately.

But Barrio and the Bulldog were packed enough for me to have accidentally touched about five other guys' butts after Concrete & Grass last weekend. I'm not sure if the guys who grazed my heinie at Rumors & Innuendo meant to or not, but it was crowded, too. Station 4 even had a decent audience for a battle of (unheard of) metal bands.

Any worries about things tapering off come winter are pretty well moot, too: The Minnesota Wild's regular season starts Oct. 6 up the hill at Xcel Center, promising thousands of Lowertown patrons before and after the games (via LED-run shuttle bus). If those games are anywhere near as dull as last year, I bet a lot of those ticketholders might even just stay in Lowertown. It's that cool of a place.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

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