Saying farewell to an icon in St. Paul

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2013 - 5:20 PM

The chandeliers are going dark at the River Room. Cue tears. And a reservation. Fast.

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Another busy lunch at the River Room, downtown St. Paul's oasis of gracious living. The restaurant will close Jan. 31, ending a run that reached back to 1947.

Photo: Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

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Macy's in downtown St. Paul is closing. "Wow, who saw that coming?" was a friend's sarcastic response.

My first thoughts didn't go to the viability of the department store industry, the sorry state of downtown St. Paul retailing or possible replacements for the mammoth store. No, my mind immediately went to the River Room.

Not only is this the kind of restaurant that doesn't generate a lot of Twitter chatter, or land a perennial berth on critics' top-whatever lists. Its existence is barely -- if ever -- acknowledged by the foodiscenti.

No matter. The well-run restaurant has long been a beloved fixture on the downtown St. Paul lunch scene, and it has served its host well, luring customers into the building far more effectively than the store's increasingly dreary merchandise as it transitioned from Dayton's to Marshall Field's to Macy's. Shoppers could be few and far between on the sales floors, but the River Room? A full house. 

When it comes to Macy's St. Paul store, it's tough to muster up the affection that more naturally bubbles up for its downtown Minneapolis counterpart. It probably didn't help that all those memory-forming traditions at the Store Formerly Known as Dayton's -- the festive Christmas extravaganzas, the annual flower displays, the fashion shows -- were staged in Minneapolis, not St. Paul.

Some of the store's shortcomings are surely architectural: Southdale designer Victor Gruen chose to blanket a city block with an introverted monolith that doesn't exactly shout "come inside." Not that it matters, as the store's utilitarian interior was no match for Dayton's grande dame flagship, 10 miles to the west. The one exception is the River Room.

A storied legacy

The restaurant is one of the city's oldest, with roots that reach back to 1947. It debuted inside Schuneman's, a Victorian-era department store that anchored the corner of 6th and Wabasha for more than 70 years. In 1959, Dayton's bought Schuneman's. Four years later, when the store moved across the street into its new building -- the present Macy's -- the River Room followed, where it has remained for the past half-century.

I have no memory of the River Room as it appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, but I'm told that it was cast in the mold of the standard-issue department store tea room. That changed in 1982, when, as part of a top-to-bottom renovation of the store, the River Room received a very elegant transformation.

Minneapolis interior designer Jean Holmlund crafted a dramatic ambience suitable for a Noël Coward romp at the Guthrie Theater.

Gigantic Waterford crystal chandeliers, rescued from storage after being retired from their original home in the Minneapolis store's Sky Room restaurant, were trimmed in shirred shades of soft pink, and they glowed gently against a backdrop of rose-tinted mirrors and sleek black lacquered woodwork. Chairs and banquettes were covered in sumptuous gray velvet, and the two-level dining room seemed to suggest a 1930s nightclub. 

It was all so unexpectedly swank, as if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might appear at any minute, swing-timing in from Ladies Better Sportswear, for a chicken pot pie.

When I worked a few blocks away in the mid-1990s, the River Room quickly became a regularly scheduled stop on my noon-hour itinerary, never failing to transform a meatloaf lunch into a glamorous experience.

A 2002 remodeling was a good news/bad news development. True, years of deferred maintenance were wiped clean, but a generic new color palette dulled the once-distinctive space.

But beneath the surface, the restaurant remains the warm, inviting throwback it has always been, its essence intact: the solicitous service, the white tablecloths, the flattering lighting, the hushed conversation and the reasonably priced, carefully rendered comfort food.

As he does at other Macy's restaurants, corporate chef Tim Scott manages to keep the River Room from becoming a period piece by supplying a small but constant flow of seasonal, trend-aware dishes.

Almond-crusted walleye, quiche and chicken Caesar salads appear alongside shrimp sautéed with edamame, pasta stuffed with squash and Gorgonzola and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, braised short ribs with thyme-scented gravy and a clever Key lime custard topped with a swirl of toasted meringue. It's not four-star dining, but it's not trying to be, either.

Yes, the popovers

Any discussion of the River Room would be incomplete without mentioning its popovers, those eggy, pull-apart salutations that never fail to impress and delight. Deeply ingrained into the restaurant's DNA, they're the bread basket equivalent of Christmas morning: always anticipated and rarely disappointing.

I've always admired the restaurant's long-standing commitment to popovers, because it can't be easy -- or, for that matter, inexpensive -- to manage their finicky production. A longtime River Room official once told me, half-kiddingly, that his one professional regret was introducing the popover to the family of Dayton's restaurants. 

He was Bob Johnston, aka "Mr. J.," a River Room fixture for 26 years, until his retirement in 1997. That's the thing about the River Room: Employees tend to stay, forging deep bonds with their customers.

Several current staffers are 20-plus-year veterans, but no one has ever come close to the record of the restaurant's longtime hostess, the late Lydia Lunney. A paragon of Midwestern graciousness, Lunney started working at Schuneman's mezzanine-level tea room in the 1930s, and went on to spend the bulk of her career at the River Room, a smile at the door until a few days before her death in 2008 at age 93.

Back to the popovers. I have several people in my acquaintance who consider a River Room repast of chicken-wild rice soup, a popover and an iced tea to be a pinnacle downtown dining experience. I can't argue with that.

I would also venture that, without such a memorable signature item, the River Room might not have cultivated the deeply loyal clientele that it enjoys, particularly as the store has lurched through several name and ownership changes and survived the neighborhood's decades-long downward spiral into shopping oblivion. Who knows? Maybe it was the lure of popovers that actually kept the store running all these years.

Depending on the pace of the going-out-of-business sale, the store could remain open into March, but Macy's is pulling the plug on the River Room on Jan. 31. For the first time in perhaps a century, downtown St. Paul will be without a department store restaurant.

A word to the wise: If you're planning a visit, make a reservation. At lunch last week, I walked into an hour-plus wait. Not that I minded, because the River Room and I had a long and lovely farewell.

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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