A planned Lowertown St. Paul building renovation has left two restaurants without a home, but one will find new life in Cathedral Hill.
The Park Square Court building on 6th St. E. across from Mears Park is converting into an apartment building, and construction would have shuttered two of chef Justin Sutherland’s restaurants, Handsome Hog and Public Kitchen + Bar, for up to 16 months, Sutherland said.
Instead, Sutherland is closing Public permanently, and moving the neighboring Handsome Hog to the home of another of his projects, deep-dish pizzeria the Fitz (173 Western Av. N., St. Paul).
The takeover of the Fitz was practical, Sutherland said. “It was just beginning when the COVID stuff happened, so it wasn’t a good time to go shopping for a new restaurant space.”
Handsome Hog’s original space, which hugged the corner of the building, wasn’t large enough to adapt to social distancing once the state allows dining rooms to reopen. The new space is far larger, giving Handsome Hog a chance to survive at reduced capacity.
In addition, a newly constructed patio will begin seating customers as soon as June 16, though the date is not firm yet.
The Southern-style restaurant’s decor will carry over, as will the menu, although Sutherland says he is going to “lighten it up a little bit,” to better match tastes in the new neighborhood. Still, a new smoker will allow him to smoke seven times the amount of brisket he could do in Lowertown. There will also be a few of those Fitz pizzas — the pizza oven is still there, after all — incorporating some of Handsome Hog’s signature items, such as a low-country boil and that brisket.
Sutherland says the Fitz could return in another time and place, but “I had to make the decision of preserving a brand, and Handsome Hog is a no-brainer.”
Another of Sutherland’s brands is also saying goodbye for now. The oyster-and-whiskey spot Pearl and the Thief, which first opened in Stillwater in 2018, closed months later to relocate to a new construction in Minneapolis. The project faced delays in 2019, and now, the plan has been put on hold indefinitely, Sutherland said.
“It is such an interactive concept, especially with the oyster bar — so much touching of things, and human contact,” he explained. “Focusing on an oyster bar didn’t seem like the best move right now.”
In brighter news, another restaurant in the group Sutherland manages is reopening for outdoor dining this weekend. Ox Cart Rooftop (255 6th St. E., St. Paul, 651-528-6171).
Sutherland stayed active during his restaurants’ closures due to COVID-19 by co-founding the North Stands, an organization supporting hospitality workers. Since George Floyd’s death in police custody, the North Stands’ mission has refocused to support businesses that are rebuilding from damage.
Sutherland has been providing free meals to clean-up crews, and has spoken at the Capitol.
“It’s important to be out there doing it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t there putting my money where my mouth is.”