Suddenly, the 651 is hot.
An unprecedented number of restaurants have opened in St. Paul over the past six or so months.
Starting with the high-profile rebirth of a food-and-drink institution that’s practically synonymous with the city, the Lexington (1096 Grand Av., 651-289-4990, thelexmn.com). Co-owners Josh Thoma, Jack Riebel and Kevin Fitzgerald — all proud St. Paulites — have invested a pile of dough ($5 million-plus) to meticulously restore the venerable Grand Avenue grande dame to its country club-like luster, and then some. Riebel’s contemporary clubhouse fare suits the swank surroundings, and a rooftop bar is on the way.
A pair of chefs who last helmed major Uptown Minneapolis addresses teamed up, headed across the river and launched Pajarito (605 W. 7th St., 651-340-9545, pajaritostp.com). Tyge Nelson and Stephan Hesse bill their fun-loving restaurant a “refined Mexican bistro,” which suits their vivacious, exacting cooking (don’t miss the smelt tacos) and casual, loft-like setting, They were also smart enough to hire Kara Smith to run the bar. Weekend brunch is a treat.
Another Minneapolis pair of talents — Thomas Boemer and Nick Rancone of Revival — have similarly headed east, taking their talked-about fried chicken and fixins’ to a Cathedral Hill storefront (525 Selby Av., 651-340-2355, revivalfriedchicken.com). Because the space is roomier than the original-recipe Revival, Boemer has the opportunity to flirt with barbecue (hello, brisket and pork shoulder), and there’s space for a patio. No reservations, and, yes, it’s worth the wait.
The lights are back on at the former (and tiny) Ristorante Luci. The name on the door is now Bar Brigade (470 S. Cleveland Av., barbrigade.com), where owners and longtime pals J.D. Fratzke (the Strip Club, Saint Dinette) and Matty O’Reilly (Republic) have teamed up to offer French tavern fare (oysters, Dijon-braised rabbit, pretty salads, gorgeous local cheeses) and a fine neighborhood bar.
Not far away, the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. has converted its former Scusi into family-friendly Bottle Rocket (1806 St. Clair Av., 651-789-3333, bottlerocketmn.com), serving a long list of crowd-pleasing fare for the we-don’t-feel-like-cooking crowd, at lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
It’s lovely to see the charming and historic Paulina Building brimming with life, thanks to Cafe Astoria (180 Grand Av., 651-340-9471), where owners Leah Raymundo and John Occhiato (formerly of D’Amico Cucina, now at the Intercontinental St. Paul Riverfront Hotel) are boosting their basic coffeehouse menu with sweet and savory crêpes.
At J. Selby’s (169 N. Victoria St., 651-222-3263, jselbys.com), physician-turned-restaurateur Matt Clayton prefers the more universal “plant-based” to “vegan.” The menu focuses on familiar dishes — burgers, corn dogs, tacos, grain bowls and a long list of brunch favorites — all made minus dairy and meat products. Top price is $15, but the vast majority of the menu falls in the $10-and-under range. Plenty of kids’ choices, too.
More vegan is on the way at Eureka Compass Vegan Food (629 Aldine St.), where Colin Anderson is using a former neighborhood pizzeria as a platform to fashion an a.m. bakery counter (Anderson’s venture started with vegan croissants), a limited lunch menu and regularly scheduled, multicourse, family-style dinners. Anderson’s first two dinners are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday (tickets are $40 and available at eventbrite.com).
Innovative Tori Ramen (161 N. Victoria St., 651-340-4955, toriramen.com) approaches the classic Japanese staple in a novel manner: no pork. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy poultry, however (and lots of options for those following vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets), and the folks behind the counter — Asiya Persaud and Jason Dorweiler — clearly know what they’re doing. No wonder the place is perpetually packed.
On the subject of ramen, there’s Rah’MN (300 S. Snelling Av., rahmn.online), a potential chain-in-the-making that debuted in early April. It’s a design-your-own ramen shop — think Chipotle, only with broth and noodles — with an emphasis on speed and affordability. Next door, Mac’s Fish Chips & Strips (300 S. Snelling Av., 651-699-5441, macsfishchipsstrips.com) recently fired up the deep fryers at the company’s third Twin Cities outpost.
One of the city’s happiest success stories is the restaurant-fueled renaissance of the Payne Avenue commercial district. The latest entry? Neighborly Brunson’s Pub (956 Payne Av., 651-447-2483, brunsonspub.com), a remake of Schwietz’s, a longtime Payne Avenue gathering spot. “We looked at a lot of spaces, and this is the one that just spoke to us. It kind of picked us,” said co-owner Thomas LaFleche, who runs the place with his wife, Molly Murphy LaFleche. The couple have restored the 1930s-era bar, filled the tap list with local craft names and devised a something-for-everyone gastropub menu.
Finally, the Naughty Greek (181 N. Snelling Av., 651-219-4438, thenaughtygreek.com) is easily one of the more ingenious quick-service outfits in recent memory. The counter-service spot specializes in fresh, boldly seasoned cooking — pitas generously stuffed with juicy chicken, sizzling pork or delicious beef-lamb kebab; a vibrant tabbouleh salad that erases all thoughts of its tepid food court iterations; a garlicky eggplant spread that will send curious home cooks running back to their kitchens to formulate their own recipe; a divine filo-spinach-feta pie, and other street-food favorites, all at reasonable prices (a few cheap Greek wines and beers, too). Hope for a table (they’re scarce) or better yet, haul your meal back home for a Greek picnic.
Keep in mind
Gray Duck Tavern (345 N. Wabasha St., 651-340-9022) is set to open to the public on June 20. The restaurant, the work of the Madison Restaurant Group (Handsome Hog, Public Kitchen + Bar), is lighting up the long-boarded-up ground floor of the historic Lowry Hotel. Chef Donald Gonzalez, formerly of Forepaugh’s, is promising a menu of globally inspired comfort food.
An ambitious dining project is now under construction at the former Schmidt Brewery on W. Seventh St., a food hall that will include a St. Paul outpost of popular Hola Arepa, along with a major new restaurant from Corner Table and Revival co-owners Nick Rancone and Thomas Boemer.
Spyhouse Coffee Roasting Co. (spyhousecoffee.com) owner Christian Johnson is launching his first St. Paul outpost, “hopefully before it’s time to go back to school,” he said. The coffeehouse is going into the former home of Timelines Antiques at 420 S. Snelling Av.
And get ready to say goodbye to one of St. Paul’s top restaurants. After a 10-year run, the Strip Club Meat & Fish (378 Maria St., 651-793-6247, domeats.com) is calling it quits on July 1.