There’s no great reason why half the metro’s best patios lie on three blocks of the same street in St. Paul. In an undeniable coalescence of fate and happenstance, the great Selby Avenue “patio district” offers one of the most delicious and (half the year anyway) deeply pleasant accumulations you’ll find in the Twin Cities. Seven great patios sit in a quarter-mile stretch of one small street.
Along Selby, beginning west of Boyd Park: an intimate, elegant patio is tucked behind Moscow on the Hill; across the street, a lush multi-level patio lays behind W.A. Frost (in my opinion, the crown jewel of the bunch); a pair of “newcomer” patios sit kitty-corner to each other at Handsome Hog and Red Cow, each with views of the sidewalk; a block west, the intimate patio at La Grolla is almost hidden between two historic buildings; a few doors farther down, the The Gnome patio sprawls around its historic restaurant; and finally, a gem of a patio sits behind Revival just past Mackubin Street.
I would put any one of them up against your favorite Twin Cities outdoor spot. But once you realize how many patios can be found in one specific area, in a metro where there’s such an overall dearth of patio quality, it begs the question: Why Selby? Why does Cathedral Hill have a monopoly on perfect places to enjoy sunshine and hors d’oeurves?
I’ve researched the matter closely, mostly during happy hour, and come up with four reasons why three blocks of Selby Avenue are fertile ground for patio perfection.
#1. Patio peer pressure
Scholars have been writing forever about urban agglomeration — the tendency of like things to concentrate in the same area. There are economic reasons around competition and customer habit that explain why businesses tend to concentrate in certain spots. It’s why craft breweries or auto body shops or chain pharmacies are often nextdoor to each other rather than being spread out through the city.
It’s possible that the Selby “Patio District” is a simple economic tendency, but if so, it’s not in the classic “diamond district” agglomeration sense. Patios aren’t a scarce resource or specialty good that attract people from all over the metro. In this case, I think something else is going on: patio peer pressure.
If a competitor restaurant has a great patio and you have nothing, well, it’s awfully tempting to invest money in one of your own. Keeping up with the outdoor dining joneses means that Cathedral Hill restaurants without a patio are at a steep disadvantage. It’s probably why relative newcomers to the street, like Red Cow and Handsome Hog, have invested so much in their new Selby patios. That’s one psychological factor.
#2. Older buildings (and trees)
Another key dynamic is likely the age of the neighborhood. With a few exceptions (the Handsome Hog and Red Cow buildings both date to the 1960s), the Selby patios surround century-old buildings. The oldest is the Gnome (formerly Happy Gnome, formerly Chang O’Haras) which was originally a fire station, and dates to 1882. Likewise, the magnificent W.A. Frost building, called the Dacotah, is from 1889.
Old buildings are great for patios because they were designed in ways that make them more worthy of scrutiny. They’re full of intimate details like cornices and pediments and elaborate windows. Personally, I can stare at a brick wall for a half hour without getting bored, but when you’re looking the delicate roof of the Dacotah building from a patio illuminated by bistro lights, it’s much nicer to be outside.
With old buildings comes a firmly rooted tree canopy. At least half the Selby patios — W.A. Frost, Revival, The Gnome — have beautiful trunks sprouting up among the tables, which make the experience literally tactile and alive. Not only might you get a closeup of a migrating warbler, but nature designed the perfect seasonal umbrella. Trees allow sunshine in May, but burst with welcome shade for the peak of the summer.
#3. Slow streets
There’s a reason there aren’t any sidewalk cafés on traffic-choked Snelling Avenue. Being anywhere near speeding cars is viscerally unpleasant, which is another factor in favor of Selby. Because it was never part of the county or state road systems, Selby Avenue was never widened during the mid 20th century. Instead, it remains a narrow right-of-way, with slower speeds than the city’s other commercial streets.
Those slower speeds on Selby Avenue might not seem like much — and for most drivers it makes no impact on their trip — but it creates a big difference for road noise and general comfort levels. Along with Nicollet and Payne avenues, Selby has long been one of the most walkable commercial streets in the metro area, with dimensions and sidewalk widths that keep traffic calmer than other former streetcar routes.
#4. No alleys
Finally, there is one of Selby’s strange oddities. For some odd historical reason, the north side of the Avenue lacks an alley. A patio like the one behind Moscow on the Hill does not have to compete with dumpsters or driving neighbors for space. Without automobile access, the patio can go right up to the lot line or the adjacent building. You’ll find an example of each at the patios at Revival and Moscow on the Hill.
On the other side of the street, patio designers have had to be more creative. Unfortunately for the built environment, a lot of Selby Avenue space has been cleared for car parking, and what was once a continuous streetscape down the street features a lot more negative space.
(The latest such demolition is the privately fenced parking lot dedicated to the Handsome Hog, formerly home to the Rondo neighborhood Urban League headquarters.)
The silver lining of parking asphalt is that it opens up patio space, which in Selby Avenue style are often partially enclosed by wooden fences. The vast patio surrounding the Gnome Pub, for example, occupies a good chunk of the paved expanse between the old fire station and the legendary St. Paul Curling Club. At least in the warmer months, swapping out parking for outdoor tables is a good trade for a restaurant’s bottom line.
In the end, though, it’s a mix of things, from historical accident to competitive urges, that makes the Selby Patio District unparalleled in the seven-county metro. It wasn’t always this way. A patio penchant is a product of the last 50 years or so; WA Frost opened their “new European style patio” in 1977. Since then, dining outside has become a more normal part of Twin Cities culture.
So get out there and savor these patios while ye may. I hate to remind you, but winter is coming.