When the long-time Minneapolis bar Psycho Suzi’s closed last month, it marked an end to the blissfully underwhelming tiki bar revival trend. After two decades in business, the cheese-curd-and-kitch fueled joint was shutting down. Under the radar for most mourners, the closure meant the disappearance of a great Minneapolis waterfront patio. Psycho Suzi’s had, by far, the best riverside dining in the city, offering patrons a chance to eat and drink with the Mississippi River flowing by just feet away.
It’s a weird paradox that the Twin Cities, famous for their lakes and rivers, have such a dismal track record of waterfront patios. The exceptions prove the rule, but in St. Paul, change might be coming to one of the most promising spots in city history: the Lake Como pavilion.
‘Timeless,’ charming and challenged
St. Paul’s Como Pavilion appears timeless, but it’s really not. If you asked most people the age of the Como Pavilion, only real insiders would know the truth. The building and everything you see dates only to 1992, when an exact replica of the previous, derelict building was built.
“A lot has changed since 1992 about how we use public buildings,” City Council President Amy Brendmoen told me, when referencing Como Pavillion.
She should know. Brendmoen has lived a few blocks from Lake Como for decades, representing the area all through her tenure on the City Council. She regularly has a “walk the lake” event where constituents can do a 0.75-mile lap to chat about neighborhood issues. As a result, figuring out how to make the Como Pavilion into a more successful public space has long been one of Brendoen’s priorities.
From Brendmoen’s perspective, the 1992 remodel was a mixed blessing. While the 1992 builders did preserve a community treasure, saving the idea of the structure, they replicated everything that makes the Como Pavilion so frustrating.
“The main prep kitchen is in the basement, so it makes it difficult to run an efficient restaurant and catering company,” Brendmoen explained. “The bathrooms are on the basement and the second floor, [which has] an echoey dark mezzanine. The building’s main interior of the restaurant is hermetically sealed, with no views of the lake.”
Any visit to the pavilion will quickly reveal that the building seems so old because it’s woefully inadequate to its current job. It has all the design flaws of a 19th-century infrastructure (see also ADA-nightmare Carnegie libraries). As someone who has changed a toddler diaper there, the second-story bathrooms are not ideal, reinforcing the uncanny awkwardness of the design.
At the same time, there’s an appeal to the quasi-historic, lackadaisical vibe of the place. Granted it’s a St. Paul kind of neglected charm: that feeling when you’re not sure if a place is open or not.
When I used to jog around the lake, living in the North End, I savored the experience of the sound from the bandstand bouncing across the water. It grew louder as I drew closer to the pavilion, at which point I ran right through the open-air pavilion. Afterward, the music slowly faded away. To this day, the seemingly random community music programming, highlighted by the volunteer community bands playing rousing marches, is the best, timeless thing about the place.
The view from the benches and tables
On the other hand, spend time at the Como Pavilion and problems are obvious. People who go for an informal visit — to enjoy a picnic or a beer or meet up with friends — want to look out at the lake, the natural and worthy focal point of the entire park. Yet to do so is invariably awkward and, at worst, impossible. I’ve spent hours watching park staff carefully arrange all the benches and tables inside the pavillion and skew people away from the desired view.
Enter the new design renderings. The biggest leap forward of a new Como Pavilion would be a closer connection to the lake itself, the actual water, wildlife, shoreline and lakefront vibe. The designs, especially those that include a staircase between the pavilion and the lakeshore, offer to bring patrons closer to the water itself.
At the same time, the proposed designs aren’t laser-focused on the water. Rather, the biggest change moves and shrinks the existing large stage.It would shift to the north side of the building, transforming its footprint improve the (underused) restaurant. Instead, there would be glass walls, and the perimeter of the existing pavilion would be reserved for a public promenade.
There are a few other tweaks, including a walk-up window coffee shop. I venture to say that the endeavor might pay off rather quickly. If there were an arrangement where passersby could grab a beer or a sandwich, sit down and eat it while staring at Lake Como itself, the Pavillion would instantly vault to the top of a short list of Twin Cities’ locations for quality waterfronts.
Lots of room for improvement
Como Park goes far back in St. Paul lore. The land for the park, the city’s grandest public space, dates to the 1870s when legendary park planner Horace Cleveland convinced St. Paul politicians (and the state Legislature) to preserve a vast swath on the edge of town. What was then called Sandy Lake had been used as a distant suburban health resort and getaway. As the city boomed, the new park quickly became a regional draw and bourgeois escape for citizens of the booming St. Paul.
Fast forward 150 years, and Como Pavilion is still thriving, especially the zoo, sports fields and recreational uses of the land. On the other hand, the pavilion itself is less of an everyday attraction. The clear contrast is with Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park, the most popular park destination in the Twin Cities, where the waterfall has drawn tourists since the mid-19th century. The Sea Salt Eatery and Minnehaha Falls, in general, serve as a consistent draw for the public, who flocking from miles around. Meanwhile, at Como Pavilion on a summer evening on the lake, there’s never a line for the $9 pints of beer or the average food.
There’s lots of room for improvement on Lake Como. If a redesign pushes the Como Pavilion into the 21st century, I’d suggest getting as close as possible to the lake itself. For proof of what’s possible, look no farther than the city’s other more successful public/private park venture: City House along the Mississippi River, near the upper landing. That’s the best spot in the metro for riverfront dining, and the vitality and vibes are excellent most nights of the week.
This is St. Paul, so any change is going to be met with exasperated kvetching about how things used to be. But given how empty the space is every day, even during the summer, I think the door should be wide open for alternatives. If done right, I’ll forget all about Psycho Suzi’s and stick to St. Paul for my waterfront snacks. Given how often I visit Como Park, I can’t wait.