There were times this past summer when it seemed like you might starve in downtown St. Paul, with headlines in the local paper trumpeting the closing of Fhima’s, Margaux and A Rebours.
All were relatively high-profile restaurants, and boarding them up contributed mightily to the impression that St. Paul is teetering on the edge of ghost-town-hood.
We’ve heard this before:
Q. Where in America has the McDonald’s on a town’s main street closed?
A. St. Paul. In 1988, a full-size street-level McDonald’s closed at Wabasha and Fifth Streets. Now, there are three mini-size skyway McDonald’s in the downtown core.
All this negativity did not sit well with many remaining restaurants or with city leaders. Especially city leaders. Joe Spencer, arts and culture aide to Mayor Chris Coleman, says that despite the dour headlines, good things are happening, dining-wise, in downtown. And just because three places with foreign-sounding names closed, it doesn’t mean we’re stuck with a choice between The Grill or Kincaid’s and Will’s Hot Dog stand.
Besides, food guru Andrew Zimmern notes in his food blog that the three restaurant closings were not related to problems in downtown St. Paul, but mostly food and service problems.
Still, Bill Morrissey, whose management company runs two successful downtown restaurants — The Grill in the St. Paul Hotel and Pazzaluna — says there needs to be more momentum in downtown St. Paul to keep attracting new restaurants and stores.
With the restaurant business so fragile — 75 percent fail, he said — we shouldn’t be surprised when there’s a spate of closings like we saw this summer.
“But we need to have an environment where new restaurants are willing to spring up. And right now, I’m not sure we have that,” Morrissey said. “If you had the opportunity to open a restaurant in downtown St. Paul or downtown Minneapolis, I think it’s an easy choice. And it’s not us.”
St. Paul needs to take some risks to become a destination for dining and retail, he said. “Right now, the momentum is away from St. Paul, to the Mall of America or Woodbury.”
City officials hope to regain some of that momentum with some positive restaurant news, such as these recent announcements:
· Key’s Restaurant in the Rossmor Building is expanding, so there will be even more room for those filling omelets and turkey dinners.
· Key’s also is providing food service till midnight at the neighboring Camp Bar, the new campy gay bar that replaced Trikkx.
· A Night’s Tale, a new restaurant opening in early December on Sixth Street, across from Mears Park, in the old corner grocery space. They’re putting in a brick oven, with frittatas reportedly on tap for Sunday brunch. They’ve also built a stage for entertainment.
· Meritage has opened in the A Rebours space in the Hamm Building. This wasn’t too suspenseful; the day after Doug Anderson closed A Rebours, new owner Russell Klein said he’d take the space.
· Spencer says to look for an announcement, relatively soon, about a new restaurant in the Fhima’s space on Wabasha. That’s a touchy one for the city, which provided much of the financing for Fhima’s and will try to get some of that back.
(As it stands, except for the Dunn Bros./Northwest Opticians on the corner, the whole length of Lawson Commons along Wabasha will be empty when Lee’s Books closes soon. That won’t look good for former Mayor, now Sen., Norm Coleman, when his Republican friends come to town next September. The Lawson project was one of his showcase deals. Hence, I’m betting that the space is filled and flourishing long before next fall.)
Also in the works, but outside of downtown:
· The folks who run Salut Bar Americain in Edina, will open a Salut St. Paul, in the old Sydney’s space on Grand Avenue.
· The owners of Minneapolis’ Town Talk Diner will open a fish and steak house, scandalously called The Strip Club, at Third and Maria in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
· The 128 Cafe, on Cleveland Avenue across from the University of St. Thomas, is scheduled to reopen soon and is taking reservations for “fall/winter.”
· The people who ran Sawatdee in St. Paul are reportedly coming back, into the Margaux space on Robert and Ninth. Another Thai returnee: Ruam Mit has reopened on St. Peter Street.