Keeping up with Jon Oulman

The man behind the eponymous salon, 331 Club, Amsterdam Bar and Hall, Como Dockside, and soon-to-be Sheridan Room opens up about his journey from meat cutter to restaurateur

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Photos by Aaron Davidson

It’s 10am on a sunny Tuesday in early June and Como Dockside Lakeside Pavilion is already buzzing. Even though Dockside’s full menu doesn’t begin until 11am, a stream of walkers, workers, picnickers, and neighbors flows in and out of the restaurant. Friends chat over lattes and fruit cups. Construction workers post up with beers and bloodys. It’s an oasis of calm in the middle of Minnesota’s capital city.

It’s been years since this Como Lake space has seen this much action, aside from a wedding or banquet. The former restaurant-in-residence, Black Bear Crossings on the Lake, served cold cut sandwiches and just-fine cups of coffee. Como Dockside, on the other hand, offers New Orleans-style cuisine, early morning treats, a full alcohol and coffee menu, and stays open until midnight every day of the year except Sundays, when doors close at 10pm.

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Como Dockside // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Natural light streams through towering squared windowpanes, illuminating the otherwise dark space—deep-brown wood, slate-gray floors, black walls. A full bar glimmers as the restaurant’s centerpiece. Chalkboards list drink options. There’s a timeless chic and comfortable closeness here; it’s the kind of place a person comes for a late breakfast then unintentionally stays for lunch, cocktails, dinner, and a nightcap. It’s a Cinderella-type transformation brought about by the fairy godfather of faltering Twin Cities properties: Jon Oulman.

Oulman steps out from behind the barista counter holding a white saucer and coffee cup. Tall and thin, with wispy silver hair that’s been pushed backed and smoothed down, he reaches out to shake my hand. No sooner had we exchanged hellos than his phone rang. He excuses himself, answers the call.

The call is short and soon Oulman beckons me over to a two-top. We sit down and almost instantly a plate of warm, powdered sugar–coated beignets appears before us. Oulman hands me a napkin, fork, and knife, then cuts into one of the doughy triangles.

“That was about my boat,” he says, nodding to his iPhone. “She’s taking on water.” He makes a sad face—twice—and throws in a little whimper for good measure. He pulls up a photo of the antique Chris Craft he had just put in the water that weekend and points to the bow. “That’s where the water is coming in. The worst possible place.” He sighs.

For the many projects Oulman is currently captaining, it’s surprising to hear he’s had time to even think about his boat. As owner of 331 Club in Northeast Minneapolis, Amsterdam Bar and Hall in downtown St. Paul, Como Dockside Lakeside Pavilion, and his newest acquisition, the Modern Café in Northeast Minneapolis, he more than has his hands full.

And those are just a few of his projects. Oulman also cuts hair 10 hours a week at his St. Paul salon, tends to his enormous fruit and vegetable garden, supports the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and hosts a steady stream of events at his home in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. In the previous weekend alone, he’d hosted a 125-person memorial service, a 50-person fundraiser, and his nephew’s wedding, with more than 130 guests.

But what would feel like overwhelming chaos to most people seems to infuse Oulman with vitality. Company, music, food, activity: this is where he thrives. “I come [to work] to relax,” he says, taking another bite of beignet. “So, what do you want to talk about?”

Next page: Meat cutter to restaurateur

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she’s not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she’s on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.