East Meets West: Minneapolis restauranteurs are crossing the river to join in St. Paul’s restaurant resurgence

Tim McKee is the driving force behind Market House Collaborative in Lowertown St. Paul // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Tim McKee is the driving force behind Market House Collaborative in Lowertown St. Paul // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The Twin Cities are born of the same mother and, like most siblings, took very different paths in life. The two cities have taken such different trajectories in the last century and a half that it seems the only thing they have in common now is the river. St. Paul, the firstborn, has long been outshone in terms of cultural and economic impact, and has more often than not had to play catch up to trends set by the younger sibling. Minneapolis is flashier and has a larger presence than St. Paul, enabling it to claim the lion’s share of the credit for what both cities contribute to the national conversation.

But rumblings of critical mass and burgeoning scenes are now leading several prominent Minneapolis chefs over to the east of the Mississippi.

Sam Peterson, who runs Kyatchi in South Minneapolis, is one of them. Kyatchi’s chef, Hide Tozawa, received a letter from Tanpopo’s co-owner Koshiki Yonemura earlier this year, asking if Kyatchi would be interested in making an offer for the Lowertown noodle shop. Yonemura and her husband Benjamin Smith had ran Tanpopo six days a week for 17 years, and wanted to spend more time with their growing family. For Peterson, it was an offer he could not refuse.

“We’ve always been interested in expansion,” Peterson said, “and we were real happy to be able to slide in and have Koshiki’s blessing. It just felt like a perfect fit for our concept.”

Kyatchi Minneapolis routinely seats diners driving in from Woodbury, Inver Grove Heights, and Edina, and often has to turn away big tables due to lack of space. The Lowertown location has more dining space than the Minneapolis spot and includes a semi-private table that can seat up to 16. Kyatchi will now operate among other high-profile restaurants that have made Lowertown a popular dining district. He’ll also benefit from Tanpopo’s loyal crowd and Lowertown’s increasing residential foot traffic.

(L to R) St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Lenny Russo, Tim McKee // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

What really has Peterson excited, however, is the feeling that people in the Twin Cities are looking for the next big thing, and that thing is in St. Paul. The momentum in Lowertown is hitting an all-time high with the opening of the Tim McKee–driven Market House Collaborative this October in the former Heartland space. The Collaborative is the St. Paul equivalent to Minneapolis’ Food Building, with a collection of food businesses collaborating under one roof: Octo Fishbar, a casual seafood eatery; The Salty Tart bakery; Peterson Craftsman Meats butcher shop; and the Almanac Fish Market.

“I grew up in St. Paul. I’ve always had a special affinity for St. Paul,” McKee said at a press briefing in June. “I’ve been watching the market for a long time, and it’s so full of energy right now, it’s amazing and great to see.”

The influx of Minneapolis-based concepts into Lowertown, like Kyatchi and Market House Collaborative, are just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of St. Paul seems poised for a similar upsurge.

“I prefer emerging neighborhoods and/or pocket neighborhoods,” says Matty O’Reilly, the Republic restaurateur who launched a major recent St. Paul expansion with Red River Kitchen, Bar Brigade, and Delicata. “I love to do my best to really differentiate my concepts drastically based on what already exists.”

Matty O'Reilly, of Republic in Minneapolis, has gone all in on St. Paul, opening Red River Kitchen at City House, Delicata, and Bar Brigade in the past year // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Matty O’Reilly, of Republic in Minneapolis, has gone all in on St. Paul, opening Red River Kitchen at City House, Delicata, and Bar Brigade in the past year and a half // Photo by Aaron Davidson

O’Reilly has found prime facilities for relatively little money in the capital city, in neighborhoods that haven’t seen much restaurant turnover in the last two decades. He points to St. Paul’s efforts to make liquor licenses more available as another factor appealing to new restaurant owners hoping to become a neighborhood fixture. “I picked cities because of facilities, to get ahead of certain concepts, and get a little ahead of the curve, so I am prepared to continue to evolve,” he says.

Restaurateurs are finding these preferential pockets all over the city. “I don’t think it’s all about Lowertown,” said Nick Carmichael, a St. Paul-based commercial real estate broker, citing less room for new development in Lowertown, and noting several other growing neighborhoods. The area around Rice Park, just southwest of Lowertown, has several big new developments, including the new Minnesota Wild training facility and the newly renovated Palace Theater, which have has a great impact on nearby restaurants like the Amsterdam, Vieux Carré, Wild Tymes, and the Afro Deli.

The area around Selby and Western, near W.A. Frost, has lower leases than Lowertown and prime demographics that can attract trailblazing chefs. Last winter, the area welcomed Nick Rancone and Thomas Boemer’s second Revival restaurant, located in the former Cheeky Monkey Deli space. Like at Kyatchi, Rancone and Boemer found in their St. Paul location not only more room to seat diners, but they also gained the ability to expand their menu beyond the fried chicken that made them a Minneapolis sensation. At Revival St. Paul, Boemer is using a top-of-the-line smoker to cook up some stand-out barbecue, from brisket and pork shoulder to hot links and ribs. The new Revival also benefitted from St. Paul’s updated liquor license rules, which allows the location to offer a full cocktail menu.

Cocktail are available at Revival's St. Paul location thanks to the city's favorable liquor license rules for restaurants // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Cocktail are available at Revival’s St. Paul location thanks to the city’s favorable liquor license rules for restaurants // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Recent purchases by commercial developer Excelsior Group in the Selby neighborhood—the same developer responsible for the new North Loop luxury apartment complex with a Whole Foods on the ground floors—hold promise for more to come. And Frogtown all the way to Midway is primed for new restaurants, with the new soccer stadium going in at Snelling and University and mixed-use developments popping up all the way down through to Hamline Avenue on the south end.

Along West 7th Street, a similar transformation is happening. Well-known Uptown chefs Tyge Nelson and Stephan Hesse breathed new life into the former Glockenspiel space last December with Pajarito. Construction at the historic Schmidt Brewery is transforming the long-defunct keg house into Keg & Case Market anchored by a new restaurant concept by Rancone and Boemer.

This flurry of activity has been a long time coming, and required the work of enterprising chefs who were willing to open the door for others to come in after them, and really break open the St. Paul food scene.

Brasa’s original Minneapolis location makes use of its cozy dining room and small, efficient kitchen space

“It usually takes a brave chef to start things going, then the rest can follow,” says Alex Roberts, chef and owner at Alma and Brasa.

Opening a second Brasa location on Grand Avenue in 2009 may seem like less of a risk than  compared to Roberts opening his first location in the once-seedy area of Northeast Minneapolis. But it was nonetheless challenging, and proved a case study in the differences between the food cultures of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Brasa on Grand was busy at first. People came and checked the new place out, were friendly and encouraging, and Roberts felt good. But the crowds thinned, and Roberts started feeling the pressure as year two rolled around with little uptick in the business. Complaints about the kid’s menu, which was just a version of the adult menu and lacked chicken fingers, fries, and fountain sodas, pointed toward what could have been a fundamental flaw in bringing a concept over the river. At his wit’s end, Roberts reached out to a friend.

Brasa’s St. Paul location offers a large dining room and kitchen that allowed Alex Roberts the option of catering events // Photos by Dan Murphy

“I called up Larry D’Amico, from D’Amico & Sons, and asked him if he had any observations on St. Paul,” Roberts recalled. “He said that the first year was slower than expected, and then things just took off. We ended up having that same experience. I learned that people here are very loyal to their favorite spots. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing a good job, we just needed to wait until we became people’s regular place.”

Once Brasa’s St. Paul credentials were established, the restaurant discovered the tight-knit, loyal, and incredibly diverse crowds that make up the St. Paul neighborhood.

“On Grand we get everyone—young and old; white collar and working class; black, white, and Latino; and new immigrants,” Roberts said. “I love the loyalty of St. Paul and I’m proud that we’ve made Brasa and Grand Avenue a place where so many in the community feel comfortable to come and eat.”

Attitudes toward dining out have changed nationally: more people are going out to eat, and looking to try new flavors and concepts. These trends, and the waves of development and gentrification that run parallel to them, are now flowing into areas of St. Paul. But incoming restaurateurs should understand that Minneapolis and St. Paul are fraternal twins, each with its own identity.