The secrets of a mid-sized city don’t usually excite anyone but the locals. The number of locals is growing in St. Paul, however, as is the number of visitors. When talking about what makes a city great, as we did in St. Paul, a city of the future, it’s easy to forget the small pockets of culture lost in the shuffle of progress.
Here’s a quick look at local spots that should have a line out the door all the time, but don’t (yet) have the hype.
Sunrise Creative Gourmet: Still relatively new to Grand Avenue (in a district where local, family-owned businesses are an increasingly rare commodity), this restaurant/deli sells pizza by the slice, fluffy quiche, hearty, jam-packed sandwiches, homemade pastries and baked goods, and a decent selection of beer and wine. There is a small market in the back as well that offers a selection of authentic Italian pastas, sauces, cheeses and more, and a few local goods as well.
Tavial Grill: The warranted 4.5-star rating on Yelp is a good start, but doesn’t really tell how great this Mexican joint located in the former Falafel King on West 7th is. Excellent tacos (with carnitas, pastor, chicken, lengua, you name it, they got it), burritos, enchiladas, alambre, and some random Philly cheese steaks and french fries thrown in for good(?) measure. Stick with the Mexican cuisine and this family-owned restaurant will make you feel as though you’re dining south of the border.
Little Szechuan: Hot-pot style (fondue for Westerners) Chinese restaurant. It’s the only restaurant of its type in the city, and we’re all the better for it. A massive menu of DIY produce and protein to cook in a broth of your choosing, along with grilled skewers and enormous cans of Sapporo in the heart of Little Mekong, makes one of the best, and enjoyable, dinners in St. Paul.
Babani’s: Less of a secret since announcing a second location opening on St. Paul’s West Side, Kurdish restaurant Babani’s has for years been one of the best-kept secrets in the city. It’s literally hidden, as it’s hard to get to unless you’re on foot, but, as we mentioned, a forthcoming second location should help with that. All the flavors of the Middle East, tender chicken and basmati rice, lemony dowjic soup, lentils, tabouli, and so much more, burst forth from the kitchen here. Pro tip: They’re BYOB to make up for a lack of alcoholic beverages on site.
Joan’s in the Park: Well-known to those who love it (who may want to keep the tiny restaurant hush-hush), Joan’s is consistently one of the best places for a white-tablecloth dinner. The menu, focusing on new and classic American dishes from a classic tenderloin to lobster potato salad, shifts seasonally and is executed with the TLC and attention to flavor you forget matters in an ever-changing, trend-focused dining scene.
Secrets of the skyway
The downtown St. Paul skyway system, five miles of continuous, connected walkways, can feel like a labyrinth. During the daytime, it’s like a city in and of itself. Follow the map to discover the secrets of the skyways for yourself.
Pino’s Pizzeria: This might be the best by-the-slice, floppy, greasy, New York-style pizza in the Twin Cities, found in the Alliance Bank Center food court. Pro tip: Always ask what’s coming out fresh, and make sure to get there before they close at 2pm.
La Loma Tamales: Authentic tamales always cooked hot and fresh that will practically melt in your mouth are served during the lunch rush in this small counter located next to the DoubleTree Hotel in Town Square.
Revival Wine Beer & Spirits: Not to be confused with the fried chicken joint (also coming soon to St. Paul), this awesome little liquor store with a focus on creative and hard-to-find wines also hosts monthly tastings. Located upstairs from the Minnesota Museum of American Art in the Pioneer-Endicott Building.
Lowertown Bike Shop: The move from a small space in the (no longer) Jax Building into the Union Depot gave this volunteer-run bike shop a little more visibility, but it’s still warrants a place among St. Paul’s best-kept secrets. It’s one of the best places to find new and used bikes, accessories, and more, and all with top-notch service (hard to find any place as passionate about biking and bike culture) to assist you.
Leather Works Minnesota: The goods from this Minnesota leather dry goods producer can be be found at stores all across the state, from Minneapolis to Mall of America, but their anchor store is in Lowertown, tucked behind the Black Dog Coffee & Wine Bar in the Northern Warehouse. The smell of fresh leather when you walk in is worth the trip alone.
Mastel’s Health Foods: This unassuming store was one of the first to offer Minnesota the best in health and wellness. All of your vitamin, mineral, supplement, and herbal needs will be taken care of. Mastel’s also offers cosmetics and a limited selection of groceries, and their incredibly knowledgeable staff can answer any questions you might have about products/remedies/secrets you’ve heard about from other stores, friends, or the internet.
Mischief Toy Store: We couldn’t help but be excited when Mischief opened its doors earlier this year. The not-just-for-little-kids toy store on Grand Avenue reminds us that we can be young at any age. Stocked full of comics, games, books, toys, candies and treats from local and away (far, far away), and plenty of other knick-knacks and tricks, make sure to stop by when you have plenty of time to spend as you’re sure to stay occupied for hours.
Gallery of Wood Art: The American Association of Woodturners put their best on display in this small museum located on the second floor of the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. It’s both a learning experience (you can test yourself on the smells of different kinds of wood) and art gallery (there are some truly incredible pieces you won’t believe are carved out of wood), open 11-4pm Tuesday through Friday, and 12-3pm on Sunday.
Schubert Club Museum: Right next door to the Gallery of Wood Art (you won’t see one without seeing the other), the Schubert Club’s museum “offers visitors a reflection on the joys of music-making through the centuries.” View everything from centuries-old keyboard instruments (some of which you can play yourself), historical sheet music, and exhibits on the greats. The museum is open 12-4pm every day except Saturday.
Jackson Street Roundhouse: Built in 1907 as one of James J. Hill’s steam engine maintenance facilities, the Roundhouse (just north of downtown) is now a testament to Minnesota’s history of transportation. Trains are the focus, but they’re not alone; the restoration shop and blacksmith shop are also housed onsite, and there are vintage buses available for viewing outside as well. It’s one of those rare museums that’s fun both for children and adults, making it a perfect trip for the whole family.
The Covington Inn: Staying in a boat docked at Harriet Island means you can enjoy to the sound of calm waves lapping outside your window as the water rocks you to sleep. Then, you’ll wake up to breakfast on the deck with the downtown St. Paul skyline towering above you and the river flowing past for a perfect mix of urban and natural beauty. It’s truly a special place to stay. It’s best if you hurry, the Covington is for sale and who knows what the new owners might do to it.
Hotel 340: In the heart of downtown, boutique Hotel 340 operates in one of St. Paul’s most ornate historic buildings. Located at the top of a restored men’s club (the St. Paul Athletic Club also makes use of the building, on the floors downstairs from the hotel) there are secrets of past exploits and St. Paul history around every corner. Best part, you can stay in a historic St. Paul high rise for half of the price of the St. Paul Hotel.
Como Lake B&B: If quiet and quaint are your thing, you can’t do better than this restored Craftsman-style home overlooking Lake Como. Service is impeccable, as is the home itself, and you’ll be rested and restored after breakfast to stroll around the lake and pavilion (home to Como Dockside restaurant, a perfect lunch, dinner, or happy hour spot), Como Zoo and Conservatory, amusement park, and other nearby attractions.