The Strip Club Meat & Fish Photos by Daniel Murphy
Lowertown Photos by Brian Kaufenberg
Everything about the space at 261 East Fifth Street in Lowertown St. Paul feels optimistic. The white walls ascend to high ceilings supported by three palatial columns—stoic symbols looking disused, aching for new life. Tall windows look across Wall Street onto the sloped shelters of the St. Paul Farmers Market, the light rail terminus, and beyond.
— NIVER (@tniver) December 3, 2014
“You walk in and it’s very bright,” says J.D. Fratzke, “I don’t think people equate Lowertown with being bright and open. They think it’s just warehouses, brick sidewalks and alleys.”
Outside that space in front of the Rayette Lofts, one can look past Heartland Restaurant, through the concrete skeleton of a nascent ballpark concourse and up onto Dayton’s Bluff. Somewhere up there, to the right of the monolithic Metropolitan State buildings, one can just pretend to make out the squat black and red building that houses Strip Club Meat & Fish. One could also imagine Chef Fratzke and Tim Niver gazing back in turn, surveying the whole of Lowertown and planning their next move.
“I feel like the crescendo has started for St. Paul,” says Niver. “It’s just people trying to do things differently, nicer. You look at Payne Avenue now, the university dollars right next to us, the Mississippi Market right here, the ballpark dollars, Lenny [Russo of Heartland] getting in early, Meritage, high quality lodging, buildings being invested in, Union Station—all the obvious stuff, the pre-business push. But it hasn’t happened yet—it’s still the speculative what could be St. Paul.”
Niver and Fratzke will help define what exactly that could be when they open Saint Dinette in the Rayette Lofts sometime in February. They’ve used various terms to describe its potential look and feel from “upscale flannel” to “blue-collar charm.” “That’s Saint Dinette,” Niver explains. “Urban but old school, the hard-working man, 1920s to 1950s, the I’m building America brand. But there’s a little European design in it. I think everything old school is European in a way.”
The concept will be French-influenced with a touch more feminine soul. But it’s sure to feature the hospitality and good-time vibe that’s garnered Strip Club its acclaim. It will be an extension of their past work as much as it will be an evolution.
For the last seven years, Strip Club has been very much its own animal—unburdened by notions of what the neighborhood needed a restaurant to be. “I’m not sure this neighborhood has changed that greatly,” says Niver. “I think we’re one of the things changing inside the neighborhood all the time, and we’re aware of needing to be relevant to get people up here.”
But Saint Dinette will occupy a part of town loaded with preconceptions and personality. Lowertown St. Paul is a blend of the timeless and the transitory. It’s where Richardsonian Romanesque buildings have grown glass and steel enclaves like shiny barnacles clinging to a grand old warship.
It’s an area in flux, but its changing pace is growing less tentative. The Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association reports the residential population of downtown St. Paul has grown 62% since 2010. New restaurateurs to Lowertown will be serving a young populace already weaned on casual-meets-upscale eateries like Coup d’Etat, Tongue In Cheek, and Heyday.
“There are a lot more places now,” says Fratzke, “but it’s the same thing that St. Paul has always had—either a high-end, fine dining destination place or it’s a dive. There’s not a lot in between. What needs to happen is for operators to hit that middle mark, a place for a guy to drink a $70 bottle of wine, next to guys drinking beer after their softball game. That was a huge part of our identity here [at Strip Club]. Saint Dinette will have a more refined approach to that, but it won’t be white tablecloth. We won’t be vying for Meritage’s customers.”
“All we ever wanted Strip Club to be was a party we threw for our friends and ourselves every night,” adds Niver. “And that’s what Saint Dinette will be, but it’ll be like our cousins throwing the party. Our cousins might eat a little different food, and listen to different music, but it’ll be the same feeling.”
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This is heartening news for Lowertown where the nights are either tranquil or dour, depending on your point of view. When Bill Murray came to stump for the Lowertown ballpark years ago, he noted the lack of energy in downtown. “[St. Paul] is too handsome of a city just to be maintained,” Murray said. Some blocks of the neighborhood still feel like that—where cigarette butts look ashamed to litter the museum-piece sidewalks.
But beneath the gaze of the looming Galtier Towers, the sloping streets of Lowertown anticipate something new. Test dinners for Saint Dinette have confirmed a new hotspot is taking shape. “At the first pop-up, we were two courses in before I realized, holy shit, this is kind of fun,” Fratzke recalls. “We had put so much pressure on ourselves to get the food right, to make a good first impression, down to when they’d get the fork for the next plate. I forgot that this is why we do this—we were having a good time, everyone was partying.” One hopes the party will seamlessly transfer down the bluff.
At the base of the stairs in front of the Rayette Lofts, a short poem is stamped into the concrete sidewalk. It’s from Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk, a project by St. Paul City Artist In Residence Michael Young. It reads: “A dog on a walk is like a person in love—You can’t tell them it’s the same old world.” While Lowertown hasn’t changed, the energy has. The neighborhood is donning its rose-colored glasses. And while it won’t happen overnight, one gets the feeling that the whole of Lowertown is ready to be unleashed.
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