Lowertown on the Rise
Among the signs the St. Paul ’hood has become a hipster haven: homemade Twinkies, puppy Patagonia, and a thriving arts scene
I’ve lived in lowertown since well before it was named the “Top Hipster Zip Code” by a real-estate research firm, pointing out what locals already knew: The neighborhood is on the rise. A crop of new restaurants is building on the city’s foodie cred, established more than 100 years ago by its destination-worthy farmers’ market. The light rail is set to begin service this summer, and a new Saints ballpark is in the works. But Lowertown’s hip is an accessible sort; you don’t need a fixed-gear bike to enjoy its charms. To prove as much, I spent a day touring my backyard with my dad—a man decidedly against cycling (“too dangerous”) who hasn’t worn denim, skinny or otherwise, in more than 40 years.
We began the day by dropping in at The Buttered Tin, hoping to spot Alicia Hinze, co-owner and chief baker, who was my buddy on our grade-school bus. The Little Debbie and Hostess snack cakes of our youth clearly didn’t do it for her: Her homemade Twinkies, Ho Hos, and Oatmeal Creme Pies are so rich and buttery they make the originals taste like sugary Styrofoam. My dad and I opted for hearty plates of hash and huevos rancheros Benedict with cilantro-lime sour cream. Even though it was breakfast, we jumped at the chance to split a mini banana-cream pie—the closest we’ve found to Grandma’s signature dessert. Fueled for shopping, we headed to nearby Cocobear Boutique and Pet Care where I was tempted to buy an argyle doggy bow tie and a Patagonia-grade pooch poncho. (Even if you don’t own a dog, the cute factor would be worth risking a few scratches to outfit a cat.)
Next we hit Capitol Guitars, where I fell in love with a vintage four-string tenor. (Please, don’t run out and buy it—I’ve called dibs. Besides, I’m sure you would look better in one of the Eddie Van Halen Stratocasters.) Around the corner, another music-lover’s haunt, Into the Void Records, stocks nearly every heavy-metal album produced from the late 1960s through today, plus a wide assortment of posters that feature various goblins and demons rocking out. The owner, Shane Kingsland, told my dad he plays metal all day, every day (“I got to, man—I got to,” he explained).
Seeking to relive Dad’s fond childhood memories, we headed to the Union Depot, where he used to watch the trains come in. The newly restored site is exactly how he remembered it: an enormous cavern, shimmering with sunlight that streams through its arched windows and expansive skylights. Photos on display from the 1930s reveal a highly accurate renovation, right down to the light fixtures and art-deco signage. Trains won’t run until later this year, but in the meantime, the beautiful building hosts events including yoga, a wine and beer tasting, and a fashion show. (The Ping-Pong table appears to be popular with drop-ins—we saw half-a-dozen office workers waiting to tag in for a game.)
After having established itself in Mac-Groveland as one of the city’s finest eateries, Heartland Restaurant moved its operations to much-larger Lowertown digs in 2010. Its location, next to the farmers' market, complements the restaurant’s focus on using all local ingredients, and its upscale menu and extensive wine list have been a welcome addition to the neighborhood's otherwise casual dining scene. The main restaurant is dinner-only, but we were able to grab soup and sandwiches at the adjacent Farm Direct Market and struggled to decide between the kimchi slaw, Mangalitsa pig pancetta, and other seasonally changing delights.
After lunch, we browsed the Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative (the “Prince Street Lofts” to locals), where my dad, an avid wooden boat builder and craftsman, was drawn to Northwest Canoe and Leather Works Minnesota. Artists in Northern Warehouse’s studios and several others have established a tradition of opening their doors to the public the first Friday of every month. Filling the calendar gap is Three Sisters Eclectic Arts, which sells a wide variety of goods made by Minnesota artists from its shop in the historic Jax building. My dad bought my mom a pair of chemical-free and surprisingly beautiful wool dryer balls (love knows no bounds), while I lingered over jewelry, clothing, pottery, soaps, and lotions.
Come dinner, the newer and livelier tequila-soused Barrio and busy burger joint The Bulldog often overshadow Lowertown’s serene Japanese eatery, Tanpopo, and cozy Italian joint, Trattoria da Vinci. But da Vinci’s classic linguine alla Bolognese is as packed with flavor as it is tradition (plus the leftovers lasted four meals). I would have felt transported to Rome had it not been for the pseudo-Renaissance columns and “Go Wild” banner, which we took as a sign that Lowertown won’t ever get so hip that it pushes us out.