Mpls vs. St. Paul
Which city is better?
Don Gruhlke, photos by Sidecar Studio
In spite of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s twin-like bond, a little sibling rivalry is only natural. So we dispensed with the Minnesota Nice and asked the impolite, heretofore unspeakable question: Which city is better? Chefs, musicians, and newspaper columnists responded, as did our writers, who pitted various aspects of each city against the other, sports team by sports team, bar by bar.
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Nye’s Polonaise Room vs. Mancini’s Char House and Lounge
It’s been 64 years since Nye’s opened in Northeast Minneapolis, a half-century since the dining room and piano bar opened next door, and the preserved-in-amber enterprise has taken on the feel of a living museum, like Fort Snelling with cocktails. There’s Evie Radke, with the chestnut space-helmet bouffant, still behind the hostess stand at 85. There’s Sweet Lou Snider, who retired in 2011 after 45 years at the piano but still comes in on her crutches—she’s had club feet since childhood—to sit at the bar with her husband. Even the new piano player isn’t so new. It’s her birthday when we show up, and a guy drinking alone at the bar gamely asks, “What are you, 30?” “Honey,” she responds, her face wrinkling into a smile, “If I’m 30, I look terrible.”
There’s a Truman Show quality about Nye’s: Is this place for real or am I an unwitting actor in some kind of experimental theater? Part of the disconnect is that Nye’s has become so familiar, a caricature. In the mid-’90s, when Swingers sent a new generation in search of kitschy lounges and tiki bars, this place became “money” and didn’t even know it, so ironically unhip it was cool. The Willy Lomans having a gimlet after work were outnumbered by hipsters, and when Esquire named it the best bar in America in 2006, it became a bonafide tourist attraction.
Photo by TJ Turner/Sidecar
The hipsters, as hipsters will do, have largely moved on. The regulars stand out in relief once more along with the decidedly unhip—conventioneers wearing lanyards, checking out the photos on the wall. Because the players have changed so little, it can feel like there’s a secret password. My wife and I both get carded, though if we’re under 21, we look terrible. And when we ask for a pink squirrel, we get a shot of mild attitude: “Oh, an ice-cream drink?” Like, are you trying to be funny? How do you behave in a cliché without insulting those who hold the cliché dear? It’s complicated.
Mancini’s, like much of St. Paul, remains guileless. It’s as old as Nye’s and the time warp is no less powerful—it’s the only place I’ve actually seen people do the Hustle in the modern era, and there are men here who look like George Jones circa 1978: big silver sideburns, gold chains, shirts open to some deep forest. But mostly it’s anything goes, come as you are. On a Saturday night, the TVs are tuned to the high-school hockey championship, with the sound on. Someone on the PA system announces a man’s 98th birthday, and the whole bar claps. When we ask for a pink squirrel, the waiter is unfazed.
By 9 p.m., an oldies band cranking out Elvis and Bob Seger has packed the dance floor: kids dancing with their moms, a group of late middle-aged ladies who likely spent the afternoon under hair dryers bouncing ecstatically, an elderly Asian man dancing in turn with his daughter, his wife, who knows, as the accordionist warbles “hunka hunka burnin’ love.” It’s like a wedding reception, one of the few times when people of all kinds come together to have a blast. It happens every weekend, the best night of someone’s life—maybe yours. –Tim Gihring
The St. Paul Sandwich
Photo by A. Steinberg/Sidecar
Some 500 miles from its namesake city, the St. Paul sandwich is a regional delicacy of St. Louis, a staple of the myriad Chinese storefront restaurants that dot the city’s working-class street corners. Most versions contain meat, but even if you order a vegetarian St. Paul, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s health food: the ingredient list can give one pause. Served on white bread that’s been lathered in mayonnaise and dusted with MSG, the base is a fried egg foo young patty, speckled with bean sprouts and minced onions. It’s incomplete without a slice of tomato, some iceberg lettuce, and a couple of pickle slices. Typically wrapped in butcher paper, the sandwiches have a leaky quality, with the double wrappers usually sporting a few grease stains before even a minute has passed.
While fairly popular, the St. Paul isn’t universally enjoyed. George Mahe, dining editor of St. Louis Magazine, says that he “never really understood” the combination: “I like my egg foo young as the gods meant it to be, served with a stripe of unremarkable brown gravy. If I’m going to eat white bread with tomato, mayo, and lettuce, there better be some bacon nearby.”
For now, we can only wait for the day that the St. Paul travels up the Mississippi and claims its titular territory. –Thomas Crone
Lowertown vs. Linden Hills
It took some random real-estate research firm touting Lowertown’s “Top Hipster Zip Code” before many in the Twin Cities recognized the depth of the neighborhood’s intrinsic, if understated, cool. In fact, its recent history reads like a recipe for modern beatnik bait: Take one historic warehouse district, convert to artists’ lofts, add restaurants, food trucks, a pet boutique, and an outdoor concert series, then set the pot to simmer. The thing is, the stew isn’t yet fully cooked. Unless the farmer’s market is open or there’s another scheduled event, the neighborhood’s street life is more desolate than dynamic.
In recent months, St. Paul received an $8-million arts fund granted by the Knight Foundation and city leaders unveiled their “Momentum is Building” report, a pitch for developers to bring hotels, retail, and office towers to some of downtown’s underutilized areas. Indeed, Lowertown is an up-and-comer with boundless potential; but, like the light rail, it hasn’t yet arrived.
Photo by A. Brisson-Smith/Sidecar
So for now, Linden Hills remains the Twin Cities’ hottest ’hood, with real-estate demand so fervent that City Council Member Linea Palmisano practically threw herself in front of the ’dozers to slow the pace of teardowns. The neighborhood’s appeal is simple: It’s a quaint little village that’s kept pace with our wi-fi-enabled age. There’s lake adjacency, top-rated schools, and the architectural charm inherent to brasseries inhabiting vintage brick fire stations. In the heart of its downtown, cracker-box storefronts are small enough to be manned by a sole proprietor and enable a European model of shopping for provisions. A trip to pick up meat at Clancey’s butcher shop, bread at Great Harvest, and aromatic beans fresh from Coffee and Tea Limited’s antique roaster has all the convenience of Costco, but 10 times the charisma. –Rachel Hutton
Minnesota Twins vs. St. Paul Saints
There may be St. Paul Saints fans, people who closely watch the games, follow the standings in whatever league they play in, and care if they win or lose. But I don’t know anyone like that, and I was always assured—by the team itself—that this wasn’t actually the point. Between the tailgating, the massages from a nun, the hot tub overlooking the outfield, the pig mascot, and all the other tomfoolery, I’ve probably seen 35 minutes of actual baseball in 21 years of Saints games.
The Saints are a whoopee cushion under the tight ass of professional sports. They’ve even tweaked the pros by giving out toy rubber boats (a reference to the Vikings’ “love boat” sex scandal) and Randy Moss–inspired hood ornaments (a reference to his knocking down a traffic officer with his Lexus). They’re the most fun you can have in St. Paul without a Vulcan costume.
But sometimes you actually want to watch baseball, at the highest level. And if the Minnesota Twins haven’t exactly supplied this in recent years, their opponents often have. In fact, in every Major League game there are a handful of guys who, in two-tenths of a second, can consistently decide where to aim a thin stick of wood at a tiny ball traveling 90 miles per hour. It’s far weirder than any stunt—superhuman, Olympian—and suspenseful enough that you don’t mind the lack of alternative entertainment. You sit there in a little stone bowl at the edge of downtown Minneapolis, and all you have to do is pay attention. –TG
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Twins
21 & Over
The bus route that binds the Twin Cities together
The Metro Transit 21 bus line offers a ground-level tour linking the Twin Cities, its pace and scope markedly grittier, more meditative, than the commuter’s-eye-view from the driver’s seat of a car in clogged traffic on I-94. The route crosses the Mississippi River where Lake Street becomes Marshall Avenue, on the far side of the bridge that opened more than a century ago and linked the cities for a time with more than 60 rush-hour streetcars. In the 1950s, the people’s chariot switched over to buses—it wouldn’t be the last change the Cities would undergo between then and now.
The 21 doesn’t do freeway. Its 12-mile journey connects the Uptown Transit Center in Minneapolis with Union Depot in the capitol; taking it from one end to the other, then back again, means ticking off nearly 200 scheduled stops. On a recent afternoon, I did just that.
On the Minneapolis side, the bus slides past the ill-conceived Lake Street Kmart, with its vast lot that appears to be selfishly hoarding so much open parking that it’s making it scarce elsewhere in the city. The riders seem younger and more diverse with each stop—high-school kids receive unlimited rides with free passes on Metro Transit. You hear the Esperanto of the smartphone and the buzz of the earbud and the intrigue of the teenage crush. Even a stop by the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery can’t dilute the sense of motion.
The usual characters seem to make all the long rides: the passenger who talks to people who make it clear they don’t want to be talked to; the kid in the stroller with the surveillance-camera eyes; the weary worker after a long odd-hours shift staring into the middle distance and dreaming of bed. One passenger at the front starts to list off names to the driver, who shakes his head or nods in recognition: They know many of the same people, individuals who have traveled these routes before. They’re the hodgepodge of personalities in a 40-foot metal can that inspired Kevin Kling to write the one-actor play 21A, an homage to both their vivid weirdness and their resolute ordinariness.
Photo by TJ Turner/Sidecar
Over the bridge on Marshall, there’s that familiar feeling: crossing a small, almost invisible boundary into a city that evolved in parallel to its twin to the west, their two distinct histories side-by-side, almost touching but not quite—their cultures defiantly never merging. The Midway Shopping Center slips past with its anachronistic façades, by the tracks for the new Green Line—which feels like an echo of the old street cars but done anew, along different paths for a different time.
Last year, some four million riders boarded the 21, many traveling from one point to another along Lake Street, or Selby, staying within one twin’s borders—yet surely a multitude used the route to cross from one city to the other. While the full route ends up taking more than an hour for a single cross-city leg, it’s a journey that sews the two together. If you’re late for work, it might seem as monumental as crossing the Alps; with time on your side, it slides past with deceptive ease.
Not on board is the St. Paulite who hasn’t crossed the river in a year or more, who speaks of Minneapolis congestion and pace with the shell-shocked tone usually reserved for the survivors of war zones. Neither is the Minneapolitan who talks about the capital as though it’s a shuttered-up wasteland. It takes time, but the 21 finally makes the cities make sense alongside one another—one thing it’s good at, is lending patience and perspective.
And then here we are, at the far end of Selby, with its aged and idiosyncratic architecture and its narrow side streets.The bus turns a corner and politely sidles past the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The view is breathtaking: The morning sun across the downtown hive of the city of the same name nestled in its gradual valley below, the winding streets, the seats of government and religion conjoined in an uneasy truce over the commission of human affairs. It feels like seeing it for the first time—one of the best views the Twin Cities has to offer.
At Union Depot, the 21 turns around to head back in the other direction, as it will again and again, its 10,000-some daily riders making the cities feel almost as one, but never quite. –Quinton Skinner
Sid Hartman vs. Garrison Keillor
It’s an old-guy thing. You refuse to leave the stage, worried that people will forget. But you risk being remembered for all the wrong things. Sid Hartman has become a ghost in his own lifetime, his statue haunting a street corner outside Target Center, his column still appearing in the Star Tribune like old Beetle Bailey comics. Earlier this year, he held his own “estate sale.” Not the best way to remind people that you’re still alive, to hold an event normally reserved for dead people. Stranger still, the merchandise was merely crap from his closet—holey shoes, shirts stained with Met Stadium mustard—and he hung around to sign autographs, as though at 94 he were testing his legacy, seeing if anyone cared, like Scrooge watching the rag-pickers fight over his belongings.
By Michael Waraksa
Garrison Keillor is different. The Brett Favre of radio, he’s cruising into the 40th season of A Prairie Home Companion despite having announced his imminent departure several years ago. He surrounds himself with comely young fiddlers and spends half the show flirting, his bushy eyebrows arching with avuncular pleasure, like mating badgers, whenever some antiquated reference goes over the ladies’ heads. “Well, just play us a song,” he’ll say, and then he sings along. It’s awkward at times. But he’s having a blast, which is all we ask if you’re going to hang around. Enjoy yourself. Play the fool. Forget about us, before we forget about you. –TG