Gray Duck Tavern

The St. Paul night spot isn’t quite all it’s quacked up to be

A plate of the Chong Qing Chicken at Gray Duck Tavern.

Chong Qing Chicken at Gray Duck Tavern

photos by terry brennan

Jason: Located in the shadow of St. Paul’s City Hall, Gray Duck Tavern has no room for those of you who insist the childhood game is Duck, Duck, Goose. It’s also a huge contrast to the style of cooking that chef Don Gonzalez was known for when he ran St. Paul’s Forepaugh’s: It’s far less formal, and, unfortunately, far less intense in the flavor department.

Joy: The first thing we noticed about Gray Duck was the noise. It’s an obvious choice for happy hours and there were a couple of large, boisterous groups hunkered down when we visited. It’s a fun place to grab drinks with coworkers or stop before or after an event downtown. But it’s not a place to take your aging parents or to have an intimate conversation.

Jason: The menu is billed as comfort food—familiar dishes with lots of global dashes. East African, Asian, Spanish, Mediterranean influences all pop up.

Gray Duck Tavern's Cuban Cigar, a crispy tortilla wound around pork and served on a glass tray with a tart.

Cuban Cigar

Joy: In a way, it’s all bar food. I liked the fun play on a Cuban cigar: A crispy tortilla is tightly wound around tender pork and served on a glass tray with a tart, mustardy dipping sauce. It’s delicious. I could also eat the chong qing chicken all day long. Nubs of fried chicken are tossed with green onion, herbs, and spicy little pickled peppers.

Jason: Agreed on that chicken—it’s the perfect shareable starter. But the cigar didn’t do much for me. It was a clever visual, but it just tasted like a fried roll of pulled pork with no other flavors in there.

Joy: The burger is a close replica of West Coast chain In-N-Out’s famous “animal style” patty (short for: all the toppings, plus a dollop of their “secret sauce”). It’s a glorious mess of well-cooked, thin beef smothered in onions, mustard, Gray Duck “secret sauce,” and gobs of gooey cheese.

Chef Don Gonzalez at Gray Duck Tavern preparing a dish,

Chef Don Gonzalez

Jason: Gray Duck is owned by Madison Restaurant Group, a real estate group that runs five other downtown St. Paul restaurants including Ox Cart Ale House and Public Kitchen + Bar. Those spots are known for crowd-pleasing, non-offensive—perhaps a little boring—food, so I get the sense that they’re keeping Gonzalez from going too crazy with his flavors. The tamarind chili chicken wings had a very muted spice, and the sweet corn elote soup needed more of the aleppo pepper.

Joy: For entrées, the lechon, a roast pork dish, was our sole disappointment. The thinly sliced meat was a little tough and covered with a slightly too-sweet sauce.

Jason: This is a fun restaurant to hang out in due to its great service, large bar, and excellent cocktails. If the food amps up the flavor, it could be just the sort of sleek night spot St. Paul has been missing. 

The dining room at Gray Duck Tavern.
Dining room

Gray Duck Quick Tips

Parking: Plenty of metered street parking at night, and the Lowry Garage is nearby

Happy Hour: $4 wine and tap beer, plus discounts on apps Monday–Friday, 3–6 p.m. and 9 p.m.–close

Must-order Cocktails: St. Paul Streetcar (brandy and orange crema) and Quack Attack (a lemony rum flip)

Gray Duck Tavern
345 Wabasha St. N., St. Paul, 651-340-9022,