Joan’s in the Park Still Has It

Face it: It’s not hard to find delicious restaurants in the Twin Cities. Between staple eateries with deep Minnesotan roots to up-and-coming locations garnering national attention on the daily, this metropolis is well fed.

However, there’s one thing I’d been unknowingly seeking in the hustle and bustle of this thriving dining scene. That sense of a small town culinary gem only you and your closest friends know about (or so you like to think), a first-name-basis relationship with the staff, and a quick monthly dinner turned three-hour meal—basically the Cheers bar of casual fine dining.

Well, it exists. In fact, it’s existed for almost four years on an ordinary corner lot of Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.

Joan’s in the Park is the unmistakable result of two women passionate about food, wine and providing all-around fabulous dining experiences.

Let me digress to explain how I found myself in the presence of owners Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop (who’s also the head chef)—once a month they host an intimate 14-course meal for up to 18 guests, an evening ironically dubbed “Chef’s Day Off.” Susan undoubtedly starts brainstorming next month’s dinner as soon as this month’s final dish has been cleared from the table.

Egg with green tomato jam and corn cream

But don’t let that fool you; it’s not stuffy, nor is it pretentious. Truly, it’s plate after plate of delectable food, a generous amount of wine and a few hours of priceless conversation. And not only with the other guests at the table—Joan, Susan and the rest of the staff make it a point to chat, joke and make you feel like you’re in your favorite aunt’s dining room being stuffed with some seriously TLC’ed food. (You know, your super cool aunt who happens to be a natural-born chef.)

Since the monthly celebration began a year ago, each Chef Day’s Off menu has had a surprise theme, this time being all things goat. A savory bite made with goat liver custard, caraway caramel and salt; a roasted banana pepper on fresh goat cheese and tomato honey; fresh red fife wheat read with goat cream butter—the list goes on. Our outstanding servers, AKA “The Dans,” kept our glasses full with an approachable list of wines throughout the evening. 

While I would love to rehash every last dish and glass of wine we had, it would be a disservice not to fixate on the sheer familial vibe that exists at Joan’s in the Park. From the moment we arrived, it was obvious that this 40-seat restaurant had no shortage of loyal diners. In fact, my date and I were the only “newbies” at this little shindig—a fact that our tablemates lovingly pointed out at the beginning.

Infused tomato with warm fresh goat cheese and purple basil

Both couples at our table had spent many a night at Joan’s, commenting that each time they come back they’re treated like kith and kin. Even if they forget to make a reservation and call in two hours ahead of time, Joan will squeeze them in. Not only did everyone rave about the fantastically creative Chef’s Day Off menus, but the restaurant’s day-to-day menu as well. Every dish that leaves the kitchen is a from-scratch creation, from their Fiddle Head Papardelle starter and Roasted Beef Short Ribs down to the bread, butter, sauces and more. (The bread! You must try the bread.)

Speaking of their kitchen, nearly all of these beautifully plated dishes are transformed by—get this—a giant convection oven. In other words, a former pizza oven. Each level of the oven is used for varying purposes, including the top, which serves as a make-shift dehydrator. Let the ingenuity of that all sink in.

Melon with cured trout, cucumber basil soup, herbs and flowers, and cultured cream

When Joan and Susan acquired the spot that was once a pizza shop, they served up ‘zas for a few short months before they embarked on the real dream: Joan’s in the Park. Instead of wasting time on renovating the entire kitchen, they decided to keep the convection oven, add an induction burner and work with what they had. And what a smart decision it was.

If you haven’t made it to Joan’s yet, now is the time. Check out their website to see their menu, learn more about the lovely staff and to make a reservation. For more information on the next Chef’s Day Off (it sells out quickly!), call Joan at 651-690-3297.

Joan’s in the Park, 631 Snelling Ave., St. Paul, MN 55116
Open Tuesday-Saturday from 5-10 p.m. and available for private events