Holiday Getaway to Jolly Old Saint Paul
Take a festive getaway to the sleepy-no-more half of the Twin Cities—and knock out your gift list at America's best new food hall.
First came the housing. In 2013, a developer poured $125 million into a vacant Gothic brewery that had been a cornerstone of Saint Paul’s working-class West 7th neighborhood. Artists filled the affordable lofts built just for them. And high in the sky, a replica ’50s-era beer sign lit up giant red letters S-C-H-M-I-D-T. It became a beacon of the past, spelling out hope for the future.
Then came the market. A few years after the lofts, Keg and Case West 7th Market opened in the next-door keg house. Cooks, growers and makers swarmed into the mod food hall’s 20-some rentable stalls—and immediately began cross-pollinating. The chef dreamed up an appetizer featuring fungi from the wild-food grower’s 14-foot indoor mushroom tower; the potter threw custom ceramic beauties to contain the beekeeper’s honey; and the cotton candy-maker twirled organic sugary-sweet pastel filaments around the heritage butcher’s teriyaki snack sticks.
That last collab never made it to market, yet stands as a spot-on example of why butcher Joe Reams of K’nack specialty meats nabbed a debut stall. “That was one of my favorite parts,” Joe says. “Take all these great producers and people, mash them together and see what comes out the other side.”
The Schmidt Brewery complex’s spirit and story reveal a lot about Saint Paul in 2019. Across Minnesota’s capital, a healthy crop of creatives is thriving just outside a limelight that’s often trained on Minneapolis, the bigger, flashier of the Twins. They cite reasons that appeal to visitors, too: Saint Paul is more affordable, with less attitude—and, with a population of 313,000, it has less competition for parking spaces. Chat up locals and you’ll eventually hear a favorite catchphrase: Date Minneapolis. Marry Saint Paul.
Time a visit between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for colorful celebration while the city’s typically blanketed in white. Wells Fargo’s WinterSkate’s ice rink is a magnet for families and couples, with inexpensive rentals and free lessons. Bundled-up shoppers browse nutcrackers and felted mittens at the European Christmas Market on the East Plaza of Union Depot train station, breaking for spätzle and mulled wine. The summer farmers market relocates across the street to the brick Market House Collaborative’s upscale space to hawk hot sauces, local raw honey, cave-aged cheeses and other giftables on Saturdays.
And at Keg and Case, there’s holiday shopping, plus the market’s flagship restaurant, In Bloom. Everything there is cooked on a 20-foot wood-fired hearth, including legs of venison and a dessert inspired by burnt marshmallow. (If you stand to applaud James Beard-nominated chef Thomas Boemer at the end of your meal, you won’t be the first.) So sure, marriage may be a bit presumptuous for a first visit to Saint Paul. But love is most definitely in the air.
Making a List
Among a nationwide explosion of food halls, Keg and Case stands out for its vendor curation (hummus bar anyone?). Here are three excellent stops for gifts.
Hobby Farmer Canning Company Wood shelves hold a pioneer pantry’s worth of pickles, plus six-packs of switchel, a tangy, old-timey drink spiked with cinnamon or cayenne.
Worker B A honey bar offers a stunning array from around the world, and local beekeepers make pretty salves and balms, like Rescue Putty for winter-roughened heels.
House of Halva In a teeny stall, sesame seeds get ground into fresh tahini, then mixed with sugar to make halva, a Middle Eastern candy flavored with pistachio, coffee or chocolate.
After more than 100 years of space-hopping, the Minnesota Museum of American Art has landed a permanent home. Find the M (yep, new nickname, too) in the Cass Gilbert and Solon Beman co-designed Pioneer and Endicott Buildings. Through January 5, catch History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary. Video, photos, sculptures and other installations from 17 modern artists explore the dynamic layers and cultures that make up the Arab world and its 22 countries.
Overlooking Rice Park, The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts hosts shows year-round. Recent events have included Colin Mochrie (of Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and John Cusack with a screening of Say Anything. Look for Six the musical and Rita Moreno during the holiday season.
Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers once graced the stage at Saint Paul’s Palace Theatre. Renovated in 2017, the theater now operates with help from First Avenue, the legendary Minneapolis rock club where Purple Rain was filmed. Recent headliners have included Wilco and Lizzo; Greensky Bluegrass and King Princess round out the upcoming calendar.
For an unforgettable view of Saint Paul, book a Holiday lights helicopter flight. Don’t want to fly for $100? Holman’s Table, inside the Saint Paul airport’s old admin building, serves excellent Sazeracs, locally sourced hanger steaks and runway views.
At The Covington Inn Bed and Breakfast, be sure to peep through your porthole: During a cold snap, you may spot chunks of ice floating by like icebergs on the Mississippi River. Right over the Wabasha Street Bridge from downtown, the docked towboat’s guest quarters are simple and snug, with private baths, fireplaces and rare views.
On land, Celeste St. Paul Hotel + Bar just opened in November, reclaiming a former convent that also housed the city’s first fine arts school.
In an exquisitely restored building that held a German lager house before Minnesota had earned statehood, Waldmann Brewery plays to its history with sausages (try the currywurst) and fresh takes on German drafts.
For breakfast, squeeze into Mickey’s Diner, a 24/7 Art Deco dining car with greasy food and grumpy character to spare. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and each booth has a jukebox.
Meritage is the discriminating Saint Paul diner’s go-to celebration destination. On winter nights, as cars and people bustle by outside, eating at the window tables feels a little like feasting on glazed duck and pommes frites inside a snow globe.
Try dinner and craft cocktails at Saint Dinette, where the locally famous butter burger and shaved-bologna sandwich come smothered in Dinette’s signature cheese.