The Hidden Gems of Saint Paul (some are not hidden)

by Josh Kimball

This post is a continuation of The Best Places to Go in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The Black Dog Cafe: There are many things worth noting about The Black Dog Cafe. There’s the fact that the establishment is a bohemian stronghold, holding steady for more than a decade in an ever-changing Lowertown neighborhood. It has weathered dug up sidewalks and diverted streets in an area that seems to be under constant construction.

There’s the solid coffee, the homely sandwiches, the beer and wine license, the neighborhood regulars who have been coming back for years. There’s the fact that it’s a pretty damn decent place to get some work done, mid-week, late-afternoon. And the soundtrack at the Dog is sometimes even quite GOOD, making you jealous enough to pop out your earbuds and listen. (“What is this Monster Mash bullshit?” asked one teen with disgust, in as authentic a word-of-mouth endorsement of an establishment’s aesthetic as can, perhaps, be had these days.)

But all of these characteristics pale in comparison to the true spiritual core of this cafe. They are Lilliputian relative to a single epic painting that once graced the Black Dog’s walls — maybe even for just a month or two — but whose lavender glow suffuses the space to this day.

The Black Dog has long hung the work of local artists from its exposed timbers. And nigh on ten years ago, a truly EPIC painting was hung. Imagine, if you will, an outsized masterpiece, 10 feet high by 6 feet wide (mind and memory may be exaggerating this beast’s scope and quality, but go with it). Limned with a gold filigree frame, it was. In the center of the painting, astride a mighty white steed, sat Napoleon Bonaparte. His war horse rearing, the martial figure sat resplendent in military garb.

And YET. The features gracing the Little Corporal’s mien did not add up to the familiar mug of the diminutive French Emperor. INSTEAD, peering out from beneath that famous bicorne, was the familiar (and, let’s be honest, innately sexualized) visage of one PRINCE ROGERS NELSON. Yes. Prince. (He may have even been wearing a purple uniform? Prince-as-Napoleon astride a white stallion in epic scale. It was incredible.)

Also, the bathrooms here are quite roomy.

The Blue Door Pub: Everyone knows about the dripping cheese coming FROM INSIDE THE BURGER, the craft beer selection, and the ubiquitous TVs forcing sporting events into your line of sight at the Blue Door.

Everyone also knows about the fried green beans. And the peanut butter on the hamburgers. So I will not waste any time recommending nearly all of those things. Instead, I will offer this tip: Should you find yourself waiting for one of the tables (which are frequently in high demand), ask one member of your party to stand diligently outside the Pub while you wander over to the antique mall next door. There, you should look for two things:

1) Bottle openers
2) Pendleton wool shirts

The shop frequently has an excellent selection of both, and I highly recommend buying bottle openers when you need to either break a $20 or alleviate your own guilt for browsing in a thrift shop or antique store for too long.

Micawber’s book store: It is an old and tired man that endorses a neighborhood bookstore. But let’s be honest with ourselves: I just bought a 1984 Dodge Ram pickup truck. What other kind of man could I be? Micawber’s is the rare sort of book shop where, when one asks the proprietress about a novel that’s slated to come out, she will not only be conversant in said author’s oeuvre, but will also know offhand the UK and American release dates of the publication in question. It is the kind of place that has a generous children’s section that isn’t too babyish and that’s easy to sit down and have a read in. It’s the kind of place that offers cogent, well-argued, on-shelf book recommendations that were written by ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS on the staff, and who may even be in the store. There is wood there. And paper. And ideas. You can wander for an hour.

Additionally, if you cross the street to the Finnish Bistro kitty-corner, you can DEFINITELY order a Finnish breakfast, which includes both pickled herring and lox. You dig?

Unique Thrift Store: Let’s not bullshit bullshitters here. Unique Thrift Store has some pretty weird shit going down. It sells big-ass motel art – trees with blue leaves and pink flowers in some sort of hideous-bullshit modern-expressionist morass of a style. It sells bags of toys, grouped in a way that seems to have some sort of inscrutable organizing principle (perhaps organized by weight? Or volume?) for $2 or $3 apiece.

I once bought some Don Ho tumblers there that loop through the absurd and swoop right back toward the divine. I think the place might also sell used mattresses? Which is unsanitary at best and illegal at worst. To look at the clothes section is to look at row upon row of heavily used and frequently stained garments of innumerable eras.

Product turnover at Unique Thrift Store is high. The sewing machine you see there one morning is replaced by two others eight hours later. This place moves product. It also moves people. Located off of Rice Street (and around the corner from The Lamplighter, Saint Paul’s only strip club), the Unique draws patrons from all walks – down-on-their-luck dads looking to outfit the family home, thrifty hipsters trying to find the leather jackets of a just-right era, power-shopping deal-hunters who have a load of laundry in the ‘mat next door, kids begging parents for cheap toys, assholes trying to procure reasonably priced kitsch barware. Everyone. It’s almost always grubby, frequently crowded and more-often-than not chaotic. I recommend it.

[Please note: I might do a couple more of these.]