Dining in the trendy North Loop? Don’t overlook the places that got it all started.

Photo of the Sapor Cafe sign painted on their window with the reflection of North Loop warehouse buildings on the glass.
Photo of the Sapor Cafe sign painted on their window with the reflection of North Loop warehouse buildings on the glass.

Creating inspired comfort food and serving them in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. That’s Sapor in the North Loop’s Freespirit building.

Living in an emerging neighborhood has its culinary delights.  After settling into the North Loop for a little over a year, we’re sharing a short list of our favorite bites and sips. As the Loop fills with the newest and trendiest spots in the city, I find that I’m drawn to the amazing few that got everything started. These are NOT listed in order of preference, just in order of my thought process.

1. Bar La Grassa: A neighborhood institution, but I was certain there was no place that could replace my favorite St. Paul Selby Avenue hideaway, La Grolla, for quality Italian. Nestled in a cozy table near the window, John and I have enjoyed romantic meals watching the snow fall on Washington Avenue on bitter winter nights.  Best part? The waiter taught us how to split salad and pasta portions to make our dates more affordable, and keep our waistlines in check.

2. Sapor: As the Loop fills up with night life, sports and sushi bars, it’s becoming more difficult to find “adult friendly” dinning. (Adults over the age of 25 that is.) Sapor is relaxing, with fun and inventive food options like handcrafted hot dogs in the summer.  We never feel rushed to leave to make room for the next diner in line, and enjoy getting to know a wait staff who take the time to talk. Friends from our building love to take their two year old there because there’s room for her to move, and the staff is relaxed about kids. Sadly this favorite will be closing in June.

3. Dunn Brothers in the Dock Street Flats: This version of our local franchise has endured change as neighborhood institution and also a move from their former building (now Shinolo) to the new Dock Street Flats apartments across the street. The North Loop DB delivers a solid cup of Joe every time and a pretty darn good crafted espresso drink.  I made a surprising discovery a few weeks ago.  Pressed for time, and hopping between appointments, I stopped by and ordered their tomato basil soup and grilled cheese with bacon.  It was fresh, tasty and a far cry from the packaged sandwiches offered at chain coffee houses. This is now my destination for quick lunch meetings with clients and friends.

4. Freehouse: By the tone of this blog you can probably tell that my husband and I didn’t move to the North Loop to join in the

Free House dinning room with metal beer kegs used as ceiling fixtures and dinning tables set for service.

From breakfast to beer, Free House keeps us coming back for unique entrees and excellent service.

festivities at the local breweries, that said, we can’t get enough of Freehouse.  Newest joint on my list, it has one of the most fun and fresh menus we’ve encountered and the wait staff is quite simply amazing.  Never having partaken of pork belly in a salad before, and salivating over the mere mention of their “Breaky” line up, I periodically also enjoy their hand-crafted brews.  The outdoor patio is fun and relaxing in warm weather.  This place just keeps bringing us back.

Photo of the bar at the Monte Carlo, with a backlit, full wall bottle display and marble counter.

You can almost see the Rat Pack of the Twin Cities, the WCCO television news crew, seated in this room as they were 40 years ago.

5. The Monte Carlo: This midcentury modern fine dining classic deserves an award for simply surviving the bleakest era of the warehouse district, (when the North Loop was known only as the dark corner where Sex World and Dejavu resided) but when you sit down to their crab salad sandwich, order a steak or allow a waitress in an elegant uniform, not seen since the 1960s, fuss over you on the outdoor patio over Sunday brunch, you understand why they’re still here.  With a wealth of vintage Twin City celebrity’s autographed photos on the wall, you know you’ve rediscovered the coolest place in down that nobody knows about.  I simply love imagining that I can still see Dave Moore, Bud Kraehling and the old ‘CCO gang at their table in the back. (If you have to ask who they are, you may not be cool enough to hang at the Monte Carlo.)

Downsizing the Final Chapter: Going Carless

John seated in the Mazada 3 passenger side, with Diana in the driver's seat.

John riding back from the bank with Diana, the really cool person who bought our Mazda 3 last Saturday.

As the Urban Deluxe blog page count down calendar ticks away with less than a month remaining until our migration from Lowertown to the North Loop, we realized that it was time to engage in the ultimate act of downsizing: selling our car.  Our beloved Mazda 3 was something we had purchased a few months prior to our wedding two and a half years ago and, in many ways, it felt like a part of our family.  With John’s cool Thule rack fitted to the roof, it had whisked us off on a romantic ski honeymoon to the kettle moraine’s of southern Wisconsin and on many other trips and adventures.

Daily life was also going to be vastly different.   The transition was less pronounced for me, given the years prior to our marriage that I lived with transit and car sharing as my primary means of transportation. However, with John’s agent’s office, Moore Create Talent,  located on the west edge of Uptown, and the studios he often works with, like Audio Ruckus, being located in downtown Minneapolis, getting to voice auditions and recording sessions was going to be a new experience for him.  But, with carsharing stations near our home in downtown St. Paul and additional options, like Car2Go, now available in the North Loop, we knew that we’d still have the option to use a car for errands difficult to execute on foot or by bike now, and after our move.

John valiantly posted the car on Craig’s List and we waited for inquiries.  It took only a week before received a solid “bite” and, within two, the car’s new owner, Diana, was driving us back from signing papers at our neighborhood credit union and dropping us off at our door, on her way back to her home in Rochester.  A little stunned by how quickly we had been able to divest ourselves of our only vehicle, we watched our beautiful black Mazda drive into the sunset.  “We need to get groceries this weekend,” John commented when got back upstairs to our apartment, so we reserved the local HourCar for our trip to Mississippi Market for later that afternoon.

The morning following our first carless shopping trip, John looked up from his espresso and said, “I feel lighter this morning.”   What do you mean, I queried, “I just mean it’s so nice to not have to think about taking care of that car.  We don’t have to think about gas, insurance or getting the snow tires on.  It’s amazing how much mental energy that takes.”

Our first official carless trip to the grocery store had gone smoothly and before long the week progressed and we found ourselves running a number of errands on the bus as well.  Planning our transportation had become a little more involved, but John was

John driving a car.

John driving the HourCar Toyota Prius on our inaugural “carless” trip to Mississippi Market.

especially surprised by how relaxed he felt at the end of our first carless week.

Then we began finding research about the subject. Citing an article John had located in the Huffington Post, we talked about how studies are beginning to show that people can improve their well-being when they exchange their cars for biking, walking and transit, simply because they’re not sitting in traffic anymore. (The absence of the stress caused by the inconsistencies we encounter in traffic situations, is offered as one potential explanation.)

“I just felt happy today,” John explained to me over dinner this evening.  “Even when I was riding on the bus with people I wasn’t necessarily comfortable around, I was more relaxed.”  When I inquired as to why that might be he paused, and then answered, “I think it’s because I didn’t have to face the traffic on 6th Street trying to get on the to highway.  I just got on the bus, turned on my IPod, listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn and relaxed until I got to my appointment.”

When you take into account that these words came from a man who has been a car owner his entire adult life, and is also an avid car buff–one who can give you make, model and year of any classic car by spotting the flash of a tail light in the dark–you can begin to comprehend the power of what going carless can mean.  Though our decision to go carless was a necessary step we needed to take  to sustain my ability to keep working in a mission-based startup business, it’s incredible to see how much both of our lives have already been enriched by letting go of our car, in just one week’s time.

The Last Art Crawl: Saying Goodbye to the Lowertown Artist Community

Photo of one of Caroline Mecklin's nudes on canvas

Lowertown artist, Caroline Mecklin, is one of the Jax Building artists facing potential eviction as upscale condos and apartments overtake nonresidential artist studio space.

This weekend heralded not only a closure to mild summer-like weather, but also the last Saint Paul Art Crawl John and I will attend as residents of Lowertown.  Each spring and fall we’ve participated in these events as spectators, art patrons and neighbors to the extremely talented people living and working a stone’s throw outside our apartment door.  This is evidenced by the original artwork that graces our home from Lowertown talent such as Rhea Pappas (now a Minneapolis artist) to Barbara Evans and Caroline Mecklin (Jax Building/4th floor.) It’s also apparent in the Lowertown-handcrafted jewelry that is a part of my everyday wardrobe.

It has been both a pleasure and a luxury to be able to watch such creativity happen around us and to bring it into our home twice a year. The Art Crawl and the live music we’ve enjoyed at the Black Dog Cafe, will no doubt be the most significant experiences we will miss as we move to the Minneapolis North Loop in late November.

It is interesting to read the local papers as “experts” and city leaders continue to insist that the art scene hasn’t changed in Lowertown, and won’t, once the ball park and bars begin to gear up in the next two years.  But for those of us who have lived here prior to the “Lowertown hype,” the change is already marked and very apparent.  Long time resident artists, such as Mike Hazard and Rhea Pappas have already left for more receptive artist neighborhoods.  And, the building that houses some the artists who John and I feel are among the most talented in the district, the Jax Building, is rumored now to be slated for the wrecking ball or refurbishment, in order to make way for–you guessed it–another luxury condo or rental community.

Jax Building artist, Caprice Glaser, spoke with us today as we visited her studio. “We hear that we will all probably have to leave,” she explained to John and me. “The building won’t house artist studios anymore.”  When I asked her how she is dealing with losing her studio space she said, “I try not to think about it.  I just come in and work on my art.”

Artists sketch and instructions on how to purchase from their studio.

A sample of some of the unique signs independent artist in Lowertown create for the Art Crawl each year.  It was this kind of creativity that drew us to the event.

If you believe that Lowertown is beyond “gentrification” because two of the buildings are designated as artist cooperatives (Northern Warehouse and Tilsner, both artist studio/residences) you may want to take a closer look into reality artists are facing down here.  The former abandoned warehouse space in the neighborhood was artist-friendly because it enabled individuals with less financial means to afford studios here.  The Jax Building in particular enabled individuals who did not want to live in their work space, to have studios.  This means that, for artists who don’t wish to, or aren’t able to reside where they work, Lowertown will likely not be a viable place for them for much longer.

Some of the artists we chatted with today also stated that they were being compelled to consider relocating because the increasing neighborhood noise was interfering too much with their creativity as they attempt to work in their studios.  No amount of designated artist funding will shield these people from the sound of construction (which, we’re being told, will be complete in about 5 years), increased

Metal table top and hanging sculptures by Caprice Glaser, displayed by a window in her stuido.

Also in the Jax Building, the studio of Caprice Glaser, a favorite Art Crawl artist. Caprice concentrates on her art rather than considering the loss of her beloved studio space.

traffic and the inevitable cacophony that comes from people patronizing an entertainment district and ball park.

Another change John and I noted in the Art Crawl this fall is that non-independent artist participation is seeping into the event.  For instance, Blick Art Supply had a booth stationed on the corner of Prince Street, in front of the Black Dog Cafe, giving out logo tote bags, almost as if the event were part of the Minnesota State Fair.  I remember when, as recent as last spring, the Black Dog reserved this prime spot for local jewelry makers and portrait painters.  It would appear that even our local cafe has gotten caught up in a movement that favors sponsors who can rent space, over the local artists displaying their goods.

As much as John and I would love to believe that the Art Crawl, and the artists we supported and enjoyed, will be here when we come back to visit, it’s hard to deny the signs that the future in Lowertown may not include them.

Lowertown Sunday Morning

Photo of the cafe paito with iron chairs and lush summer plants.

The heart of Lowertown, the Black Dog Cafe, where the baristas remember you and there were good friends to be met.

As John and I begin to sell furniture, sort belongings and pack boxes in the remaining  few months before our move to the Minneapolis North Loop, we are savoring our Lowertown Sunday morning ritual in a bittersweet fashion.  Our weekends for the past four years have been accented with Sunday meditation and a dharma talk at Clouds in Water Zen center, followed by coffee on the Black Dog Cafe patio and completed with a trip through the Farmer’s Market.

True, the neighborhood is much more populated and bustling than it was when we begin this routine, and yes, many of the familiar faces and neighbors we used to greet on those Sundays, have left for other neighborhoods which were more receptive to artistic creativity  and residential quiet.  But it is not without some pangs of sadness that we embrace our last autumn of this warm weather ritual.

Thus, we are dedicating this edition of Urban Deluxe to a Lowertown Sunday morning that will live

Photo of tomatoes lining a table at a farmer's market.

We have been told that there will be three Farmer’s Markets in the North Loop area, but we will still miss this one that was just outside our door.

on in our hearts and memories.  We share it with you in photographs.  Please share with us what you love about them, your own Lowertown experiences and anything else that moves you.  Enjoy.

Brick warehouse buildings with the sun shinning on them.

Lowertown’s beauty stems from its neglect. A forgotten neighborhood withstood the urban renewal of the 1970’s and we enjoy its beauty today in century old warehouses.

Yellow and purple mums planted in mounds in a flower bed.

A Sunday stroll in Mears Park yields views of a lovely fall garden by our friend and downtown business owner, Bill Hosko.

The Heart of Community: Good People and Great Service

View from the living room window with apartments on the next wing's windows close by.

First living room choice was little too close for comfort, so we opted for the view behind door number two.

A few days ago John and I had lunch in the North Loop and stopped by the leasing office of our new building,  to learn what we could regarding the construction issues.  Our leasing agent, Peter Gulstrand, took the time to talk to us and give us a clear picture of the construction delays facing many of the apartment and condo building going up in the Twin Cities.   He also guided us through the construction site and took us up to our newly completed unit.

Once in the apartment, we realized that living room window’s positioning in relation to the line of sight with other units made us less than comfortable regarding the degree of privacy we might have.  Taking that into consideration, Peter took us a few doors down to show us another newly completed unit, that was not only positioned out of the line of sight of future neighbors, but had a better view  and also included the balcony I had originally wanted for container gardening.  He then showed us what other areas of the building that he could, given the construction process, to give us a better idea of how the building was developing.

Peter allowed us the time and space to contemplate the unit switch, and was very accommodating when we called him to change our already completed lease agreement for the other apartment. “We want you to be happy here for a long time,” he countered, when we apologized for being high-maintenance.

So often, it’s easy for us to find what is wrong with the organizations and people we work and do business with.  That’s why we felt it was important to say how impressed we were that, despite the obvious pressures of the delays in construction and juggling the needs of many future renters, the leasing team at Solhavn has gone over and above for us.  They are not a large staff,  but they have given us the feeling, any time we work with them, that we are extremely important to them.

This is not an easy mark to hit when one considers that John and I are moving from one of the most highly-rated apartment buildings for customer service in the Twin Cities.  Our home at the Cosmopolitan on Mears Park, is managed by an award-winning team of people (2012

John and Lynn standing in the kitchen of the unit.

Checking out the newly completed kitchen–John is so excited to use that amazing gas stove!

Duebener Award, among others) that feel much more like members of our family, than people who collect our rent.  When I was living alone and became ill, the Cosmopolitan staff offered to go to the drug store for me.  Staff members also attended my and John’s wedding reception.  The Cosmopolitan staff members have been a part of some of the most important moments in our lives while we lived here.  We believe that the people managing our building understand the heart of community better than anywhere we’ve ever lived.

It’s wonderful to look forward to living in a new building that exemplifies this same philosophy: that good people and great service, make a rental community a home.

Urban Renewal Gets Personal

Photo of lyn and jon

When we decided to wed nearly three years ago, moving to my already established home in Downtown St. Paul seemed like a natural fit.  We loved the building, and the quiet urban center that was Lowertown was less than a mile from my post at the State Capitol.

But before long, the evenings we once enjoyed listening to the local jazz trumpeter playing in Mears Park next to the lapping brook were quickly replaced by a newly developed entertainment district’s sound-ordinance breaking speakers and young suburbanites shrieking at 1

a.m. while groping for their car keys on the sidewalk.

While we applauded the conversion of Union Depot back to its origins as a transportation hub, its renovation marked the beginning of summer after summer of jack hammers and madly beeping construction vehicles as a parade of apartment, condo buildings, and finally a new ballpark, shattered the daytime peace as well.

Mears Park had also become a magnent for every type of band, festival and wedding imaginable. We found ourselves compelled to leave our apartment several evenings each week during the summer due to the noise level.  Finally, we vacated a stunning fourth floor park view apartment halfway through our first lease for a quieter unit overlooking Fifth Street.

The “band” problem persists so heavily throughout Lowertown on an even larger scale now. A friend who lives in the Great Northern building believes the City of St. Paul has someone employed full-time to locate every potential band in the metro area so that they can be placed in some area of Lowertown each night of the week, with the intent to drive out its residents. Bands are now apparently disturbing her home life every Wednesday evening from the platform of the Union Depot.

It was becoming obvious that the once welcoming city neighborhood we loved wasn’t really interested in the fact that we could no longer sleep or work in our home.  It was more excited about attracting students and young professionals who wanted to watch a baseball game before hitting the tequila bar, and then enjoy the luxury of walking to an apartment to sleep off the hangover.

We knew we had to leave.  We also knew we loved urban life.   So we wondered: is it possible to live in an urban center and not have to use earplugs to get a good night’s sleep? Does every city have someone employed to find bands, install bars and hire screaming 20 year-olds to

Photo of Mears Park in Lowertown St. Paul

Lowertown St. Paul looking out onto Mears Park

plague its residents?  It may be a huge gamble, but we’re betting not.

We have discovered a unique, remote neighborhood at what we’re calling “the end” of the Minneapolis North Loop.  It was the building that attracted us first.  Sleek, Swedish and a model for green living that seemed to actually be feasible.  But when we discovered it was located on the far edge of downtown, close to both of our workplaces, and how the builder had been “sound conscious” in its construction (using the double-paned glass concept most large cities use for sound control in urban residential buildings), we thought we had a shot.

So, we’re sorting, selling, packing and praying that our little piece of urban heaven lies across the river.  We’ll keep you posted.