Red River Kitchen: the New Almost-Winner of the Beer by the River Test

[Mission accomplished.]
A while back, I wrote about the mysterious lack of riverfront cafés in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the almost complete dearth of spots where one could sit in a chair, drinking a beer, and watching the river flow by. Unimaginatively, this was the "Beer-By-The-River" (BBTR) test.

Drinking a beer by the river should be a commonplace activity in the Twin Cities, which were, after all, built around having access to the 33 miles of Mississippi Riverfront. Such a pleasing activity, one would think, would easily become a regional pastime, especially during the warmer months.

But it’s not. The list of BBTR contenders is sadly short, and in all the Minneapolis and Saint Paul riverfront area, there is only one place that offers a genuine unadulterated riverside café experience: Psycho Suzi’s in Northeast. The rest of the list pales in comparison, and Saint Paul, in particular, has almost nothing to offer.

That is, until now.

[The City House elevator. at the Upper Landing.]

Just this week, Saint Paul has catapulted up to the very almost-top of the BBTR rankings with the opening of the new Red River Kitchen in the City House elevator at the Upper Landing.

For helpful Saint Paul reference: The Upper Landing is the early 2000s residential development along the riverfront between the high bridge and the science museum, a row of 5-story buildings that for some reason had lacked any mixed-use features except for a coffee shop. The City House is an historic 1930s grain elevator right on the river that was partially restored and turned into an “event center” owned by the city’s Parks Department. The City House has a unique history, and was originally intended to be some sort of restaurant, but the potential for flooding in the space meant that no “permanent” structures could be built there.

I’d long thought that, of all the riverfront spots on Saint Paul’s East (downtown) Bank, this was the spot that had the most potential to activate the riverfront and bring people closer to the Mississippi. Unlike the rest of the riverfront, this slice of land is separated from pedestrian-unfriendly (and overbuilt) Shepard Road, and is a very pleasant place to spend time, if you can figure out how to get there. Which is why it was so strange that it sat empty for so many years…

But kudos to Saint Paul for acting quickly. We only approved this new pop-up food-truck-style restaurant concept a few weeks ago at the Planning Commission. And it’s already open, from 11am to 9pm. According to the guy who owns Republic, who is one of the organizers, it was pretty easy to park a mobile kitchen next door and hook up some tap lines. They brought in some picnic tables, and are serving food and beer in the City House as I write this.

[From left to right: a beer, barges, a rowing team.]

[The patio, with downtown in the background.]

[The biergarten-like interior.]

[The menu, with new employees learning how to work the register.]

[The mobile food kitchen.]

So how does it rank?

When I complied them last year, I pointed out that the BBTR rankings were not evenly distributed. Psycho Suzi’s was a clear #1, then there was a big gap, then you had the Saint Anthony Main cafés, and then below them, a handful of riverfront pretenders.

I’m happy to say that Red River Kitchen is the only BBTR experience that can give Psycho Suzi’s a run for its money. The only downside is that the “patio” which offers the best riverfront view, only has a few benches. The picnic tables inside are nice enough but a bit removed from the amazing riverfront-plus-beer concept that continues to haunt my dreams. So, compared to the riverside tables at Suzi’s, Saint Paul still falls a bit short.

On the other hand, this particular riverfront location is an absolute A+ when it comes to urban visual interest. At Suzi’s, the river is pretty quiet. There’s not much traffic, and the view of facing riverbank is dominated by a metal scrapyard. Sure it’s honest and gritty, but it’s hardly riveting.

[The High Bridge in the background.]
But the Mississippi at Red River Kitchen is the absolute heart of the urban riverfront. Facing the kitchen patio is Harriet Island, with the Padelford boats docking and loading all through the evening. Just turning your head, you see the entire panorama of downtown Saint Paul curving along the river bluffs, the downtown bridges weaving their way over the water as boats of all kinds make their way up and downstream. In an hour, 8- and 4-person rowing teams in skiffs, douches on jet skis, recreational boats, and a tourist “riverboat” pushed by a barge all passed by. Houseboats are docked at the marina across the water, and you can watch the bridges and bluffs and people in the parks walk around the riverfront. Here the river is alive.

And then there are the barges! City House is still used as a parking berth for barges, and if you lean over the railing, you can look directly into these massive floating steel containers. It’s a sublime experience, a bit like gazing into a canyon. On Monday, they were filled with some sort of cement gravel, but the barges are constantly being shuffled around, and who knows what will be docked there when you visit. It’s cool to be confronted with the materiality of our industrial society, and it’s even cooler to drink an IPA while doing so.

In conclusion, I’m very impressed by the new Red River Kitchen. They exceeded my expectations, particularly in the short timeline. Go down there and drink a beer by the river. The view is unmatched anywhere in town.


Solid #2, right behind Psycho Suzi’s. (With better patio furnishings, they would be #1.)

[Currently, the Red River Kitchen closes at 9pm, though given the nigh views, that is rather silly.]


Baba said...

It's amazing what happens on the river on a daily basis. It's almost surrealistic watching the commerce and recreation coexist. Suzi's is cool, but it can be very 'party-like', whereas City House lets you relax and just get lost in the beauty of the riverfront.

Rachel Wiken said...

I love this space! They hosted summer concerts here a few years ago and did some rentals. I contacted the City earlier this summer about using it for my wedding and they told me they were in the process of starting rentals again but not til fall. I guess that planned changed. Will have to check it out.