When it comes to neighborhoods, outsiders probably think of downtown St. Paul first.
While some of the city’s best restaurants reside outside this relatively small area, it is what gives us our skyline, some really world-class event venues and museums, and more than a few of my favorite restaurants.
It’s also somewhat fragile right now: Since the pandemic, workers who stopped by for a drink or dinner after hours are at home. So make the trek — parking is easy to find these days — even if you’re not there for another reason.
As a reminder, these neighborhood guides are based on the official neighborhood designations for the city of St. Paul, which lumps downtown and Lowertown together. The guides are also not meant to be comprehensive, but merely a list of the places we generally recommend.
With that in mind, here, in alphabetical order, are our suggestions for dining downtown.
If you’re looking for a quick lunch or an early dinner (sans alcohol), you really can’t do better than Afro Deli. African specialties, including curries, keke (noodles) and our favorite, the Chicken Fantastic, are served in a quick, counter-service format.
5 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul; 651-888-2168; afrodeli.com
Amsterdam Bar & Hall
If you’re looking for an eclectic, casual, well-worn place, the Amsterdam is your spot. The bar and club features live music, little Dutch sandwiches (called broodjes) and a huge gin selection. Locals hang out there to see music, or to grab a bite before bigger shows at nearby venues The Palace or Xcel Energy Center. The menu, like that of so many other restaurants, has been pared down post-pandemic, but those tasty little sandwiches and the restaurant’s hand-cut fries remain.
6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul; 612-285-3112; amsterdambarandhall.com
Back in the day (Barrio opened its first spot in downtown Minneapolis in 2008), all the fooderati were excited about eating at this somewhat upscale taqueria that has a great tequila selection. But there’s a reason the restaurant has stuck around — the food is good, and everyone still loves tequila. The wide range of tacos are all solid — we especially love the grilled vegetable version — and their black beans and fried yuca are some of our favorites in town.
235 E. 6th St., St. Paul; 651-222-3250; barriotequila.com
Black Dog Cafe
This reliable restaurant serves breakfast through dinner and adds four tasty Benedicts to the menu for weekend brunch. The restaurant, which has been around for 22 years, is where you’ll find Lowertown neighbors noshing at any time of the day. It’s also a great stop before or after a trip to the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. The burgers and sandwiches are good, as is the pizza, and the cafe is known for its live music, especially jazz. In fact, Saturday night jazz at the Black Dog returned Aug. 7. It’s from 8 to 11 p.m., this weekend featuring the Sophia Kickhofel Quartet.
308 E. Prince St., St. Paul; 651-228-9274; blackdogstpaul.com
Black Sheep Pizza
If you haven’t had this pizzeria’s coal-fired pies yet, you’re really missing out on something special. Crisp-chewy crust with a bit of attractive char and out-of-the-ordinary toppings like cracked green olives, hot salami, persian beef, harissa and more make it worth a drive downtown, even if you’re not there for another reason. The daily farmers’ market salad is always delicious, too. In the past few years, they have added a full bar, if you’re into fancy cocktails with your pizza, but there’s still a great selection of local beers, or even thoughtful mocktails if you’re not drinking.
512 N. Robert St., St. Paul; 651-227-4337; blacksheeppizza.com
Big River Pizza
Black Sheep isn’t the only pizza game in downtown — Big River definitely holds its own. The wood-fired pizza spot has tons of vegetarian options (with fun names like 10,000 Leeks, Popeye and the Boomer) and relies heavily on the St. Paul Farmers’ Market across the street for ingredients. There are just as many meaty pies if that’s your thing.
280 E. 5th St., St. Paul; 651-383-2186; bigriverpizza.com
If you’re a meat lover, this Brazilian steakhouse is definitely for you. If you have never been to one, the concept is that staff members walk around with giant hunks of meat on swords and slice them directly onto your plate. It’s an all-you-can-eat situation, and is priced accordingly. The meats here are simply seasoned and super tasty. There’s an extensive salad bar that comes with your meal with a few hot sides included. Pro tip: If you like spice, ask for the Hmong hot chili sauce for drizzling on those hunks of meat.
289 E. 5th St., St. Paul; 651-493-3397; bullvinos.com
The Buttered Tin
Any breakfast meeting is made better at The Buttered Tin, which serves great egg sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, pancakes and more. The pastries, cakes and pies here are made in-house and fabulous, and lunch items include one of our favorite BLTs.
237 E. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-224-2300; thebutteredtin.com
Dark Horse Bar & Eatery
It was a very happy day when Dark Horse, which had gone dark for much of the pandemic, re-opened. This comfortable bar, which serves above-average pub fare, revamped its menu during the closure. There are still a handful of sandwiches and surprisingly great pizzas, but also barbecued meat (and tofu!) platters that come with your choice of sides. The options there are awesome — succotash, collard greens, cheesy grits, hatch pepper cornbread and mac and cheese to name a few. If you’re a whiskey aficionado, you’ll love Dark Horse. There are tons of options from all over the world to choose from.
250 E. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-313-7960; darkhorsebarandeatery.com
Herbie’s on the Park
This gorgeous, historic space is a great place to catch a nice meal before heading to a hockey game or other event at the Xcel, Ordway or Roy Wilkins, especially during frigid temperatures. The restaurant, named for Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks, serves American fare like chicken, chops, fish and steak, executed well. We like to grab a bite and a drink in the pretty bar and people-watch. Herbie’s recently re-opened for indoor dining, and the menu is smaller than before, but we’re hopeful that as supply chain and staffing issues get resolved, that will change.
317 Washington St., St. Paul; 651-726-1700; herbiesonthepark.com
Our go-to spot for sustainable sushi in Lowertown, Kyatchi has a great selection of sake and Japanese whiskey as well. And if you’re not a sushi fan (or are with someone who is not) there are noodles and Japanese-style hot dogs, which are a thing, and they are delicious. We’re big fans of the one topped with mushrooms sauteed in butter and soy sauce and the one with shishito peppers and yuzu mayo.
308 E. Prince St., St. Paul; 651-340-5796; kyatchi.com
The Loon Cafe
The ever-popular Loon opened a second location in the historic Hamm Building downtown just a few months before the pandemic hit. Serving its famous chili, sandwiches and plenty of bar-food favorites like wings and a killer spinach-queso dip, it’s just the spot for a quick, casual bite when you’re on the go. There’s a full bar, too.
426 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651-330-4777; looncafestpaul.com
I did a little happy dance when Meritage re-opened after a long pandemic closure. Great food, great service, a stellar wine and cocktail list and a gorgeous oyster bar are just part of the appeal of this restaurant. It’s long been a go-to for my husband and me when we have something to celebrate. Chef Russell Klein and his wife and business partner Desta Klein have been knocking it out of the park since Day One. Seafood here is the obvious go-to, but meat and vegetables are treated with the same loving care. And the hand-cut fries, served with a positively slurpable bearnaise? Best in the Cities.
410 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651-222-5670; meritage-stpaul.com
Another spot that opened just before the pandemic hit, Pillbox, helmed by chef Graham Messenger, serves up far-above-average bar food, including a killer burger and chicken sandwich. If you’re a fan of Brussels sprouts, don’t skip the ones here, which are given the Kung Pao treatment (dried chiles and peanuts). Also: Don’t sleep on Messenger’s creative specials, which are often featured on the restaurant’s social media pages.
400 Wabasha St., #400, St. Paul; 651-756-7566; pillboxtav.com
If you have food- and cocktail-snob friends who also like a good time and a best-in-class burger, Saint Dinette is where you take them. The menu changes frequently but chef Adam Eaton and restaurateur extraordinaire Tim Niver know better than to take that burger or the outstanding bologna sandwich away from adoring fans. We have never had a bad meal, or even an off morsel from this place, so order whatever sounds good to you.
261 E. 5th St., St. Paul; 651-800-1415; saintdinette.com
Another solid option for sushi and other Japanese staples like sushi, bento boxes, teriyaki and more, Sakura has been around for 30 years, in a few different locations. Owner Miyoko Omori puts an emphasis on fresh food and good service in the current St. Peter Street spot, and has gained a loyal following because of it.
350 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651-224-0185; sakurastpaul.com