Sweeney's Saloon & Cafe (96 N. Dale St.) is as beloved as its name sounds. Its charming patio, friendly service and unfussy yet quality sustenance have made it a St. Paul institution. Get tipsed on one of 10 revolving tap beer offerings while gorging on mountainous nachos, mounds of crispy-thin fries and the renowned chicken wings ($8.49), which look like they might fly right off the plate because they include all three parts of the appendage. Cajun wings are dry-rubbed in a nicely spicy seasoning, and the "Sweet-Ass Bangkok" are sticky pineapple-glazed. My idea of Bangkok would include a spicier kick to go along with its sweet ass. Brew-wise, I opted for a Schell Shocked Radler from Schell's ($5.25) because it reminded me of a raddler, which is slang for a person behaving in a strange fashion. This Radler is a grapefruit shandy -- a Germanic beer-juice hybrid that initially tasted like a beer behaving in a strange fashion, but eventually grew on me -- much like raddlers.
The Muddy Pig (162 N. Dale St.) has been a trailblazer in the gastropub movement with chef-driven bistro fare like chicken cordon bleu with herbed goat cheese and dill sauce ($11), a ridiculous selection of domestic and imported brewskis (nearly 50 on tap!), and scotches, bourbons and whiskeys. Intimate, antiquey and dimly lit, this is where to bring a date you want to impress with your (pre-researched) knowledge of Scotland or Belgium. I opted for a dignified glass of rich amber, caramel-ish La Trappe Isid'or ($7) and tried to remember if I knew any trivia about monks or abbeys, but could not. The sausage and kraut bake ($9) turns kielbasa, brats, sauerkraut and cheese from Plain Jane to jazz-hands worthy: all soft, salty, melty and smoky and crusted served in a fancy gratin with piquant Dijon and crostini.
But the Happy Gnome (498 Selby Av.) wins the grand supreme tiara for number of craft beers on draft: a whopping 76, whose personalities are depicted in the ever-changing daily beer menu. Unlike any gnome I've known, this place tends toward the cosmopolitan with elegant décor, professional servers and foie gras. The Gnome charcuterie platter ($18) is made with an in-house smoker. We sat on the sprawling patio and loaded our artisan crostini with mango chutney, minced pickled vege, lush rabbit rillette, tender duck ham, perfectly spiced mortadella and salty cured beef -- nicely accompanied by a fruity, hoppy, palm-sugar red brew called Two Brothers Cane and Ebel ($6). We could have stayed on that patio all night, but a seahorse-shaped storm menaced from above. Thus I blame nature for propelling our bodies to the Wild Onion on Grand for Top 40 sexy dancing and shots -- blissful sabotage to an otherwise perfectly respectable evening in St. Paul.