Let’s all raise a glass to Bob Parker.
Better yet, someone ought to throw this guy a parade. Preferably down St. Paul’s Payne Avenue, because if anything is going to kick-start the long-awaited rejuvenation of a thoroughfare that has long been synonymous with the word “blighted,” it’s Parker.
With his Ward 6, Parker and co-owner Eric Foster are demonstrating the transformative power that food and drink have in turning around ignored if not downright troubled neighborhoods. Payne has been showing hopeful signs of life for several years, but if any one project has singlehandedly boosted the street’s prospects, it’s this well-conceived and smartly run people magnet.
The 128-year-old building once served as a taproom for the nearby Hamm’s brewery, and it has a gorgeous, lovingly restored oak and mahogany bar to prove it. Once a total fixer-upper, it now greets the street with a cheery and colorful facade.
Inside — the design work is by Smart Associates of Minneapolis — couldn’t be more welcoming and comfortable. A long, sunny, railroad car of a space, it’s a jumble of tables, booths and that beaut of a bar, all leading to chef Liz Olson’s busy kitchen.
With Ward 6 — the name stems from its location, within the sixth of the capital city’s seven political districts — Parker seems to have culled every lesson learned from the 30-plus restaurant openings he’s been involved with over the years and applied them to his new venture.
The bar taps into a well-curated beer list and pulls together a yesteryear selection of well-made cocktails sorted into three categories: $6, $7 and $8.
Olson’s menu adapts a similarly unfussy, unstudied approach. It’s modern short-order cooking, executed with an emphasis on freshness and originality.
Half of the menu is devoted to libations-loving grazers, with old-school items along the lines of chicken wings (crispy-skinned, with tons of chicken flavor), excellent hand-cut skin-on fries (served with a bevy of dips or as a template poutine), a decent cheese plate and a few ridiculously fatty slabs of pork belly.
A chalkboard menu at the front door heralds a few specials, and they usually merit attention. Particularly whatever meatball concoction is coming out of the kitchen: Witness a tender pork-beef combo jazzed with plenty of jalapeños and a pretty tomatillo salsa. Don’t ignore the daily dinner entree, either. On one recent Sunday evening, a savory turkey meatloaf, with a homey white bean-wild rice salad, tasted as if I’d won the blue plate lottery. At $15, my MasterCard was equally impressed.
Similarly fortunate feelings materialized the moment Olson’s triumphant Reuben sandwich hit the table. It’s a wowser, with a stack of slow-cured, ruby red beef blanketed in sauerkraut and a generous swipe of a feisty sweet pickle relish-lime-Sriracha dressing.
Ward 6 is true to its beer-joint roots and knocks out two great burgers, both built with deeply flavorful ground chuck. Another reason for admiration: Olson acknowledges that neighborhood pub patrons could be — gasp — vegetarians, a group that might not touch the kitchen’s striking platter of patés, rillettes and terrines (a shame, really, as they are first-rate), but they’ll be all over Olson’s colorful collection of relishes.
Sure, there were blips. Pasta is not the kitchen’s strong suit. And while Korean-style pork short ribs sounded intriguing on paper, they arrived fatty and aggressively seasoned.
So, does Ward 6 merit a drive from, say, Maple Grove, or Eden Prairie? Probably not.
But Parker has done a tremendous service for his restaurant-starved neighbors.
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Where: 858 Payne Av., St. Paul. 651-348-8181; www.ward6stpaul.com
Recommended: Charcuterie plate, relish tray, meatballs, burger, Reuben, Cicero stew, pies, soft-serve ice cream.