River of no return

Article by: RICK NELSON | January 10, 2013 - 11:52 AM

Macy's in downtown St. Paul is closing. "Wow, who saw that coming?" was a friend's sarcastic response.

My mind immediately went to the River Room. Not only is this the kind of restaurant that doesn't generate a lot of Twitter chatter, or land a perennial berth on critics' top-whatever lists. Its existence is barely -- if ever -- acknowledged by the foodiscenti.

No matter. The restaurant has long been a beloved fixture on the downtown St. Paul lunch scene, and it has served its host well, luring customers into the building far more effectively than the store's increasingly dreary merchandise as it transitioned from Dayton's to Marshall Field's to Macy's. Shoppers could be few and far between on the sales floors, but the River Room? A full house. 

The restaurant is one of the city's oldest, with roots that reach back to 1947. In 1982, as part of a top-to-bottom renovation of Dayton's, the River Room received a very elegant transformation. Gigantic Waterford crystal chandeliers were trimmed in shirred shades of soft pink, and they glowed softly against a backdrop of rose-tinted mirrors and sleek, black lacquered woodwork. Chairs and banquettes were covered in sumptuous gray velvet, and the two-level dining room seemed to suggest a 1930s nightclub. 

A 2002 remodeling was a good news/bad news development. True, years of deferred maintenance were wiped clean, but a generic new color palette dulled the once-distinctive space.

But beneath the surface, the restaurant remains the warm, inviting throwback it has always been, its essence intact: the solicitous service, the white tablecloths, the flattering lighting, the hushed conversation and the reasonably priced, carefully rendered comfort food.

Macy's corporate chef Tim Scott manages to keep the restaurant from becoming a period piece by constantly supplying a small but constant flow of seasonal, trend-aware dishes.

Almond-crusted walleye, quiche and chicken Caesar salads appear alongside shrimp sautéed with edamame, pasta stuffed with squash and Gorgonzola and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, braised short ribs with thyme-scented gravy and a clever Key lime custard topped with a swirl of toasted meringue. It's not four-star dining, but it's not trying to be, either.

Any discussion of the River Room would be incomplete without mentioning its popovers, those eggy, pull-apart salutations that never fail to impress and delight. Deeply ingrained into the restaurant's DNA, they're the bread basket equivalent of Christmas morning: always anticipated and rarely disappointing.

I've always admired the restaurant's long-standing commitment to popovers, because it can't be easy -- or, for that matter, inexpensive -- to manage their finicky production. I have several people in my acquaintance who consider a River Room repast of chicken-wild rice soup, a popover and an iced tea to be a pinnacle downtown dining experience. I can't argue with that.

I would also venture that, without such a memorable signature item, the River Room might not have cultivated the deeply loyal clientele that it enjoys, particularly as the store has lurched through several name and ownership changes and survived the neighborhood's decades-long downward spiral into shopping oblivion. Who knows? Maybe it was the lure of popovers that actually kept the store running all these years.

Depending on the pace of the going-out-of-business sale, the store could remain open into March, but Macy's is pulling the plug on the River Room on Jan. 31. For the first time in perhaps a century, downtown St. Paul will be without a department store restaurant.

A word to the wise: If you're planning a visit, make a reservation. At lunch last week, I walked into an hourlong wait. Not that I minded, because the River Room and I had a lovely farewell.

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