Posted by Adrienne on March 20, 2007
I know my blog says Minneapolis, but of course St. Paul is part of this project too. Since I have not spent much time there, I wanted to explore a bit. How I happened upon Nina’s started with Garrison Keillor. He describes his favorite local coffee shop in his new book Homegrown Democrat and it sounded like a good place to visit, the epitome of a neighborhood shop. Asking around I figured out that it was Nina’s, on the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul but that was all the information I had when I drove across town to find it. I had never even been in that area before and, upon arrival, I was entraced to find that it was steeped in history.
I’m a sucker for old buildings. When I lived in the Longfellow neighborhood, I spent many a long red light peering at the old graineries (or whatever those huge old silos are along Hiawatha). Recently my obsession – in this quest to get to know the Twin Cities – has been the book Lost Twin Cities, which profiles all the old beautiful buildings that were torn down in the name of “progress”. So many are gone, but the gorgeous giants stationed at Selby and Western were graciously pardoned. Nina’s occupies a large corner chunk of the main level of the towering red Victorian castle-building which runs almost an entire block on Selby. You can tell just by looking at it that it has a story. Seeing as I’m newish to the area, I quickly brushed up on my St. Paul history. Here is your very brief synopsis:
It turns out that our current goody-two-shoes St. Paul has a seedy past. Two bootleggers (one nicknamed “Pig’s Eye”) got themselves kicked out of Fort Snelling and so decided to set up shop here in the early 1800’s. It shouldn’t surprise us, seeing as St. Paul was a sort of seaport landing on the Mississippi, that soon after all sorts of sketchy characters arrived for their share of bootlegging, prostitution, organized crime, and the like. By the 1930’s, St. Paul had become a main hangout for infamous gangsters of the day. In fact it turns out that Nina’s Cafe was named after madame Nina Clifford who ran a brothel on present-day Hill Street, not terribly far from the Selby-Western area. It was rumored to have been connected via tunnels to a well-known club for gangsters. Whether or not this is true, it provides a damn good story behind the name of a coffee shop.
Nina’s Cafe sits in the Cathedral Hill area in the Summit-University neighborhood just west of downtown St. Paul. Walking around, one feels the history in the Victorian mansions and old streetlamps. Only a little imagination is needed to feel the cobblestones under one’s feet, to hear the cable cars rumbling down Selby on their way downtown. This is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old neighborhood; he was born in an apartment building a few blocks over. Nina’s Cafe occupies its space in what was once known as the Angus Hotel, which once housed Fitzgerald’s mother in the 1930’s. Over time it went into disrepair until it was refurbished and reborn as the current Blair Arcade. Across the street is the swanky W.A. Frost & Company restaurant, along with other upscale shops and apartment buildings. The neighborhoods is mostly older houses, likely owned by upper class folks, families, and students.
The Blair Arcade now houses fancy salons and spas, along with a few offices and apartments above. In the basement is none other than Garrison Keillor’s new bookstore, Common Good Books, which has an easy access stairway that goes right up to Nina’s. I happened upon the beautiful arcade hallways by accident on my first visit to Nina’s. I felt like a child exploring a cave, and spent awhile marveling at the preserved (restored?) architectural features. Be sure to check out my flickr photos to see more of the building.
After all this description and historical context we arrive at the actual cafe. From the huge picture windows with display areas looking right out into the sidewalk, to the soaring deep blue ceilings, to the actual antiques that are scattered about, I got the feeling that it could have been an antique store in the past. Two large rooms make up the space with elegant brick arched doorways in strange places and creaky wooden floors. A long random stairway on one wall leads up to a small balcony sitting area for two chairs. No, this was not always a cafe.
I visited Nina’s three times over the period of several weeks to get a good feel for it (and to find a good time to photograph it). The first time was a weeknight evening and I found several students studying at the tables and a knitting club conversing in the big armchairs. But the weekends I went the place was so crowded it was hard to find a seat, which is saying a lot because the place is larger than most coffee shops! “Share a table with your neighbor”, read a sign in Lady Liberty’s replicated hands – they clearly got a lot of business on a regular basis. I wouldn’t call Nina’s cozy, unless you are sitting under the lower barrel ceilings near the counter. There isn’t any particular theme in its decor but the feeling of history is pervasive enough to give it an atmosphere all its own. It is open and spacious and comfortable. You could spend many hours here enjoying the streetscene or people-watching. The walls are painted vivid colors and amateur art is displayed proudly from time to time.
The coffee itself I found to be a inconsistent. One time it tasted burned, another time it was delicious. The tea was great and the tuna salad sandwich was also tasty. Nina’s offers many lunch options and baked goods. The barristas are young friendly neighborhood students and on the weekends you’ll find the place filled to the brim with neighbors, energetic and friendly. It’s definitely a local gathering place, especially for those who may enjoy grabbing a coffee and heading down to the bookstore to find a good read. Located on the corner of a bustling street, it attracts people of all kinds – grandfatherly folks playing chess, students with laptops, and ladies chatting over tea. And it happened to be the first coffee shop in which I actually ran into someone I knew, which is remarkable for a Twin Cities’ newbie like me!
|Review Quick Info|
|Type of Food||Lunch, bakery.|
|Crowd||All kinds, neighbors.|
|Hours||6:30am - 10pm everyday|
|Power Outlets||Quite a few, but room for more|
|Address||165 Western Ave. N., St, Paul
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© Copyright 2006 Adrienne Bockheim.