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St. Paul restaurant lives on

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Enter 128 Cafe and you'll first notice the cozy atmosphere, tiny candles at each table, the murmur of the crowd. The restaurant is a subterranean alcove. It's located in the basement of an apartment building on Cleveland Avenue, across from the University of St Thomas campus. 

Servers dressed in black weave through brown tables draped in white tablecloths. Diners sip wine, chew on ribs or dip into brownies with a homemade chocolate sauce. 

Jill Wilson
Jill Wilson worked as a server at 128 Cafe. Now she is the owner and manager. Wilson was surprised at the outpouring of support once word got out the she would re-open the restaurant.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Jill Wilson worked as a server at the restaurant before it closed. Now she's the manager. Many of the former 128 staff have returned to their old jobs. 

Wilson says she's been surprised by the many calls and cards she's received since word got out about the re-opening.

"I would get these testimonials on my voicemail about how much this place means to them. People who got engaged here, come for every anniversary, " Wilson says.

The restaurant closed in June over lease issues. Still, some patrons assumed the restaurant had gone under for financial reasons. They called to apologize, to express how guilty they felt for not having eaten there more.

Pumpkins
Pumpkins sit in boxes in the kitchen before they are transformed into chipotle pumpkin soup.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Wilson thinks the affection has something to do with 128 Cafe's atmosphere, which some people liken to eating at a friend's house

"It's comfortable, unpretentious, come as you are, and I think people like that secret hideaway aspect," says Wilson.

Jeannie Smith was a regular at the old 128 Cafe. The food at the restaurant drew her across the river from Minneapolis. She always orders the roasted garlic bulbs with goat cheese and apple chutney. Smith says now that she's in her 60s, she's seen many small businesses go under. 

"Every time something like Cafe 128 disappears, I think of it as a blot on the landscape; it's a sad moment because it says something about the broader culture," says Smith.

Smith is tired of going to other cities and seeing the same chain restaurants.

Kitchen
The kitchen at 128 Cafe is staffed by the same employees who worked there before closing. Here, ribs are prepped for braising.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"The sort of sameness, the kind of leveling of America culture, the disappearance of anything that is idiosyncratic," Smith ponders.

That kind of sentiment is no surprise to CityPages restaurant critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl.

"Something that people that live in St. Paul have been really aware of lately is how much kind of anti-chain sentiment there is, especially in places like Grand Avenue. They don't want chains. They don't want to be a suburb. Because that's what makes the city special," says Grumdahl. "They live there for the old houses, small communities and for neighborhood restaurants."

Grumdahl says that expensive real estate and health insurance costs scare some people away from opening small restaurants.

"Unfortunately, the new trend is not for neighborhood restaurants. The new trend is for restaurants to open in hotels. We have so many restaurants opening in hotels: we have the chamber in downtown Minneapolis, Porter and Frye going into the Ivy, the new restaurant in Bank," says Grumdahl. 

Ribs
BBQ Baby Back Ribs with 128's sweet and spciy barbecue sauce are a crowd favorite.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"That said, people don't feel that passionately a lot of the time about hotel restaurants; they feel passionately about their neighborhood restaurants, where someone holds your table, knows your anniversary, knows what you want, treats you nice."

Despite her concerns, Grumdahl is optimistic about the future of St. Paul restaurants. 

"One of the things that's been upsetting is that there is so much media attention on is St. Paul dead, 'Is St. Paul dead?' But people in St. Paul love St. Paul, and they're not going to let St. Paul die," says Grumdahl.

As evidence, she cites openings all around St. Paul -- Meritage in downtown St. Paul in the former A Rebours space, and a restaurant called The Strip Club by the owners of Minneapolis' Town Talk Diner. 

Two recently closed downtown restaurants Ruam Mit Thai and Sawatdee are also in the process of re-opening.

In the roller coaster world that is the restaurant business, it seems St. Paul has yet to taste total defeat.