Saint Paul Insider: Tim Niver
As owner and operator of Mucci’s Italian and Saint Dinette, two of Saint Paul’s most beloved establishments, Summit Hill resident Tim Niver knows his way around the local dining scene.
What brought you to Saint Paul?
I had a restaurant in Minneapolis and decided we needed to have a connection to Saint Paul as well. I'm not from the area originally, so I took a tour on the east side and that's where we found the spot for the Strip Club Meat & Fish in 2008. It was alluring that there was this big old gorgeous building from 1885 that had sat vacant for some time. Since then, things have gone very well and I’ve learned a lot more about why I need to be here in Saint Paul still.
What kept you here?
Saint Paul has always felt comfortable because of the people—it really is inviting here. It's always felt like a neighborhood—like you're ingratiated. Saint Paul is always very interested in having something new around while also holding onto the wonderful things from the past that give it its identity. We were happy to see Payne Avenue grow with Tongue in Cheek, Brunson's, new apartment buildings—it’s just a flourishing environment.
Talk about the vibe in Saint Paul.
The vibe in Saint Paul is changing dramatically. It’s an evolving situation—the Saints' stadium and how it affects Lowertown, the restaurants and residences being built up around Xcel Energy Center. You see the development of the neighborhoods as it extends back towards Minneapolis, and how things are really starting to define themselves with their own vibe per neighborhood. That’s the exciting part here—Saint Paul is small and Saint Paul is quiet, but it really isn’t. There's this undertone of positivity and new business development, but it’s still familiar. You see neighborhoods that have existed for a long time reinvent themselves. Rose Street Patisserie, Naughty Greek, Whole Foods—they’re around longstanding places like the Neighborhood Café and O’Gara’s. West 7th, the neighborhood with Mucci’s and Keg & Case, you see tattoo shops and artists moving in. You see that re-invented vigor around smaller neighborhoods that are coming back and are trying hard again. Everybody’s building on that energy and taking to the next level. There are things in the old neighborhoods that will never go away—things you can rely on—and things piling on top of those to make deeper connections with the neighborhood and its identity.
It’s also just a good feeling you get from the people. We have this singular pride and it's not boastful. It's just, “Hey, come see what we've got for you.” And then when you get here you're like, “I get it.”
How about the diversity?
The diversity of Saint Paul is something you might be surprised about. If you're coming into Downtown, you get here through the 94 corridor and go through a number of different neighborhoods, colleges, etcetera. You go over to University Avenue and it's a completely different world. Of course, we have big box luxury stuff but when you get over to some of the ethnic restaurants and other diverse neighborhoods on the other side of the highway—that's amazing. It really is this cool saturation of “this is what we're about.” We're not just about this part of town or that part of town, but the diversity is actually what brings us together and enlivens the neighborhoods. It allows us to find individual identities amongst the whole within the city and we're lucky to have that. We’re expanding more and more as we're talking right now. Places are always opening up—and it’s not just restaurants, it's a feeling.
Your first Saint Paul restaurant, the Strip Club Meat & Fish, had quite the run from 2008 up to its closing in 2017. What made it so successful?
When the Strip Club opened, folks started to see that different parts of Saint Paul could come back. There was this fine dining establishment in a neighborhood not necessarily seen as a fine dining neighborhood. People started knocking on the door, “Hey, what are you doing? What's up with this? Do you know what used to be here?” Right up until we closed, the Strip Club was well supported and the neighborhood was always there for us. We saw Payne Avenue grow around us. We would have never guessed those connections could be an impetus for other things to grow. We’re happy to have maybe been a spark to something that helped change Saint Paul for the better.
Truth—truth is what we want to give people as an experience when they come see us. We're fans of technical ability, but you can do something technically without pretense. We want to be real people. We act like a big city sometimes, but we're always real people. It's nice to see people aspiring to do wonderful culinary things, but the basis of that is they trust you—they come back because you've earned it. But, you can’t give in to everybody's whim either. I can take criticism as well as anybody else, but I expect that the guest comes with a responsibility too. That truth, that honesty and that trust you build is never a one-way street. We'll treat you like you treat us. Trust is is a hallmark and a foundation of our hospitality. That starts with a good environment for employees where they feel they can be trusted and treated like family. That allows them to be comfortable to use their natural skills to their benefit, but also share an experience we have for people. Mucci’s and Saint Dinette do it in very different ways, but the sentiment is always the same. If you leave and if it wasn't perfect, we hope we have talked about it so you feel comfortable coming back and we can do it again—that we handled any issues, but more so that there were no issues because we were working together to have an experience that was worthy of where we are. We're not taking any day for granted.
What makes Saint Paul a dining destination?
There are always a number of reasons to go to a city, but entertainment and food are an early draw. You have Tim McKee and his very excellent compadres in Markethouse Collaborative doing great food in Lowertown—Salty Tart is there, we have butcher shops in a building where things didn't exist before and that makes it a destination spot along with Kyatchi, Black Dog and Saint Dinette near Mears Park. As things start to fill in, you get this density—you can go to a zone and hang out there for a night. Keg & Case in and of itself is a destination. It’s starting to highlight other parts of the West 7th neighborhood people forgot about—coffee shops, our little restaurant (Mucci’s), new breweries.
And it’s not only by numbers, but by quality. Tim McKee (OCTO fishbar) is a James Beard award winner, Alex Roberts (Brasa) is a James Beard award winner, Thomas Boehmer (Revival, In Bloom) is a James Beard nominee—that’s the top level of dining awards and there are more and more people over here doing it. Then you have Foxy Falafel and Erica Strait may not be up for a Beard award, but she started with food trucks and now has this amazing restaurant. There’s finer destination dining and there are things you realize are here and you're like, “I need to come back for that.” That’s what we're looking for—a multitude of reasons for people to come to Saint Paul.
We’ve seen a lot of restaurateurs coming from other cities like Minneapolis to open up spots in Saint Paul. What do you think is drawing them here?
Restaurateurs are innovators and go where they believe they can sustain the business the way they want it to be. Saint Paul provides a really nice landing pad for that type of situation, from working with local governments to finding cool spaces in cool neighborhoods that are building their identities—where you can get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning new scene. That’s what Saint Paul is offering—not only to restaurants but other businesses. Pierre Pierrant started Saint Paul down by the river when it was all farming and that type of thing. All of a sudden, you see the architecture going up and the city building around that type of attitude—people taking a risk on this little river town. People are still taking risks, but educated risks on a place with room to grow and identity to develop. It’s that electricity that is powering things ahead.
What are some must-eat spots?
A must eat list for Saint Paul is always changing and I think that is so cool. Keg & Case is a great example—so many local operators under one roof doing good things.
Each weekend basically, we'll go over to University to try a new Thai or Asian style restaurant because it's my favorite type of food and there are so many options. Go to Supatra’s because they are the sweetest people in the whole wide world. When they close for a month for a vacation they totally deserve, I have to figure out where I'm going to eat because I want to go there all the time.
Bangkok Thai Deli on University. The first time I went in there, it didn’t feel like I was in Saint Paul...which felt exactly like Saint Paul. Everybody took such good care of us and it was just such a wonderful thing—we go back all the time now.
I see a place like Hyacinth—a direct competitor to my business—open up next to Red Rabbit—a direct competitor to my business—and, you know what, the more the merrier. We all have our expression in how we do it. Each of these places is a must-visit for their own reasons. Red Rabbit because it’s local with another operation in town (Red Cow) and it’s really good. And then Hyacinth—Rikki Giambruno came home to Saint Paul after working some of the best kitchens in New York. Those are must eats. And Meritage. Holy crap. They're so good—they’re so good. They have one of the best oyster programs in the country. Go there and get that fresh seafood right here in the middle of the United States.
Any non-food must dos?
Saint Paul is a great family town. That could be a sporting event, a walk in a park, renting a scooter, whatever. You have the Children’s Museum, the Science Museum, great libraries. Saint Paul is set up around that good family ideal and maybe that's idyllic, but to me they're still things that are within grasp in this city—they haven’t fleeted with its growth. The city really thrives around that.
Union Depot has been restored. People are getting on the Amtrak there and going to Chicago—what a fantastic trip in and out of Saint Paul. The Capitol, Cathedral Hill and other things have been restored to their illustrious early glamour. It's all here. The park systems, which just kind of occur naturally and are well provided for by the city and the state. Those are amazing and you have that all year around flexibility—golf courses where you can cross country ski, the types of things that make an all year round city possible.
Summit Avenue is gorgeous. We participated in luminaries on Christmas Eve this year—those things really breed good neighborhood vibes. We have Minnesota United, Xcel Energy Center concerts, the Palace Theatre. CHS Field and the St. Paul Saints are a wholesome experience for people of all ages. But, you can also go to these neighborhoods and find different, unique things to see and do. Can Can Wonderland is just that—an indoor wonderland and another example of things opened in the past couple of years that are providing a new and different experience.
The river is one of those natural forces of the city you can enjoy. There are beautiful bluffs. It’s why the city developed, so you have to respect the river for being the reason people are here. Walking by the river gives me a sense of calm and peace. You can take a half hour walk and it's not like you're in the city because you're looking at these bluffs and trees and everything. When you turn around, there's downtown and it's gorgeous. The view is beautiful—the High Bridge and the houses on the bluff. It's a romantic thing for me, it attracts me to my own city.
What is your insider tip?
Don’t focus on one part of Saint Paul. If you're doing a day visit, really try to see more than one of the different neighborhoods. It’s not just one centralized part of Saint Paul that makes it great. You really need to see it as a whole—Downtown, West Side, East Side, University, Highland...It’s not a huge city—take the time to access each individual neighborhood as they're developing their own identity. See more than one spot, branch out.