What we have lost with the loss of Black Dog Lowertown

The Black Dog Wine Bar and Cafe in Lowertown St. Paul has closed. This is not just another restaurant closing. Not by a long shot.It was a 23 year run for Black Dog, closed from a combination of the pandemic, the labor shortage, rent on pretty ample space, and simple exhaustion trying to keep it all rolling for the last couple of years. All the work and fatigue came to a point on New Year’s Eve, where staff shortages resulted in two of the owners doing all the cooking, while the third ran the entire bar. Way too much for any person or any business to handle.

Twenty-three years is a fantastic run anywhere in the restaurant world. (At their 20 year mark, the StarTribune featured them in a beautiful article.) But Black Dog’s is even more impressive knowing that for about ten of those years, Lowertown was in CRAZY disarray with construction as the light rail train system, CHS field, and loads of infrastructure projects that made accessing the area nearly impossible.

Add to that the 2009 banking crisis and recession.

Add the economics of a coffee/wine bar/cafe (not easy to make money in that business model).

Add to that the big space (with a big rent).

Add to that the Remke siblings, Andy, Stacy, and Sara, were working pretty much all the time, keeping things rolling through thick and thin. (They built so much sweat equity into that business!)

The Remke siblings: Stacy, Andy, and Sara. Photo from local artist and filmmaker Mike Hazard, via Facebook. (Be sure to check out Mike’s website.)

Add to that the competition with the rise of the Twin Cities restaurant scene over the last 23 years. Think about this … when Black Dog first opened, Zander Cafe on Selby Avenue also opened as the FIRST and ONLY small, neighborhood, chef-driven restaurant in town … which are now ubiquitous everywhere! Think of all the changes of the last 23 years.

Add to that the insistence by the city of St. Paul that parking meters in this little corner of the town should be some of the most expensive parking in the state (more than most of downtown Minneapolis!).

Add to that the pandemic, followed by a labor shortage.

When you stop to think about it, that’s some hard-core perseverance that helped them go for a 23-year run.

Our connection to the space goes way back to before it was Black Dog. Angela and I used to hang out there when it was Copernicus Coffee, in the early 1990s when we were in college. It was a smoky, dirty, dusty, strange place with shitty sofas spread throughout the room. If you dared sit on one of those sofas, you reeked like Marlboroughs and Pichoulli for a week. It felt like a space plucked from San Francisco in the late 60s. We never really liked Copernicus much because of the smokers. However, it was still a groovy place to hang out, especially in those days in Lowertown when it was full of artists in the warehouse buildings, and there wasn’t a single fancy condo or apartment building to be found. You could park on the street for free.

Copernicus closed, and the Remkes took it over.

I can’t say enough good things about these three siblings: Andy, Stacy, and Sara Remke. We have shared so many glasses of wine with them, and hosted Twin Cities Wine events at their location. Some of the earliest classes we did (in the late 1990s) were at Black Dog. We watched them grow in confidence about the business and the wine world, helped them visit some great wine regions, and ultimately watched them expand into the space next door, build a Lenny Russo-designed kitchen, and kick it into high gear.

Black Dog Lowertown became our primary venue for more significant events. These include the first Wine Geek Week mega-tasting (Portugal), the annual Eyrie Celebration, and most notably, the Bubbles and Fries event every winter (which is happening this year at the Campus Club). So many memories.

We have lost something distinctive in the local wine/cafe scene with the closing of Black Dog Lowertown. Let me explain.

Black Dog Lowertown did amazing things beyond serving wine and coffee to its patrons.

Twenty years ago, Black Dog was all there was in the area. They anchored a corner of downtown Saint Paul when no development was happening. There was no CHS Field, Heartland, light rail, and Tanpopo (another sad loss). It was only this funky, rather odd, quirky, and fun wine-bar-meets-coffee shop-oh-and-we-have-pizza-as-well place. Later, with the addition of a real kitchen, the menu expanded as well as the bar, serving cocktails.

They steered the local jazz scene, especially after the closing of the Artist’s Quarter. National and international jazz artists came to the Black Dog and performed. Then the next night, it would be a new local act or maybe a high school jazz trio or poetry reading. There was never any pretense. It was a place where for five or ten bucks, you could see a show, have a beer or a wine, and escape reality for a bit. Is there any place left like that?

They took a stand, especially when the Republican National Convention was in town (remember that shitshow?). Black Dog became the alternative to what was being pontificated up the street in the Xcel. They stood up for progressive causes they believed in, in ways that few businesses do.

Black Dog always supported local artists, rotating shows constantly and giving wall space to the new and upcoming as well as the established.

They gave back in ways that most people don’t even know. An example: they had a “buy a sandwich for a stranger” program that few people knew about. It was simple and beautiful. If you had the means, you could buy a sandwich at the counter for someone else. Then, if someone needed food at any time but didn’t have money, they could come in and get a free sandwich by ordering it at the counter like everyone else … but no payment was necessary. It was about dignity and respect, and helping out others. It was super simple and all about building and helping the community they served.

In the end, most importantly, Black Dog Lowertown was a place of good vibes and love.

All of this combines into something that is not replaceable. I’m devasted by this closure, because in the current climate of higher rents, more restaurant competition, increased regulation (both city and state level), business taxes, labor costs, and the labor shortage, I can’t imagine another place like Black Dog will emerge any time soon, if ever again.

Most importantly, let’s keep an eye out for the next quirky, rather odd, artist-focused, jazz-infused, wine-bar-with-pizza to open up. And when it does, let’s help support them.

Thank you, Andy, Stacy, and Sara, for building something unique and sharing it with the world for 23 years. Be proud.

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