Imagine winning a private concert for you and one friend, maybe three friends. I don’t mean a private box or backstage passes. I mean you sit at a table and the band performs right in front of you for you. Maybe you already know and love the band, maybe you’d never heard of them before, but you try them out anyhow and wind up loving every track. The energy is breathtaking up close; every track instantly becomes a favorite. Would you forget such a night? I certainly hope not.
That’s what meals at the Strip Club Meat and Fish were like. No matter where you sat or who you came with, a star took your order, a star mixed you a drink, a star cooked you an impeccable serving of meat and a star hugged you on your way out the door. Yet, you felt like the star afterward. Every time.
The Strip Club Meat and Fish was opened by Tim Niver and J.D. Fratzke back in 2007; and, after a decade of making names and mixing glasses, closed its doors for good on July 1. Its memory will live on in the form of two sister restaurants, Saint Dinette and Mucci’s Italian; the long list of service industry members who began impressive careers there; thousands of smiles; millions of Instagram likes, I presume; and countless stories.
I wish I could tell every story. I can’t, but I’ve got three!
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The first time I went to the Strip Club Meat and Fish in St. Paul, I didn’t make a reservation. I saw Lizzie Breyer and Martha Young planning a date there via Twitter, and – despite not having met either of them in person at that point – invited myself. We sat at the bar; and, when owner Tim Niver approached us to say hello (well, I mean, he approached them because he actually knew them but then was introduced to me though I don’t remember how I was introduced because the people I was with had never met me before) …
ANYWAY, we didn’t ask for menus or make a formal order of food. Lizzie simply said to Niver, “Feed us.” I did eventually order the Chef’s Loaded cheeseburger, but the order that kicked off our night was simply: Feed us.
Feed us, they did: plate after plate after plate. Things I couldn’t name; plating arrangements you could’ve hung up in a museum; ingredients I’d never heard of; flavor that shook me. I said the Lord’s name in vain a lot with my mouth full that night. I couldn’t keep food out of it long enough to properly cuss my love for this place.
At some point, I turned to my right and met Growler editor John Garland for the first time. We got to talkin’, and I wound up sort of abandoning the poor souls I’d imposed myself upon in the first place that night. In the end, though, I made three pretty good pals that night. They probably think I’m a nincompoop, but I consider them pals. Niver gave us all one of St. Paul’s most famous hugs on our way out the door.
I remember meeting with Niver before the restaurant opened one Saturday morning. We were discussing autumn drink menu-creation for an episode of the podcast. This was back in the KSIZ days, so that recording is long gone sadly. We spent probably an hour on the history of the restaurant, the intricacies of cocktail creation, the intricacies of drinking cocktails a little too quickly, laughter at slightly excessive volumes, and opening the restaurant at the bar drinking water.
I remember this quizzical expression the bartender gave me when I slid into a seat. This was still three or four minutes before the front door was to be unlocked.
“We were … um, doing an … interview,” I said, motioning my hand back and forth alongside my head like I was waving a handkerchief. Just like that, though, the bartender got it and went on with his routine. It was almost as if the presence of a buzzed journalist at his bar before open was commonplace. Maybe it was.
Why conduct an interview sober when you don’t have to, I always say.
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When I heard news about the Strip Club Meat and Fish closing, I didn’t wonder why. After what they gave to the community, they didn’t owe anybody an answer. If you want to pretend you know why, you could scour stories about local fine dining closures – and hell, take David Chang’s shriek of “APOCALYPSE!” from last year – and cobble an assumption together. Me? All I knew was I needed to get on the phone and get in one last time.
Naturally, I procrastinated. On June 26, thank goodness, I dialed up a Hail Mary late and connected with one of the restaurant’s three last reservations.
I told my wife beforehand, “If you see something you want, just order it.” This was the last chance we were going to have. In the words of Tupac Shakur: “Set trip, empty out my clip.” I ordered a drink called The Perfect Crime, then dialed up “Gimme Two.” My wife had a lemonade and drove home. She had that ol’ Chef’s Loaded cheeseburger, and I the Asado Del Norte.
I only felt sad at one point, after the first course and my wife had gone to the restroom, when our silverware was taken away to be replaced by the silverware for the main courses. I sat alone under that balcony, and tried to think of the last time my silverware was replaced between courses. I’m not a fancy restaurant guy, but I feared I’d have to become one to have the kind of service experience you got at the Strip Club. THAT made me a bit sad. Otherwise, it felt like a well-deserved celebration in there.
My wife reappeared and we did the damnedest thing – we bonded. We were focused on each other, in a way we don’t usually at the “fast casual” places. At those places, I write a lot. My wife looks at the other tables and tries to sniff out Tinder first dates. We’re often about other people when we dine out, but we were about each other here and maybe that’s because everyone else we encountered was also about us here.
Asado Del Norte, in English, is “Northern Roasts.” It’s a beautifully-laid pile of sirloin, bacon and meatballs atop vegetable ragout. It’s advertised on an old Facebook post as also containing tax cuts. The bacon was almost big enough to hide the six-ounce piece of sirloin, and tender enough to be torn apart with a fork. The meatballs and ragout, if put over noodles, would have been a top-five lifetime spaghetti.
I tasted the tax cuts, by the way.
When my wife is enjoying her meal, she says “So good” a lot with long ‘O’s. I’d venture she did this three or four times during her cheeseburger and during the bites of my food she had. I didn’t do that with the quarter of her cheeseburger I had, but make no mistake: it was, indeed, soooooo gooooooood. We wrapped up with a chocolate brownie and ice cream. That, too, was soooooo gooooooood. And that was that.
It’s easier to let go of when I know the gang will still be around. Niver’s still got Saint Dinette and Mucci’s Italian; Fratzke still co-owns Saint Dinette and has also teamed up with Matty O’Reilly at Republic and Red River Kitchen; and any restaurant owners in their right mind are sending Brink’s trucks out in pursuit of anyone not already re-employed or re-assigned to the other spots. They said it themselves: it’s not the end, but a series of new beginnings.
I took the shot of whiskey I’d been holding onto, took one last look at the red lights over the entrance, and walked away for the last time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Some minor clean-up edits were made shortly after this article’s publication.