Restaurant Review: The Happy Gnome

The patio at the Happy Gnome
The patio at the Happy Gnome

Saint Paul, MN: The LSW and and I were driving through one of our old neighborhoods on a recent weekend in that happy quadrant that encompasses the University Club, WA Frost, Whole Foods and F Scott’s old townhouse on Summit.


One of the places just listed wasn’t there when The Observer called this neighborhood home. Back when he could be found playing stump-the-bartender at Frost’s or, if you came at the right time of year, climbing tent poles during Octoberfest at Sweeney’s.

The addition of Whole Foods was the beachhead in the transformation of the area from a population of slightly anglophile, abstractly-liberal academics to a group of give-me-social-responsibility-in-the-form-of-cool-retail hipsters.

While musing on these changes, the LSW and I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant next to the Saint Paul Curling Club.  I doubt many people remember all the other restaurants that have passed through the same space over the decades including the very forgettable Fraternity Bar and Grill that lasted, maybe, 3 months back in the ’90s.

Nick Miller has clearly had more success here with The Happy Gnome, now well into its seventh year.  The food is good and, if the weather is pleasant, the patio is a great place to relax, an urban sanctuary set off from the hipster section of Selby. The multi-level decking is well off the street and nicely fenced off from the surrounding parking lot.  Flanked by trees and with a canopy of small lights, it’s an easy place to settle in.

Settle in is what you’ll typically need to do, though.  The service during our visits has always been surprisingly slow and staffed by people who have an irritating inability to multi-task. Our server repeatedly schlepped back and forth between a given table and the cash register, only thinking in terms of points A and B and apparently not realizing it was possible to check on the other customers along the way.

The food was quite good but some dishes are overly-complicated: the delicate, sliced cucumber garnish gets overpowered on the Angus Cheeseburger. The fries were good and the freshly-made ketchup was excellent.  We also had an order of the Tater Tots, which are not like the small frozen bits you get at the grocery store. These are hefty, burrito-caliber Tater Tots, surprisingly flavorful and accompanied by a bacon-infused ketchup though we preferred dipping  them with the garlic aoli that came with the hamburgers. The Wild Rice soup, that staple of Minnesota restaurants, had just enough complexity in the flavors with a nice extra kick from a bit of Tobasco to make it remarkable.

They have a great beer and wine selection. The variety of beers, especially, is impressive and well-chosen.  There’s also has a great Bloody Mary bar set up during brunch on weekends.

The Happy Gnome certainly deserves to be on your list of places to stop but only if you’re prepared to go at their pace.

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