Walking into W.A. Frost during the winter season is breathtaking. Even on a dreary afternoon, the room sparkles and evokes a warmer, more congenial yesteryear. From the lush carpets and furnishing to the deep mahogany woodwork, it is clear this place has been loved for a long time. And it has. Forty years, to be exact.
This year, W.A. Frost celebrates four decades of exquisite service and top quality cuisine in a corner of St. Paul once frequented by seedy characters. After World War II, the area now known as Cathedral Hill had fallen out of favor. The merchants that once dotted the narrow cobblestone streets left for the suburbs and the criminal element took over. But John Rupp had a vision. He, along with several other forward thinking youngsters decided the area was worth saving. After a post-college trip across Europe, Rupp returned to his native St. Paul and purchased the 1889 DacotahBuilding with the help of a friend.
From the beginning, Rupp designed the space with an eye toward romance. "It just fit the neighborhood, the beautiful buildings, the bluffs, the tree lined streets," he said, his passion for the neighborhood unchanged all these years. "I was inspired by my time in Europe. They have not let their old buildings deteriorate the way we had. I came back and thought, ‘this could work here.’ These buildings are irreplaceable."
"No one expected us to succeed," he said. "No one was coming here then, but look at this building, it deserved a second chance."
At first, Rupp and his partner focused on the corner bar. What was once a pharmacy owned by William A. Frost, became a charming, sun streaked watering hole. Slowly, dinning rooms were added into what were once dilapidated storefronts. "We surprised people with every expansion," Rupp said. "We aimed high and people have been pleasantly surprised."
The addition of an outdoor dining space originally met with some resistance from the city. "The Health Department objected to people eating outside, it was unheard of. They thought bugs would just drop in the food," Rupp laughed. Now the patio is regarded as one of the best in the Twin Cities. In the summer diners flock to the tree-lined, multi-level English garden paradise in the city.
While the restaurant retains its old-world elegance, the kitchen has evolved with changing tastes and culinary trends. A long list of talented chefs have used W.A. Frost’s kitchen as a launching pad for lauded careers. Lenny Russo of Heartland, Russell Klein of Meritage, Leonard Anderson of Tongue in Cheek and Wyatt Evans of the recently launched Heirloom are just a few. Today, Matt Kempf is at the helm, mixing traditional cuisine with regions of the globe that inspire him, like West Africa and the Mediterranean.
"Our menu is quite large," Chef Kempf explained. "So I feel like we can appease people who have been coming here for years and new, more adventurous diners." Chef Kempf offers a tasting menu every night of the week. "That is an outlet for me," he said. "I can try out new things that may end up on the menu. One of the things that appealed to me about W.A. Frost was the autonomy I’m given in the kitchen."
Rupp, who won the award for Outstanding Restaurant Design at the Charlie Awards for his recently re-opened The Commodore Bar and Restaurant, takes great pride in the restaurant’s ability to please a wide variety of patrons.
"We regularly host birthdays for 100 year-olds, to young couples on their prom dates, to everyone in between," he said. "We are an upscale restaurant, but we are not what I would call fine dining. You don’t have to save up to come here once a year. Just come when you’re hungry."
And that elegant European romance he worked so hard to imbed into his restaurant? He’s pretty sure it’s working. "I suspect we have been the background of many important moments in people’s lives. Many proposals have taken place here," Rupp said, exuding the kind of relaxed, well-earned confidence that comes from years of hard work and accumulated accolades.
Today, much of the original elegance of late 19th century Saint Paul lives again, in no small part thanks to John Rupp and his fellow dreamers, who knew way back then that The Hill deserved a second chance.