by Steve Bivans
St. Paul, MN is my new home. It’s my Hobbiton, if you will. I”m a hobbit.
Some of you, who know me, or my writing, know that already. For those who don’t, or haven’t, I’ll just say that I’m a hobbit, mainly because there’s one thing I think about more than anything else: food.
I love the cooking of food, the eating of food, the talking about food, the thinking about food, and the dreaming about food. Food, food, food. That’s what I love. And can there be anything more hobbity than that? I reckon not.
Problem is, that I’m not originally from Hobbiton. I’m from way down south, the South Farthing, if you will (North Carolina).
Down there, food and hospitality are basically the state religion. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that. In the South, a wife and mother’s status—amongst other wives and mothers at least—depends largely on the crispiness of her fried chicken and the creaminess of her mashed ‘taters. Now, there was no scoreboard hanging up in the church fellowship hall or anything, but trust me, there was a scoreboard somewhere, though I never saw it.
I heard the scores though, you can bet yer bottom dollar on that! They were passed, in a whisper, from one mom to another, “Did you try Mabel’s ‘taters? Ohhh myyy, they were awwwful!” Or, “Yes, but Ethel’s fried chick’n is deeeviiiine!” Somethin’ like that.
So, I’m not a Yankee, but I live in Yankeeland, and here, hospitality is a bit different, because the people are different. Thanks to the prevalence of Scandihoovians and Germans, they tend to be, on the average, a bit tight with their words. It’s difficult at times to get a word OUT of some of them.
Now before you start thinking that I’m one of THOSE Southerners, comin’ up here to trash talk about Yankees, I’m not. But most Minnsnowtans know they are this way. It’s kind of the unwritten code of the land. There are many exceptions to the rule, however. I live with one, as a matter of fact: my girlfriend, Patience, who is just as friendly as they come, North or South. And I’ve met many other friendly Minnesnowtans who will talk yer head off, but the rule stands, and is in fact reinforced by the exceptions to it.
St. Paul is a bit, ok a lot, different than Minneapolis (where I lived for over 6 years). You would think there wouldn’t be that much difference between two Twin cities, straddling the Mississippi, but there is a difference for sure. I’d say you can’t really put your finger on it—it’s more relaxed, less pretentious, more ‘blue collar’ if you will—those are the things that stand out. But the reason is the illusive one. If you didn’t think about it much, you might also not be able to finger the cause, but the cause is really simple; St. Paul was founded by the Irish. And the Irish love to talk, and are renowned for their hospitality.
The mixture of both Germanic and Hibernian culture make St. Paul a unique experience, much like Ireland itself. The 12th Century author (I”m a medievalist historian, so here comes the ‘lecture’), Gerald of Wales, while accompanying the invading English king, Henry II, as he subdued Ireland and put them under what would be a 700 year subjugation, made note of many things including the character of the people of the emerald isle. He said, of the Viking/Norse peoples (who had come to ‘visit’ and didn’t go home), and I’m paraphrasing, that they “said very little, but never told you a lie,” whereas the Irish “talked all day, and never told you the truth,” surely an allusion to their penchant for telling ‘stories’, or ‘tall tales. And so if you want to know how St. Paul, MN is, just refer to a long dead chronicler from the Middle Ages.
Thanks to the Irish, Hobbiton, or St. Paul, is a place to find hospitality, and copious conversation on par with that in the South Farthing. There are some places, however, that exceed the norm and are for me, bastions of hospitality, and that brings me to my real topic today. “Finally!” you say. Sorry, I guess there’s a bit o’ the Irish in my own blood (my grandmother was a Crosby). My Irishness, mixed with lots of Southern blood, fried chicken and Bourbon, means I tend to ramble on once’tin awhile. Up here in Yankeeland, my favorite place to eat—we are talking about food after all— and drink, is Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse, on W. 7th St, in St. Paul.
For this wayward hobbit, Bennett’s is my Green Dragon Inn, the famous hobbit pub in Bywater, where Bilbo, Frodo and friends met to drink, and discuss the summer’s crop of ‘taters, ‘maters and corn, while eating succulent shanks of roast pork, beef and chicken.
Why is Bennett’s the Green Dragon? Because it’s run by hobbits. I’m not sure they KNOW they’re hobbits, but they are, and I mean the whole damned crew. But it starts at the top, no, let’s start at the bottom, with the food they put on the table and work our way up to the top.
The food is quite frankly, excellent. I’ve had numerous dishes from the menu, and I’ve enjoyed them all. Some of them are just to die for: like the pork chops, the wings, the burgers, and the Irish beer cheese soup, omg, that stuff is kick ass! There’s nothing better than a bowl of that on a frigid January evening in Yankeeland! The food is outstanding, and not overly priced. Is it cheap? No, but it’s not expensive either. I don’t like cheap food. You know why? Because it usually sucks ass. If you want good food, you gotta pay fer it! Only a Sackville-Baggins wants cheap food.
I could go on about the food, just trust me (I worked for years in the food industry), it’s good stuff. But to be truthful, there’s a lot of good food up here in Hobbiton/Yankeeland. Now, there isn’t really a good place for Southern Food, but lots of good food, nonetheless, and Bennett’s is up there on my list. As a matter of fact, this winter I went in there one afternoon, and they had a Southern Fried Chicken breast special with mashed ‘taters, that was incredible! I told the bartender, that it was “pretty damned good for a Yankee!” But then the other day, I met one of the cooks, Joe, a big ole guy from Tennessee! When I asked him about that special, he pointed to his chest and said, “That was me.” Go figure right.
The food is great, but the reason they TOP my list of places to eat, has more to do with the hobbits that run the place—yeah, I’m getting back to them now. Like I said, they’re all hobbits, even if they don’t know what one is—which is kind of ridiculous these days thanks to the movies—but hey, not everyone is into dragons, elves, dwarves and hobbits, though they should be.
I said I would go bottom up, so let’s go ‘bottom up’. The drink menu is butt-kickin’. I know, I was supposed to talk about people, so I’ll talk about the bar first. They have a great bar, and Happy Hobbit Hour, as I call it. The prices are actually ‘stupid low’, but don’t tell’em I said that, or they might raise’em. Their domestic pints, bottles and rail drinks are $2! Yeah, you read that right. And ‘call’ drinks are only $3! Hell yeah! And they have specials on appetizers too! And their apps are very good, especially their ‘sliders,’ which are only $4 during Happy Hobbit Hour (3-6 PM, M-F).
Not only are the prices ridiculous, the hobbit bartenders rock! My three favorites, and there are more than three—but these guys are usually the ones back there when I come in—are Ben, Cory, and Kim. They are super friendly and make you feel at home immediately. It’s like Cheers, and I’m not just sayin’ that.
The hobbit wait staff are also super friendly too. Even when they’re busy, they take the time to welcome you back, and they do a great job of keeping the beer flowing and making sure you have everything you want and need. Our very favoritest waitress, is Aryn. We luvvvvv her!
She is funny, sassy and remembers her customers, and what they order. We went in the other night, and she asked me, as we were headed for a table, if we knew what we wanted. I said, not really. She said, “You know you’re gonna get WINGS,”–we get them every time because they rock. I thought she was gonna fall over backward when I told her that for once, we weren’t ordering wings, because Patience had made wings at home the night before and I was ‘winged out!” Anyway, she is just awesome, and so are the rest of the wait staff, including Cory, who also waits tables.
I tell people all the time that I don’t need to meet the owners of a restaurant—or for that matter any business—to know what they are like in person. I can judge their character in the faces of their employees, and this is an absolute fact. “How is that possible?” you ask. Because there’s an old adage that says “Shit rolls downhill,” to which I have appended, “So does Sunshine and Beer.” And at Bennett’s it’s ALL sunshine and beer, for certain! So when I met the owners, which didn’t take long—the first time in the place—I was not surprised in the least by what I found.
Let’s start with Meghan Bennett, why don’t we. She flits around the place with extreme energy, and a smile for everyone. We first met Meghan at a Sunday Brunch—which was amazing (Patience loves their bloody-mary’s).
She stopped by the table, asked us how we were doing, and we got into an extended conversation with her about the food, the drinks, the place in general.
She told us how they got into the business, and how she and Joe, her husband, had worked in other restaurants and finally decided that “if we’re not gonna see each other anyway, why don’t we ‘not see each other’ in our own restaurant!” Which is funny, because they rarely ARE in the place at the same time. Maybe that’s the secret to a long marriage? I wouldn’t know, that’s for sure. (check out The Secret to a Golden Anniversary).
Then there’s the husband, the big man, Joe Bennett. I can say ‘big man’ because I’m one too, and hey, it’s the damned truth anyway. He is a big ole hobbit, in more ways than one. Joe is one of those outgoing Irish Yankee types that you just have to love, because he’s always smiling and hanging out with his customers.
He’s all over the place, behind the bar, AT the bar, in the dining room, in the kitchen, at the door, driving the shuttle bus (to sports games and concerts), but mostly, he’s at your table side to ask, “How are you guys doing this evening?” And it’s not some fake-assed, half-assed question. He actually wants to KNOW how you are doing. It is probably this one thing about Joe, that flows downhill through his entire staff—like sunshine and beer—and washes over his patrons to keep them coming back, again and again and again.
It reminds me of a few places back home in the South Farthing, and so I come back, again and again and again too. In fact, one day last December, I went in there after work (it’s just a couple blocks away), to hit their Happy Hobbit Hour, left an hour later to go pick up Patience, who decided she wasn’t ready to go, so I went back IN for another drink, then later, after picking up Duke (her son), we decided to go back AGAIN, for dinner. We love the place.
A lot of you know that I’m big on the whole ‘sustainable’ thing, and not just for food either. My book, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, covers topics from food, to transportation, and entertainment to funeral practices. But if there’s one thing that everyone on Earth can do to improve our environment, clean up government corruption, fix our local economies, and make ourselves healthier and happier hobbits, it’s to eat better food. When I say better, I mean organically, and naturally grown. When possible, this should be grown near to home as well. On top of that we need to store it, serve it and eat it, on and with more sustainable materials. In other words, by avoiding plastics.
Bennett’s does a pretty good job on avoiding plastics, though there are a few items that they could cut back on, or eliminate: straws, drink swords, and take out containers are the most visible ones. They do use real plates, napkins and tableware which I love. Also they use real tablecloths, which is a nice fancy touch, for a place that’s not really fancy, and definitely not pretentious. It’s one of the things I love about the place; they add special touches like real napkins and tablecloths, but the atmosphere is like Cheers, not some fancy-smansy, finger in the air, tea drinking place. It’s very down to Earth, very hobbity. I’d love to see them offer some organic, naturally, locally grown stuff, but that’s a conversation for another day, mostly because I don’t know where they get all their food, though I’m gonna buy Joe a beer one of these days soon, and ask him.
The biggest point of my book, Be a Hobbit, is to rebuild our Shires, our local communities. Get to know your neighbors. Share food with them, eat with them. Reintroduce hospitality to your Shire! In that regard, Bennett’s is a beacon of Shireness! It is simply the friendliest local pub in the Twin Cities, no contest. Joe and Meghan exude hobbit hospitality with every smile, laugh, and handshake they give out, and they give out a load of’em! Their employees enjoy working there; you can read it in their faces, and taste it in the food. For St. Paul hobbits, Bennett’s is OUR Green Dragon Inn. If we’re hungry, don’t wanna cook, and have no particular place in mind (unless it’s Bennett’s to start with and it usually is), then we almost always end up at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse, the St. Paul Hobbit’s Green Dragon Inn, where happiness, hospitality, home-cooked food and general hobbity Shireness abounds.
Looking for great places to eat, drink, or just hang out? Check out my favorites on FourSquare!