A large brass bell hangs from a leather strap at the top of the front door. Tacked behind it with clear packing tape is a pocket pack of tissue. It’s a ridiculously simple contraption. When you open the door the bell swings and smacks the tissue, ringing out a muffled ding and announcing your arrival at someone’s idea of the perfect decibel level.
But there’s as much need for a bell on the front door here as there is on the front door of Grand Central Station. Wooden tables nestled along the perimeter are jammed with patrons hunched over newspapers blowing steam off the top of their coffee or huddled into groups of twos and fours catching up on neighborhood gossip.
Also, the place is small. Sure, the high ceilings and bank of windows overlooking the garden patio and St. Paul skyline make the room seem open. But the wood floor — scarred from years of people scooting in their chairs to let the occupants of neighboring tables squeeze by — tells another story. Bell or no bell, it’d be impossible for anyone walking through the front door to go unnoticed.
We catch a glimpse of something that may have been a menu of coffee drinks and homemade sandwiches above the register. It’s hard to say. Because our faces are immediately pressed against the glass of a tall, wood-trimmed bakery case like kids eying the prizes in a crane game. The case is filled with mouthwatering, oven-browned goodies. Baked french toast.
A slab of hash browns the size of a small brick. A crinkle-edged quiche. Sweet rolls swimming in a shimmering pool of caramel topped with pecans and bits of caramelized bacon.
The girl at the register asks if we’d like it warmed. The way she asks, it’s clear this really isn’t a question.
We order a few more lunch-appropriate items and wedge into a table in the front window next to gentleman grading student papers. Our only other time here, the same man was doing the same thing in nearly the same spot. It’s as if the place is trying to make itself familiar and comfortable to us.
The caramel roll arrives — a gooey, buttery, sweet, hot mess. Adding bacon to this mound of perfection feels almost dangerous. Like experimenting in bed. It’s tantalizing, a bit scary, and not absolutely necessary. But when it works, it’s unforgettable. The bacon works. We’re left staring at a bare sticky plate within seconds.
Just as the feelings of shame start to set in, the rest of our lunch hits the table. A hearty seafood gumbo, a moist-yet-crumbly corn muffin, crunchy battered french fries, sweet barbecue pork ribs, and (why not?) that brick of baked hash browns filled with ham, sausage, and cheese. The beef pot pie arrives in a large white mug topped with golden blanket of flaky crust. Hidden underneath are huge chunks of tender potatoes and carrots and beef held in a rich stock that’s just the right consistency, not the gloppy goo you’re met with in most pot pies. It’s the kind of comfort food people like to say grandma used to make. But she never did. Not really. Not this good. (Sorry, Grandma.)
A tour of the kitchen consists almost entirely of us trying to stay out of the way in a space where nothing is out of the way. No nook or cranny goes unused. Pots and pans and tongs and spoons dangle overhead. Stuffed utility shelves line every wall. The handles and knobs of industrial appliances poke out everywhere. We sidle by a small center island where a woman is pressing layers of egg-soaked bread into a baking pan. The claustrophobia begins to take hold about the time owner Wes Lindstrom informs us that the kitchen was actually recently expanded. This is expanded? We could’ve fallen over, if there were any room to fall.
If you stumbled into Swede Hollow while passing through some quaint European town, you’d think you’d died and were born again as Rick Steve’s unearthing some hidden gem in a far corner of the world. But here it is tucked in the corner of an historic building on Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul. Taken almost for granted in our own backyard.
Swede Hollow is a good reminder. At a time when even the smallest business decision has to be thoroughly rationalized using animated PowerPoint presentations and approved by faceless committees in dark conference rooms, we need a place that puts bacon on a caramel roll. Some things defy explanation because they’re one person’s idea of perfection, like that bell / tissue contraption on the front door. You may never notice it, but it’s music to somebody’s ear. And we’d all miss it if it were gone.
BEST BET: The mocha is a velvety mugful of house-made chocolate, espresso, and milk with a little chocolate bar balanced on the brim. A sign claims it’s the best in town. That’s an understatement. Also, don’t miss the caramel roll. Warmed, of course.
(Originally appeared at HeavyTable.com)