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Culinary Curiosities: A Look Back to Dining at Dayton’s

An early menu from Dayton’s Sky Room, where meals and memories were served.

I don’t know if Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, ate out much, but his comment that “change is the only constant in life” seems particularly apt for the restaurant business. Often the developments are welcome: a burst of creativity in craft brewing, the growing demand for local ingredients and new restaurant openings. Other times the shifting landscape leaves us melancholy, reflecting on the loss of a favorite restaurant and its place in our personal history. The recent closing of the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s and its restaurants, the Oak Grill and Sky Room, also brought back memories of the Macy’s River Room in St. Paul, and their place in our dining culture.

The loss of Macy’s restaurants takes us back to a Macy’s that was once Marshall Field’s and before that, Dayton’s, our beloved, hometown department store. 

The downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s building, the retail gem of Nicollet Avenue, was built in 1902. Originally, Goodfellow’s department store occupied the space, but in 1903 George Draper Dayton bought and renamed it Dayton’s. With a 12th floor addition in 1947 the Men’s Oak Grill and Sky Room took shape. Over in St. Paul, the River Room Restaurant, which also opened in 1947, was originally in Schuneman’s department store. When Dayton’s bought Schuneman’s in 1959, and opened a brand-new building across the street on Wabasha a few years later, the River Room came along.

It was common for department stores to have dining rooms to keep shoppers fed, happy and spending money, but the Oak Grill, Sky Room and River Room were more than common. They were glamorous and modern, built with input from architects and interior designers to make them as beautiful as the clothes just outside the restaurant door. The Men’s Oak Grill (which until the late 1960s required that female guests be accompanied by a man) featured dark paneling, dim lights and a hulking, centuries-old fireplace brought over from England. The Sky Room, by contrast, was where ladies would lunch, enjoying a dramatic view of the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows. 

The food wasn’t revolutionary. Diners relished classic chicken potpie, turkey club sandwiches and wild rice soup. Families with children appreciated the Oak Grill’s “Little Miss Muffet” and “Little Boy Blue”:  chicken and mashed potatoes and burger and fries, respectively. Quick to adapt to the changing demands of female guests, many of them working women, the Sky Room installed a huge salad bar and quick-service counters for sandwiches and soup in the 1970s. But the signature item, especially at the River Room, was the popovers. Not content with a typical bread basket, longtime manager Robert Johnston, fondly known as “Mr. J.,” suggested the popovers and soon they were serving hundreds a day.

The restaurants built incredible loyalty among staff and customers alike. River Room hostess Lydia Lunney began at the Schuneman’s location when she was just a teenager and worked for 75 years. She even met her husband of 51 years, Charles Lunney, when he was a busboy at the restaurant. The attentive service and reliable food of these iconic restaurants became intertwined with family traditions, holidays and regional pride.

Nearly 70 years worth of dining came to an end when Macy’s closed its downtown stores in St. Paul (2013) and Minneapolis (2017). What’s next for the old Macy’s buildings? The St. Paul site, renamed the Treasure Island Center, will feature an ice hockey rink for the Minnesota Wild as well as other tenants. The Minneapolis building, purchased by 601W Companies, will likely have office space on upper floors and retail on skyway and ground levels. Could there be room for culinary reinvention? Surely the spirit of the restaurants might live on in the refurbished buildings. Here’s hoping for a change that includes a nod to the past. 

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