Whether you are a native Saint Paulite or a transplant, chances are you have a favorite bartender. Saint Paul is arguably short on some things, but people: when it comes to bars, you can take your pick. From the highest order, with oak and marble features, to scratch-off parlors in old working-class neighborhoods, there is a crowd and atmosphere to suit your taste. And I am not talking about the suburban-chain Cheers bars that sometimes creep past the city line. When I want a bar, I’m thinking the Turf Club (the old ’40s dance joint on University and Snelling) or the family-friendly Ranham Bowling Center with its decades-old lanes, 3.2 taps, and charming tarnish.
When I’m in the mood for good talk, W. A. Frost is my choice. Apart from its refurbished decor, its salvaged bank building marble, and its overall sense of history, which make you feel Fitzgerald and smell the cigar smoke of railroad tycoons, this is actually a pretty simple place. You come and sit down at the bar, and if it happens to be in the evening between Thursday and Sunday, you will be served by the best bartender in Saint Paul. Whether you want an icy concoction to start your evening or a hot coffee or tea to end it, Tom Johnson is there for you.
Since the late ’70s, the W. A. Frost & Company has done a brisk trade with state government officials, foreigners, artists, lawyers, single women of a certain age, and occasionally a former East Side punk rocker now tied to a mortgage on the uneven edges of Summit Hill. For the past twenty-four years, Tommy has been serving from behind this cool, high marble bar, where you can find him darting around from the sink to the register to the resplendent array of liquors and back with the perfect drink—all before you’ve had a chance to finish your sentence.
How is it that everything these days is called handcrafted? If you want to see handcrafted in the true sense, just watch Tom pour you a drink. He is in full command of his materials. If you order a Mojito or a Silver Bullet, he can mix them up simultaneously in a few seconds, using his own shaking technique, something that he tells me all bartenders have. If you want something simple, like a glass of white wine, but you’re not sure what to get, Tom may ask you, “What kind would you like to try?”
While you’re sipping that lovely, crisp Sauvignon blanc, you’ll be listening to a compilation of esoteric yet familiar music culled from Tom’s personal collection. No Sade or Kenny G here—we’re talking Mose Allison, LaVern Baker, and Oscar Lopez, seamlessly woven in and out of your ears without ruining your conversation. Tom’s music compilations are as carefully composed as his drinks, and together they work in tandem to ensure that your time spent at the Frost is a good one.
Tommy is fifty-ish, Irish-Czech, with a neatly trimmed graying beard, sharp blue eyes, and deep roots in Saint Paul. He is a first cousin of Mayor Chris Coleman, and in his younger life he worked at Mama’s, an Italian pizzeria on Rice Street. Soon he was working his way through many a smoky night at the Artist’s Quarter in Minneapolis. Thankfully, he ended up at the Frost. At that time on Selby Avenue, you could not find French or Russian restaurants, high-end wine shops, or chic hair salons. The Frost was an odd, secret gem in an important urban area that had perhaps lost its identity but clearly was well on its way to finding a new one.
I may not be a regular, but every time I go to the Frost, I am treated as if I am one. Someone will show up and eventually tell me some bad joke that I can’t help laughing at, and then Tom will be there, ready to take an order for another round.