Affordable and approachable are two key words Lowell Pickett uses to describe Vieux Carre, the new club that opens Tuesday in the former Artists’ Quarter space in the basement of St. Paul’s Hamm Building.
“The cover charge will be $10 or lower because it was important for us to be affordable,” said Pickett, co-owner of Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club, which is running Vieux Carre. “We wanted it to be approachable and comfortable, a place where people can hang out. It doesn’t have to be a special event to come here. We like to think of it as a neighborhood speakeasy.”
Citing the rising cost of doing business, Artists’ Quarter owner Kenny Horst closed the venue after a final night of music on New Year’s Eve in 2013. A few months later, the Dakota Jazz Club announced it was taking over the space, drawing praise from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who thanked Horst and the Hamm Building and welcomed Pickett back to St. Paul, where the Dakota Jazz Club first opened at Bandana Square in 1985. (It moved to its current home on Nicollet Mall in 2003.)
Pickett and his staff had hoped to open Vieux Carre much earlier, but renovations took longer than expected in the building, which is on the National Historic Register. To test out the space, the staff hosted a series of pop-up shows during construction.
“We got a lot of questions about what we are going to be, and those questions revealed what people’s expectations were,” said general manager Martina Priadka. “The feel of the space and the vibe of the guests were very important to us.”
In reimagining the room, Pickett said the staff tried to preserve the “cool downstairs vibe” of the Artists’ Quarter while modernizing some of its systems. They moved an office housed on the main floor to a space behind the stage, opening up some room in the process.
The bar and piano are the same, while the chairs and tables are new. A series of classic blues and jazz photographs from the Historic New Orleans Collection now line the walls.
The New Orleans touch extends to the venue’s name, which is pronounced “vyuh ka-ray.” It means “old quarter,” a nod to the former owners. “We love the sound of the name,” Pickett said. “It also reflects New Orleans, and both (Dakota co-owner) Richard (Erickson) and I love the music and culture of New Orleans. We’re bookends of this great American river, the Mississippi, and they’ve been shipping great music up to us for a long time.”
Crews also installed a small kitchen that will offer a limited menu of Louisiana favorites such as muffuletta sandwiches, shrimp and lobster po’boys and gumbo made from the same recipe used by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They even have king cake for dessert. The expanded bar selection offers a variety of wine and craft beer options as well as custom cocktails.
“Our goal is to make this a place where people can drop in every day,” Priadka said. “If you want to spend $5 on a real good glass of wine and $10 on gumbo, that’s a great dinner that isn’t a budget-stretcher. It’s a simple room with music, food and cocktails, all of them well crafted and created with love.”
Vieux Carre will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays, with live music each night. Tuesdays and Fridays will focus on jazz, and Wednesdays will feature acoustic music that will sometimes branch out into folk and singer/songwriter territory. As for Thursdays and Saturdays, Pickett said they will “mix it up. It might be jazz or blues or R&B.”
Collaborations and experimentation are encouraged, and Pickett said Manhattan’s famously eclectic Le Poisson Rouge is an inspiration. The staff plans to host musicians from the area, so the space won’t feature the touring acts that play the Dakota Jazz Club.
Pickett said Vieux Carre feels right at home in the Hamm Building, which also houses Meritage, Heimie’s Haberdashery and Park Square Theatre.
“It’s an interesting place with some idiosyncratic tenants,” Pickett said. “It’s so wonderful to be down here. St. Paul is a really special city.”
- Ross Raihala