Location: St. Paul Dayton's Bluff
In 2017, Earl "Red" Schoenheider, the founder and proprietor of the original Red's Savoy Inn, died. His beloved restaurant closed shortly after, a victim of an outdated and crumbling building located at the T of an intersection that connected a highway off-ramp with the grid of an urban business district. More than once, a vehicle barely slowed down off the exit and plowed straight into the masonry that protected patrons inside the windowless dining room, a demerit to some, but an ideal feature for thrill-seeking pizza lovers. It bordered the western edge of Swede Hollow, a neighborhood now recalled with nostalgic fondness, but actually where (according to Wikipedia), "conditions were so squalid that St. Paul declared the entire neighborhood a health hazard. The last remaining families were forcibly evicted, and the entire housing stock was burnt to the ground." Soon after the destruction, the area became a dumping ground and gathering place for the homeless. Sounds like a terrible place in the mid-1800s right? Well no... this all occurred in 1956. So this is definitely sounds like a place where I'd start a pizza restaurant, and a few years after this mass eviction, Red had the foresight to set up shop in the area, even though it had never been electrified, plumbing was extremely primitive, and existing residences in the area were constructed almost entirely out of recovered and scrapped building materials. In other words, the area has improved only slightly in the ensuing decades. Despite its closure, the original Red's remains the gold standard for pizzeria architecture, location, and adventure.
Although Red's wasn't difficult to find or to access, the parking situation always resembled the opening demolition derby scene from "Love Bug" with cars and trucks randomly scattered about and brimming with passive-aggressive Minnesotans jockeying for in/out position while navigating a maze of potholes and ruts in the charmingly neglected surface lot. And you can't really tell from the exterior photo, but it was always blindingly bright outside the building, either due to the summer sun playing off the whiteish stucco, or because the whole area was encased in snow and ice during the long winter months. Either way, you needed sunglasses just to approach the building, which became obvious the moment you walked through the entrance.
"I CAN'T SEE!!!!" was the most common refrain from first-time visitors, their confused optic nervous systems bucking and wheezing, pupils dilating and re-contracting in a span of just a few moments. The cave-like and windowless interior was lit only from a few small TVs mounted behind the bar, a couple of flickering neon beer signs, and curiously, an aquarium, yet it offered just enough light to flatter the pizza while masquerading the heavily soiled industrial carpet and cigarette burns in the vinyl upholstery. Once your eyes adjusted, it was an interior designer's worst nightmare, but a pizza aficionado's nirvana.
All the surroundings can easily elevate an average pizza into a good pizza, and a good pizza into a great one, but what happens when the best-tasting pizza is served in such an environment? A top-of-the-charts ranking, that's what. I've enjoyed Red's with family. With the college mates. With JesseDEats. With Craig and Kari Jo. With Norwegians. With vegetarians. And of course, the Groundouts. And it's pretty universal: this is simply the best pizza. The sausage was ground on-site, the cheese was absolute top quality, and the famous secret sauce recipe was allegedly known only by Red himself, a top-secret carried around on a small notecard tucked into his wallet until the day he died. If you look at the last photo, you can see that even a simple two-topping pizza had some serious volume—so much packed into a relatively small area. And the hard plastic cafeteria-style trays the pizza were served on were oddly satisfying too. There are thousands... no millions of pizzas that I'll never have a chance to even try, but I'm confident that Red's will stack up well against any pizzeria. Since Red's Savoy has closed, they've grown their footprint around the Twin Cities to 10-12 satellite locations, and I've never actually been to one. It's not out of protest or some fabricated loyalty to the founder (whom I never met) but more because it's less convenient, and the new locations seem to enforce more of a "corporate" standard. While I appreciate consistency, convenience, and cleanliness, especially in such a germ-conscious time like 2020, the buffing and polishing of the brand (yes, it's now a brand with advertising campaigns and an app) I have no delusions that it will be the same. I'd imagine that the pizza will taste great, and the service will be courteous, and I'll be very pleased. I just haven't quite made it there yet. It's still too soon.
I endured some significant turmoil as the final rankings began to crystallize, but deep in my soul, I knew this is where the road would eventually lead, and I'm comfortable that I've got this right. I would never contend that the closing of Red's was a blessing in disguise or a silver lining in any way, but viewed from a practical standpoint, it retired at its absolute peak. It's like Babe Ruth: a little rough around the edges, maybe. But a no-doubt inner-ring Hall of Fame pizza that will be unequaled for many years. ( 11 of 10 stars)