Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop of Joan's in the Park talk Open Table awards and steak

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Courtesy Joan's in the Park
Susan Dunlop (left) and Joan Schmitt (right) of Joan's in the Park
It's been nearly two years since we first visited Joan's in the Park, a charming neighborhood bistro in Highland Park run by two industry veterans, Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop, who have years of steakhouse experience between them. Together they took on the rather daunting task of creating a menu they could cook mostly in the deck ovens left behind in their kitchen by former pizzeria tenant, Grampa Tony's.

"We are always having to modify how we might have cooked a particular dish in a different kitchen, but I think it really helps us to stay focused," says Dunlop, who is currently working on adding some challenging items to their winter menu, such as a tea-smoked duck carpaccio with cauliflower mousseline and pickled cherries. "We can't deep-fry things and I don't really have a sauté station -- that was true from the start. But we are more complex now. We're all learning more and doing more."

And with impressive results. The restaurant was recently the recipient of two Open Table awards, one for Top 100 Best Restaurants in America and one for Top 100 Best American Fare. The Hot Dish caught up with Dunlop and Schmitt to talk about what these customer-voted awards mean to them and how they feel they've evolved over the last two years in business.

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The Hot Dish: What does it mean to you to win these Open Table awards? 

Susan Dunlop: Our goal has always been to do something a little better each day. We started humbly and each day we are trying to grow a bit and do a little bit more. This is the recognition that our guests appreciate that. Whenever you get accolades it's definitely motivating, but it means more that this is right from the people we are serving and feeding.

HD: What is the greatest thing you learned in the last year of running your restaurant?

SD: I think it's been more of an evolution than any one lesson. In the beginning, you don't know who you are quite yet as a restaurant. There are so many unknowns. We feel more confident now and more secure in who we want to be. Opening our patio this summer was also kind of a milestone.

Joan Schmitt: That what we're really doing is working to make people happy. The awards are reinforcement that we are doing what we set out to do: to run a restaurant with our kids working here and to have regular guests that have really become true friends.

HD: What's the biggest thing that has surprised you?

SD: When we have 70 reservations on a Friday night, we kind of look at each other and we're still very much in awe of that. It's a nice kind of surprise to have a diner tell us, "This is the best steak I've ever had." That's satisfying.

JS: Meat prices. They're constantly increasing and we haven't raised our prices. 

SD: In the beginning I was so worried about the equipment. We can breathe a little easier now. My passion is cooking and so I think I wasn't necessarily expecting the level of relationship we have with our customers. I thought about the food and the kitchen. I realize that by keeping it small, we get a lot in return.

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Sasha Landskov
HD: How do you think people perceive or classify your restaurant? Is it different than what you originally thought it would be?

SD: We did always want to be able to offer great steaks, but I don't see us as a steakhouse, necessarily, beause we are much more of a neighborhood spot. I want to keep it small, friendly, and approachable. 

JS: I like that people think of us as a steakhouse! If we get recognized in that category, I am thrilled. I think it means the idea of a steakhouse doesn't have to be so traditional. I like that our little restaurant with the deck oven is competitive with the bigger places. We have the exact same product as most of those restaurants, but at a lower price. If we can keep up doing really good hospitality and really good food, we're happy with however the restaurant is categorized. 

HD:  What's coming up next for you at Joan's? 

SD: When we first built our bar we didn't know how people would want to use it. Would it be a waiting area? Would people want to have a full meal there? We just re-did it, so it's more comfortable for full dining. We're also working on a 15-course tasting menu that we plan to launch in January. 

JS: We also want to add some banquette seating to make it more cozy in the dining room. We're not trying to greatly expand, but we would like to be able to accommodate groups a little better.

SD: In the next year or so we are going to re-do the kitchen. That will add space for about 20 more seats. We want to keep it manageable so we are still able to connect with every guest. 

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Joan's in the Park

631 S. Snelling Ave., St Paul, MN

Category: Restaurant

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