The long fight to be able to use the Commodore Bar & Restaurant’s west dining room has cleared another hurdle. The Saint Paul Planning Commission unanimously approved a nonconforming use permit on January 7 to allow the restaurant at 79 N. Western Ave. to expand into the space.

That is something owner John Rupp contends should have been allowed years ago. His dispute with the city cost him $25,000 in penalties and hearing-related costs in February 2020 after an administrative law judge ordered him to discontinue the restaurant’s use of the space.

Commodore
The Commodore’s restored Art Deco mirror bar designed by Werner Wittkamp of Ziegfeld Follies fame.

Rupp said the west dining room was built as an expansion of the Commodore more than 40 years ago. He said the space has had a liquor license and certificate of occupancy continuously since then.

“The Commodore closed in on its 100th anniversary in 2020, just as the pandemic began,” he said. Rupp has only used the bar and restaurant for private events since then, but he hopes to reopen to the public soon.

The western dining room is in a building that was constructed in 1976 as a squash club and dining space. Rupp acquired the Commodore in 1984 and the adjoining dining space in 2001.

A renovation project from 2012-2015 sparked a dispute between city inspectors and Rupp over the extent of the work that was done. An inspector attended a September 2016 event at the Commodore and saw the west dining room in use, which led to a fine and notice of violation in January 2017.

The dispute over the west dining room went on for several years, with the city saying it had not been cleared by city inspectors and Rupp saying he had used the space for more than a decade without any questions being asked. 

“The Commodore closed in on its 100th anniversary in 2020, just as the pandemic began,” Rupp said. He has only used the bar and restaurant for private events since then, but he hopes to reopen to the public soon.

In 2018, the City Council upheld a decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals that the west dining room could not legally operate. Rupp unsuccessfully appealed the decision, arguing that it had been designated for dining on a 1976 floor plan. He said inspectors checked the space repeatedly and did not raise questions until 2015, just prior to his reopening of the renovated area. 

The west dining room was closed off after Rupp was fined by the city in early 2020, but the rest of the Commodore remained open to the public until the pandemic struck.

Rupp said the west dining room is needed for the Commodore to successfully reopen. “Without being able to use it, (the Commodore) will never reopen to the public,” he said.

The Planning Commission placed two conditions on the permit. One is that final plans approved by the zoning administrator must be in substantial compliance with the plan submitted and approved as part of the application. The second is that Rupp adhere to all applicable code requirements and obtain a certificate of occupancy for the west dining room.

City planner Tony Johnson recommended approval of Rupp’s permit request. The Summit-University Planning Council took no position. Two neighbors sent letters in support and one presented a letter in opposition.

— Jane McClure

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