When I heard on Tuesday that 41-year-old Pracna on Main has quietly closed its doors, I used the news as an opportunity to grab my passport and head headed downstairs to the clip morgue in the creepy Star Tribune basement. I figured there had to be a Pracna file, and there was. Three, actually.
(The Strib is leaving its home of 90-plus years in March, so there won’t be many more journeys to this musty and fascinating repository of Minneapolis history, but that’s another story).
The clippings – fragile, yellowing, each one painstakingly folded and filed away in small mint-green envelopes by someone 40 years ago in that pre-computer era – were of course fascinating (well, to this history major, anyway), opening up all kinds of details of the restaurant’s early days.
First, the building. The slim brick structure went up in 1890, the first floor a saloon (serving beer from the brewery that would later become Grain Belt), the second floor a home for the Pracna family. About 20 years later the property changed hands, and the street-level saloon became Denell’s Bar. Prohibition put the squeeze on that enterprise, although a saloon returned following Prohibition’s repeal. But as the neighborhood fell into decline, the building became a machine shop and later a mattress factory .
Enter Peter Nelson Hall. In 1969, when Hall, then an architecture student, tried to buy the building (asking price: $10,000), there wasn’t a bank in town that would give him a loan.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Hall told Minneapolis Tribune reporter John Kostouros in 1979. “Even my mother.”
Hall borrowed $500 from a friend to exercise his option on the building (that's the Pracna building on the far left, in a 1972 file photo), and eventually found his loan with Louis Zelle, owner of Jefferson Bus Lines. Zelle grew up watching his father’s motorcoaches refuel at a depot in the neighborhood, and he shared Hall’s vision for restoring the building (which, according to another clipping, has a resident ghost).
Following in the Pracnas’ footsteps, the Hall family took up residence on the building’s second floor (that's the family's house, above, in a 1971 file photo).
Looking at today’s SE. Main Street, it’s difficult to imagine the derelict neighborhood that the Halls were calling their home. Those years must have been quite an urban adventure.
Twin Citians owe a debt to Hall (pictured, above, in a 1987 file photo), who can be credited with reversing the fortunes of one of Twin Cities’ most historic districts. His pioneering efforts brought eyeballs to a forgotten street and paved the way for St. Anthony Main, Riverplace and the neighborhood’s subsequent explosion of condominiums and apartments.
The public caught notice of Hall’s restoration work in 1973, when restaurateur Bill Naegele (pictured, above, outside Pracna, in a 1974 file photo) leased the building’s basement and first floor and launched Pracna on Main. No one knew it then (well, maybe Naegele did), but the restaurant would almost immediately usher in a new era in Twin Cities dining.
By all accounts, the menu wasn’t out of the ordinary. But Naegele wasn’t just selling food and drink, he was marketing something bigger.
“What Bill Naegele, the 32-year-old president of Restaurants No-Limit, Inc., is forever talking about is selling ‘experiences’ – ‘new experiences,’ ‘enjoyable experiences,’ different experiences,’ wrote Minneapolis Tribune staff writer Dick Youngblood in October 1974.
By that time, Naegele was operating Pracna (“a fastidious effort to emulate an 1890’s saloon,” wrote Youngblood), the then-new Amalgamated Eating and Drinking Company Underground in St. Louis Park and Lord Fletcher’s on the Lake, his Spring Park English pub on Lake Minnetonka.”
(Lord Fletcher’s had opened six years earlier, the work of Naegele’s father, Robert Naegele, founder of Naegele Outdoor Advertising).
Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan gave her readers a preview of the place a few weeks before it opened. In her column on June 19, 1973, she noted that the restaurant's decor was "a kaleidescope of great old Minneapolis buildings now gone," thanks to Naegele's "good taste" and "the scavenging hobby" of Carl Backdahl, head of Uptown Transfer Co.
"Doors from 'The Castle' town house on Loring Park open to the lavoratories," she wrote. "Light fixtures come from the turn-of-the-century home of a founder of the Grain Belt brewery. Embossed metal used throughout is from the old interior of Surdyk's liquor store. There's a vintage drinking fountain from the Minneapolis Park Board; a bas relief replica from San Simeon, former California home of William Randolph Hearst; and leaded glass and stained glass from churches everywhere.The main bar -- a dandy -- came out of a tavern in Weaver, Minn. The shiny brass 'cappucchino' coffee machine, however, is brand new and imported from Italy. Whee!
"I went through the backdoor of the former Jacob's jewelry store (where the plaza sidewalk cafe now stands) and stepped over a chandelier from the fur salon in the old Emporium store in St. Paul. I was in a new indoor, skylighted 'garden.' There's room for 60 lunchers or diners on the main floor, not counting the outdoor garden tables. Downstairs there is room for 100 more.
"The menu will include a daily soup and a daily special plus a few favorites, including a Welsh Rabbit "Zelle style," a bow to Louis Zelle, Minneapolis businessman involved in the restoration of the historic riverfront area."
Pracna was an immediate hit, both with the public and the critics.
"At the risk of sounding like Barbara Flanagan, our friendly common scold, I hearby flang, I mean fling, out a blanket endorsement of Pracna on Main," wrote Star Tribune columnist Don Morrison on July 9, 1973, a few days after Naegele opened the doors. He gives a great sense of the general decay of the neighborhood.
"This is a new bar and cafe across the river dere on SE. Main St., sorta under the 3rd Av. bridge," he wrote. "It is an area of derelict buildings and ruins and ugly square flour mills and railroad tracks and also happens to be one of the best favored and most inviting spots in Minneapolis," he wrote. "Main Street isn't main in the sense of traffic or urban action. It is a forgotten bywater. However, it is one of the few streets in our indifferent town that is right down at river level, that (except for abandoned railroad tracks paralleling the street) leads right down to God's own grass-grown river bank."
Then he goes inside. "Pracna on Main doesn't have to work very hard at atmosphere, as do some of the deep-downtown places going for quaintsiness," Morrison wrote. "It is a grandly nice old dump with amenities pre-existent. The ground-level main room is a shotgun-narrow space past a long bar to a slighly more expansive room at the rear, where a skylight looms over tables.
"I prefer the basement, just as elongated, where there is another attenuated bar, facign deep booths with velvet hangings redolent of all sorts of gaslit privacy and wickedness. Whatever happened to wickedness?"
As for the food, "Pracna isn't trying to make it as a fancy restaurant," he wrote. "I would guess it aims at the long cocktail hour and let's-have-a-bite crowd. I can speak in favor of the onion rings and fried shrimp, both daintily done with a flaky sort of batter coating. A member of my party professed herself pleased with a 12-ounce cut of meat billed as a 'Grub Steak.' Another tried the Pracna's 'unkept secret' sandwich, which was lightsome fried bread topped with cheese and pork sausage.
"Untested are such offerings as beef pot roast with cheese dumplings, 'old-fashioned beef and vegetable turnover' and eggs Benedict. Offensive to a former copyreader's eyes were menu items mentioning 'chedder' cheese, 'Welsch rabbit' and 'three-egg omlet.'
The restaurant was also an immediate financial success.
“[Pracna] opened in May of 1973 and is producing more profit out of 3,200 square feet of space than Lord Fletcher’s is with its 13,000 square feet of space,” wrote Youngblood.
“The restaurant is called Pracna simply because it was built 84 years ago by the Pracna family, whose name still adorns the brick structure,” added Youngblood. “And it faithfully duplicates – with its stamped-out metal ceiling and original dark wood – and 1890’s saloon because, logically enough, that’s what it was.”
Everyone, it seemed, was dining there.
“Since it opened 16 months ago, Pracna has run an average of 500 diners a day through the two levels of the 20-x-80-foot building, and Naegele talks almost reverently about the ‘incredible mix’ of customers, who range from middle-aged women in mink to bearded college students in jeans,” wrote Youngblood.
“’It’s working, I think,’ Naegele said, ‘because it fits the area, the cobblestones, the tracks, the river, the deteriorating buildings. I don’t think we could put it downtown and make it work.’”
Get these prices: The average Pracna check size in 1974 was $5.15 (by comparison, at Lord Fletcher’s, that figure was $10.25, and at Amalgamated it was $8). At the time, Pracna’s menu included 10 items, ranging from a $1.60 hamburger to a $5 steak. A Sunday buffet brunch was $3.25 for adults, $1.50 for children, with 25-cent coffee.
"Pracna's opening was celebrated with wall-to-wall beautiful people, and it's been that way ever since," said Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones in July 23, 1973, a few weeks after the restaurant's debut. "Even before the crowds arrive, when only the waitresses are present, the girlwatching is outstanding. The cafe society people come and the action starts -- front bar, skylighted rear courtyard cafe, outdoor courtyard, cool-and-cozy basement booths and basement hustling-bar where the stools are arranged with plenty of room in between."
Here’s Minneapolis Star columnist Don Morrison’s 1975 assessment:
“Pracna is situated on Minneapolis’ long misnomered Main St., across the river from downtown proper and running along the actual, honest-to-God riverbank itself, an area time absentmindedly has left to general decay and some old flour mills.
“Decaying along with the other structures was the 1890 building at 117 SE. Main St., which nestles under the 3rd Av. bridge. It once housed the business enterprise of Hans Pracna, and his family, which lived upstairs.
“About five years ago, a local architect, Peter Nelson Hall, discovered the building, restored and remodeled it and moved in his studio and family.
“Subsequently, Restaurants No Limit Inc. leased the first floor and basement for what turned out to be a very popular bar and eating place.”
(If you lived in the Twin Cities in the 1970s, chances are you have a Pracna story. Share them in the comments section below).
By 1975, Naegele was in expansion mode, transforming the Halls’ second-floor living quarters into a Victorian steakhouse (pictured, above, in a 1983 file photo).
“The Hall family has now moved from its upstairs quarters, to be replaced by the Pracna Residence Steakhouse, which opened late last month,” wrote Morrison.
“It is a really charming dining space, even more so, in fact, than that down below. My enjoyable visit was tinged with pure envy of the Halls for having been able to live in such surroundings.”
He loved the food. I’m fascinated by the prices. A 9-oz. filet was $6.95, a 12-oz. New York strip was $8.95 and a 16-oz. T-bone was $10.95.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Pracna building,” Morrison wrote. “But less impressed by the perfunctory food it has served down below. The good steaks upstairs now provide more impetus for return visits.”
In culinary terms, the restaurant certainly had its ups and downs, (my recollection from the late 1970s was that the kitchen was famous for its clam chowder). By 1979, the second-story dining room was dubbed Herman’s Steakhouse, and to say that a Minneapolis Tribune critic – byline unknown – wasn’t impressed is something of an understatement.
“It’s difficult to image how an establishment that serves only one item can serve it so poorly,” it said. “After eating at Pracna’s, I’m not sure that a chef is even on the payroll. On our waiter’s recommendation, we chose a New York strip sirloin ($11.95) and a rib-eye ($9.95). Both tasted like something you would get on an airline – dry, gray and remarkably taste-free. Our service was pleasant and the candlelight makes for a romantic atmosphere, but at these prices one expects something more – like good food.”
Pracna was a trendsetter in countless ways. For example, the booths in its basement dining room were covered with curtains, for privacy. In 1975, Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan published a rundown on the city’s six restaurant patios (the seventh, at the Black Forest Inn, was opening soon), including Pracna’s “outdoor beer garden with a skyline view and the sound of water rushing over historic St. Anthony Falls. You have to go indoors to eat, but that’s a pleasure, too. The interior is a must for ‘antique freaks.’”
As the years passed, St. Anthony Main developed around Pracna.
A mid-1980s addition to the complex (pictured, above, in a 1985 file photo, with Pracna in the center), which added structures on either side of Pracna, forever ruined, at least for me, the restaurant’s very pretty rear dining room. Pracna, both the restaurant, and the building, went through several owners and format changes. (That's the neighborhood, in an aerial file photo from 1978; Pracna is just to the right of the billboard).
Naegele sold the restaurant back to a Hall-led company in 1982. The city acquired the faltering property six years later, and Brinda Cos. took over the restaurant’s management. Ownership later fell to businessman and music producer Ira Heilicher; the building is currently owned by restaurateur John Rimarcik, owner of the Monte Carlo, Annie's Parlour and Rachel's.