As the sound of power tools hammered and buzzed around him this week, Thom Pham pored over blueprints at his new downtown Minneapolis restaurant. His mood: bittersweet.
It had been only a few days since Pham's big announcement: On Aug. 8 he will close his beloved Eat Street restaurant, Azia. Two days later he'll open Wanderers Wondrous Azian Kitchen across from Block E at the corner of 6th and Hennepin.
For the flashy, gregarious restaurateur, it's a big gamble. It was only two years ago that Pham's upscale Temple restaurant fizzled on the edge of downtown. His latest attempt at expansion -- a second Thanh Do in Anoka -- closed earlier this summer. In May, he moved his original St. Louis Park Thanh Do into another strip mall.
"Getting in the restaurant business is a gamble, whether you're in St. Louis Park, Eat Street or downtown," he said. "I know I have a bigger and better chance of success here."
Pham is banking on a location that has proven toxic for other restaurants. Located in the historic Plymouth Building at 533 Hennepin Av. S., the space previously was home to Zake and Musashi (a pair of Japanese restaurants that no one seems to remember visiting), and before that, an Olive Garden. At 9,000 square feet, the space is huge, but well-suited for Pham's tastes. Azia is famous for being a dining destination that transforms into a late-night bar with DJs seven nights a week.
That said, both admirers and critics are asking: Why close a restaurant that's been your bread and butter for eight years? Pham described his future at 26th and Nicollet as "complicated." The building that houses Azia, he said, is in terrible shape and in need of long-term repairs. Although he is still under lease, Pham said his continuing legal dispute with the building's landlord has forced him to move downtown. Azia's adjoining rooms, the Caterpillar Lounge and the recently remodeled A25, will shut down, as well.
"That doesn't mean we're done with Eat Street," he said. "I put so much energy and love into that neighborhood. That's my home."
An ode to Nankin
For now, it's full speed ahead at Wanderers. Like other bar owners who have moved into downtown's entertainment district, Pham was attracted by the Twins ballpark. He said he learned "what not to do" in downtown after striking out with Temple.
"This opportunity is different, the timing is different and the location is obviously different," he said. Much of Azia's staff will relocate with him.
While Wanderers will feature Pham's usual high-end Asian fusion cuisine, it will also offer a more accessible menu for both the lunch and late-night downtown crowd. Think chop suey and egg foo yung -- with a twist. And don't worry, he'll bring over many of Azia's favorite menu items, including the cranberry puffs. "People will kill me if I take them off the menu," he said.
Pham will transform half the space into a classic early-20th-century Asian dining room with ornate hand-carved woodwork. The other side will be a contemporary nightlife destination with DJs, a 45-foot bar and windows that open onto Hennepin Avenue. For the restaurant's classic sensibilities, Pham said, he's drawing inspiration from the old Nankin, the landmark Chinese restaurant that stood for decades just a block away (Wanderers' name is a tribute to the Nankin's famous hair-raising cocktail).
With the August deadline he's given himself, Pham knows he has a lot of work to do.
"When this is all done, I'm going to go to a hotel and throw my phone and keys away and sleep for three days," he said.
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909