The state's last bastion of fine dining is calling it quits.
La Belle Vie chef/owner Tim McKee announced that he is closing his much-lauded, highly polished culinary playground later this month, citing changing consumer tastes, rising costs and increased competition. A lengthy road construction project on Hennepin Avenue outside the restaurant only compounded the problem.
"It's hard to reconcile," said McKee. "How can we be so appreciated, yet we have to close our doors? There are hundreds of reasons why, and they all add up to make this decision a necessity. Everything I say seems kind of trite, but the fact of the matter is, this is a hard business."
Maintaining a viable balance sheet in the restaurant industry's shrinking fine-dining segment has been particularly tough in recent years, as customers have come to prefer more casual dining options.
"The dining room at La Belle Vie just says, 'fine dining'; there's nothing casual about it," said Jay Sparks, the former longtime executive chef for D'Amico and Partners, and McKee's mentor. "But what people want out of a dining experience has changed to a large degree, so, given the state of things, I guess the news is not too surprising. My speculation is that Tim felt like he was fighting an uphill battle that couldn't be won."
McKee and former business partner Josh Thoma were both veterans of a previous era's dining Mount Olympus — D'Amico Cucina in downtown Minneapolis — when they launched La Belle Vie in a small downtown Stillwater storefront in 1998. The restaurant quickly ascended to the top of the local food chain, garnering the kind of adoring national attention that few Twin Cities dining establishments have matched.
In 2005, McKee and Thoma relocated the restaurant into the patrician 510 Groveland building in Minneapolis, setting new benchmarks for service, atmosphere and tasting menu opulence.
A sumptuous lounge, the realm of bartender Johnny Michaels, ignited the region's craft cocktail scene and offered an accessible alternative to the city's ultimate gustatory extravagance, the serene dining room's 12-course, $145 tasting menu.
"I can't count how many times I've been told, 'This is the best meal I've ever had,' " said McKee. "That is so incredibly special, and I can't help but be extremely proud of that."
During its 17-year run, the four-star La Belle Vie held a constant place at the summit of the local Zagat rating.
In 2009, McKee won his industry's equivalent of the Oscar when he was named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, the first Minnesota chef so honored. Since then, the restaurant has accumulated an unprecedented nine Beard semifinalist nods, in the Outstanding Restaurant, Chef, Service, Wine Service and Bar Program categories.
"It's the standard-bearer," said chef Mike DeCamp, who spent most of his career in the La Belle Vie kitchen before leaving this past spring to launch Monello at the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis.
DeCamp is one of the names on a long list of top Twin Cities chefs mentored by McKee, a roster that includes Jim Christiansen of Heyday, Daniel del Prado of Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, Adam Eaton of Saint Dinette and Diane Yang of Spoon and Stable. The partnership of Thoma and McKee split in 2010.
McKee, arguably the state's most influential chef, will continue as a partner and vice president of culinary development for Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the company behind Manny's Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Salut Bar Americain and other properties. He's also owner of Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater and a consultant for Sea Change, the Guthrie Theater's primary restaurant, and Sushi Avenue, which operates Masu Sushi & Robata.
La Belle Vie's 45 employees were notified of the news Thursday afternoon.
"It's really humbling, because every day I work with the best of the best in the Twin Cities," said McKee. "This is a family for everyone who works here, and letting go of that is surely the hardest part."
La Belle Vie's final dinner will be served Oct. 24, one day shy of the 10th anniversary of the restaurant's debut at its current location.
McKee said the ultimate reason that his labor of love is closing is because of its status as a special occasion destination.
"The problem is, people don't have enough special occasions," he said. "The underlying message of all this is, if there's a restaurant that means something to you and you really think is important, it's your responsibility to keep them busy."
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