Cafe Un Deux Trois closes its doors

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2003 - 11:00 PM

The bistro that the Zagat Guide called "the hardest working restaurant in town" has closed its doors. After an 11-year run, Cafe Un Deux Trois in downtown Minneapolis served its final steak au poivre on Saturday night.

The Foshay Tower restaurant -- which was a highly finessed mix of brash moxie and subdued elegance -- was every inch the Manhattan transplant as its outspoken owner Michael Morse.

For many years, Un Deux Trois had an extremely loyal clientele, particularly at lunch, when the crowd was a lively and powerful mix of business leaders in finance, real estate, law, advertising and the arts, with Morse gliding and gladhanding the rush hour like an orchestra maestro.

"Marvelous things happened in those four walls," said chef Andrew Zimmern, whose 4 1/2-year tenure there ended in 1996. "It was one of the few downtown Minneapolis restaurants where you felt you were in an exciting, vibrant big city."

But in recent years, business began to falter. The Sept. 11th attacks and the weakened economy have hurt the restaurant industry, but other factors began to take a bite at Un Deux Trois. Never a stellar nighttime address, the restaurant's 9th Street location began to erode during its bread-and-butter lunch trade, as major businesses -- Fallon, Piper Jaffray, Fredrikson & Byron and the Minneapolis Foundation -- all decamped from nearby buildings to new but distant offices.

Competition heated up, too, as Zelo, Aquavit, McCormick & Schmick's and others began to open, and Un Deux Trois was no longer the hot name in town.

Even so, the restaurant's closing is leaving a trail of sad customers, including Bill Kampf, an attorney with a Foshay Tower office.

"Here in the office, Un Deux Trois was known as 'Downstairs,' " he said. "It had what I would call a convivial atmosphere. The food was good. And I loved bantering with Michael."

Just as regulars seem to have a favorite table, they also have a Michael Morse story (except Morse himself, who could not be reached for this article).

"I moved into the Foshay in the summer of 1993," Kampf said. "While I was looking at the space, Michael brought up a rolling cart of food and said, 'If you move in here, we'll deliver food here all the time.' And do you know how many times he delivered food, in all these years? Zero. I think there were some Midwesterners who took some offense at Michael's manner, but I never did."

Even at his restaurant's closing, Morse did not disappoint. Posted on the door is a sign that reads, "Cafe Un Deux Trois passed away April 5, 2003, one month prior to her 77th year (in cafe years). She is survived by her proud father and founder Michael Morse and by the many staff who served her during her long gracious life. She will be sadly missed by the thousands of friends she served and entertained during her lifetime.

"In her later years she suffered a stroke and [sic] Sept. 11, 2001 and never fully recovered. Still, during those years she continued to welcome, serve and entertain those who came. Friends came to see her during her last days and a final celebration of her life was observed by many on April 5, 2003. The family requests that in lieu of memorials you continue to remember her good days and times. She is sadly missed by all."

Russ Nelson, principal of Nelson, Tietz & Hoye and chair of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, was at the final dinner, quite by accident. In a depressing irony, he had been attending the opening party of Solera, the lavish new Spanish restaurant four blocks down 9th Street from Un Deux Trois, when he got wind of the cafe's impending demise. He had the steak frites ("They had the greatest French fries in the world," said Nelson) and had Morse sign his menu.

"There are many fine restaurants in this city, but it's hard to imagine one finer than Un Deux Trois," he said. "It was special. But who knows? This may not be the last we've heard of Michael. He's too good to go to waste."

For downtown Minneapolis, which seems to have a bottomless appetite for steakhouses and chain restaurants, an independently-owned, upscale restaurant such as Cafe Un Deux Trois stood out. Its closing might be a harbinger of things to come.

"Every time a restaurant closes, it's sad," said Vincent Francoual, chef-owner of Vincent and chef at Un Deux Trois from 1998 to 2000. "This is a rough situation we're in right now. Business is decent, but slower than last year. This economy, this war, I'm not going to tell you that it's good. I'm sure that we'll hear that other places will close. But then again, we also had four restaurant openings this month. It's a jungle, you know? People come, people go. But it's a shame."

Rick Nelson is at rdnelson@startribune.com.

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