Nankin Cafe, downtown Minneapolis landmark, closes

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 1999 - 10:00 PM

The big balconies are empty and the goldfish-filled aquariums are no more as the Nankin Cafe, a downtown Minneapolis landmark for 80 years, closed this week.

It's sad news for Leland James, whose uncle, Walter James, founded the restaurant.

"It's like a death in the family," he said Thursday, a day after the restaurant closed. "I guess it just couldn't keep up with the changes going on downtown."

The restaurant's lease with Brookfield Properties, owner of City Center, expired at the end of January. "Brookfield and Nankin agreed together not to renew the lease," said Brookfield spokesman Doug Kline. "That's all I'm prepared to say." The Nankin's owners could not be reached for comment.

James has fond memories of the original Nankin. He recalled the decorations -- many of which survived when the restaurant moved -- as well as its dance floor and the music of the Dick Long Orchestra. "It was all very fancy," said James, whose father, Joseph, worked in the Minneapolis and Chicago Nankins for years. "And the food, from chop suey to chow mein, was the best in town."

Walter James founded the restaurant in 1919 at 14 S. 7th St., now the site of the Dayton-Radisson parking ramp. He opened a second Nankin in downtown Chicago in 1933, where it stayed for 15 years before moving to suburban Skokie. In 1949, James sold the Minneapolis Nankin to the Golden and Chalfen families, which also had interests in Holiday on Ice and the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team.

The Nankin moved across the street to 15 S. 7th St. in the late 1950s. In 1981, it relocated to City Center. US Restaurants, the company behind the Green Mill chain, were co-owners briefly in the late 1980s. The Wu family, founders of the Szechuan Star Restaurant in Edina, have owned the Nankin for the past 10 years.

The Nankin weathered some hard times in the past decade. Its traditional Chinese-American menu fell out of favor. A strike in late 1988 led to a five-month shutdown. A drug raid by Minneapolis police in early April 1997, in which 19 customers were arrested, didn't help the restaurant's fading reputation. A few weeks later, the Wu family filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, claiming a rent dispute.

Brookfield is hoping that the Nankin's considerable square footage won't stay vacant for long. Harold Brandt, president of the company's Midwest operations, is already marketing the space to potential tenants, including several restaurant and entertainment concerns.

"We think it's a good corner," he said, "particularly in view of the developments on Block E and at the Mann Theater." An entertainment-retail complex is planned for Block E, and the city is buying the Mann but has not decided what to do with it.

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