It’s such a downer of a sight: The forlorn remains of what had been an influential, one-of-a-kind restaurant. Where landmark restaurants once thrived, empty or underused real estate remains, turning a prime location into a haunted address.
Anyone born after the mid-1980s can probably never fully appreciate the powerful dining-scene catalyst that was the New French Cafe.
When caterers Lynne Alpert and Pam Sherman opened the doors in 1977, their Warehouse District enterprise represented a new kind of restaurant, forever altering the city’s plain-spoken meat-and-potatoes mentality.
“The New French blazed trails,” said Lenny Russo, chef/co-owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market and a former New French Cafe chef. “Along with Faegre’s, I’d say that it started what you’d call a minor food revolution in the Twin Cities. A lot of people who have made an impact went through there, doing something transformative for the food community here. It was such a training ground, and not just chefs, but front-of-house people, too.”
Innovative cuisine aside, the New French jump-started the Twin Cities dining scene in innumerable ways. Its cozy storefront bar also boasted serious game-changer credentials; its annual Bastille Day celebration pretty much wrote the book on restaurant-sponsored street fairs, and its gallery-like dining room made minimalism comfortable for a generation of diners.
Despite several different ownerships’ attempts at revival and reinvention, the restaurant closed in 2002, a victim of increased competition and a changed neighborhood, with a mammoth basketball arena, a flurry of sports bars and nightclubs and a tangle of freeway ramps and parking garages forever altering the Warehouse District’s once-intimate scale. The New French remains empty, its glazed brick building looking more decrepit with each passing winter.
Today’s version: The Lynn on Bryant (5003 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., 612-767-7797, www.thelynnonbryant.com) for the restaurant. As for the bar, there is no replacement.
D’Amico-driven Azur didn’t last long, but it flared hot and burned bright during its brief 4 ½-year life.
“The Twin Cities’ most avant-garde haute cuisine restaurant,” declared Star Tribune restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers shortly after it opened in 1990 on the top floor of the Gaviidae Common shopping complex in downtown Minneapolis.
Chef Jay Sparks focused on southern French flavors and traditions, delivering a dynamic dining experience unlike anything the city had seen.
“Azur was really so far ahead of its time,” said Tim McKee, chef/owner of La Belle Vie and a one-time Azur prep cook. “Even now if it were around, it would be a trendsetter. The dishes that Jay was coming up with were just mind-blowing to me.”
The risk-taking wasn’t reserved for the kitchen, either; the dining room’s dramatic decor rocketed Twin Cities restaurant design into a new age. “It was stunning,” McKee said. “Really, really stylish. Some of those elements might appear dated now, but what from the ’90s doesn’t?”
If nothing else, Azur could be rightly memorialized as the launchpad for McKee’s highly influential career as the state’s first James Beard award-winning chef.
“I’d worked other jobs prior to that, but they were just that — jobs — nothing that instilled in me any sort of passion,” he said. “It’s where I got really serious about cooking. It was all so new to me. I mean, I learned how to peel tomatoes there.”
The adjacent Toulouse was the forerunner to the company’s breakout D’Amico & Sons chain. Azur closed in 1995, replaced by a bank. The real estate continues to be used as office space.
Today’s version: McKee’s own exercise in sumptuousness and food-forward cooking, La Belle Vie (510 Groveland Av., Mpls., 612-874-6440, www.labellevie.us).