Ghosts of restaurants past

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2014 - 10:29 AM

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.

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New French Cafe, 1982

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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.

Azur

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).

 

D’Amico Cucina

Few restaurants can claim to be the training ground for an entire generation of Twin Cities area chefs. But during its 22-year run (October 1987 to June 2009), D’Amico Cucina, owned by brothers Larry and Richard D’Amico, saw a veritable constellation of star chefs light up its payroll, including Tim McKee (La Belle Vie), Isaac Becker (112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, Burch) Doug Flicker (Piccolo and Sandcastle), Josh Thoma (Smack Shack) and John Occhiato (Cosmos).

“So many people have come through those doors and went on to do great things,” said Richard D’Amico at the time of the restaurant’s closing in 2009. “It makes you feel good. It’s like watching your kids succeeding.”

The highly polished Italian restaurant, located in the lower level of historic Butler Square (its predecessor was another high-end groundbreaker, La Tortue), was synonymous with pampered, expense-account dining, and it flourished, for years, attracting a bold-face-name clientele and a special-occasion aura.

But tastes changed. Casual dining became more popular, and the fine-dining segment shrank. When he pulled the plug, co-owner Richard D’Amico didn’t pull any punches: “Restaurants like these are dinosaurs,” he said.

The space, within shouting distance of Target Field, remains empty.

Today’s version: Occhiato, last chef at the restaurant everyone shorthanded to “Cucina,” is now cooking a block away at the luxury-loving Cosmos (601 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-677-1100, www.cosmosrestaurant.com).

 

Forum

If there’s a room crying out for another lease on life, it’s the Forum.

One of the country’s great Art Deco wonders, it has gone through more iterations than Elizabeth Taylor had husbands. It also survived being painstakingly dismantled — to make way for City Center — and then re­assembled in that soul-sucking complex, where a parade of tenants have occupied its mint-green-and-mirrors majesty, most notably Goodfellow’s (1996-2005) and the recent Forum (2010-11).

Each passing month its glitzy chandeliers remain unilluminated seems to further cement the Forum’s reputation as a food-and-drink graveyard. But surely there is a sharp restaurateur somewhere out there who can make a success of this giddily glamorous space?

Today’s version: If historic design bona fides are what you seek, soak up the considerable scenery at Bank (88 S. 6th St., Mpls., 612-656-3255, www.bankmpls.com), which occupies the gorgeous Art Moderne showcase that is the former banking lobby of the Farmers and Mechanics Bank.

 

Peter’s Grill

The lunch counter was the pre-1950s version of McDonald’s — quick service, moderate prices — although Peter’s Grill predated McDonald’s by 41 years. The restaurant spent the bulk of its life next door to Young-Quinlan on 9th Street (now, naturally, a parking lot), but by 1991 it had moved — well-worn walnut booths and curving laminate countertops in tow — to its third home.

That’s where it remained — with the exception of a short blackout, when ownership briefly changed hands, ultimately returning to the original family — until it closed for good in June, the last of the downtown lunch counters.

That final Saturday truly marked the end of an era, a farewell to uniformed waitresses and the flavors of the pre-fast-food world: turkey fricassee with dumplings, liverwurst sandwiches, cling peaches with cottage cheese and baked-daily apple pie. This is one story with a happy ending. While paper covers the windows at the former Peter’s (114 S. 8th St.), a breakfast-all-day enterprise, the Hen House Eatery, is on its way.

Today’s version: A cross between the Band Box (729 S. 10th St., Mpls., 612-332-0850), Ideal Diner (1314 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-7630) and Four Inns (101 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-291-7939, www.thefourinns.com).

 

Carousel

For more than four decades, Carousel twirled its way into the hearts of downtown St. Paul diners. Literally. This lazy Susan of a restaurant was one of those peculiar midcentury curiosities, a round platform, tucked under the rectangular roof of the city’s tallest hotel, that revolved as it offered diners panoramic Mississippi River valley vistas from its floor-to-ceiling windows.

The movement was almost imperceptible — a single revolution elapsed over 45 minutes, although in its final years the machinery was known to lurch and rumble. For added drama, the restaurant was accessed from the lobby via a showy glass elevator ride, an über-luxury touch on what was already the most expensive building (its budget approached $100 million in 2013 dollars) in the city’s 1960s-era urban renewal effort.

The 22-story hotel was originally a Hilton, later a Radisson, and now flies the Crowne Plaza flag. Carousel sputtered to a close in 2007 — the indifferent, overpriced fare and threadbare surroundings were probably a factor — and was replaced by Windows on the River, a private event space.

Today’s version: The kitsch-fest that is JJ Astor Restaurant (505 W. Superior St., Duluth, 218-722-8439, www.jjastorrestaurant.com), which is perched on the top of another 1960s oddity, Duluth’s 16-story Radisson Harborview Hotel. It can’t be a coincidence that both hotels were designed by the same New York City architect.

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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