40-year-old restaurants: Still fab

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2009 - 4:41 PM

When Taste debuted in the Minneapolis Star in 1969, where were readers dining out? Where they're dining out now: David Fong's, Lindey's Prime Steak House and the Lowell Inn.

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David Fong Sr. inside the dining room of his namesake restaurant.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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When Helen and David Fong Sr. launched their take-out chow mein shop in 1958 in what was then the semi-rural edge of the southern suburbs, did they have even the slightest inkling that they were making Twin Cities history?

Their leap into Twin Cities dining legend was pressed forward when, eight years later, the couple opened their glitzy, Vegas-meets-Chinatown restaurant and bar. That distinctive red-roofed landmark is where the Fongs raised their six children (their son Edward now runs the place) and where the family has done a masterful job, all these decades, of extending their warm hospitality to thousands of diners, one fabulous plate of chicken chow mein at a time.

The great David Fong's (not to be confused with Howard Wong's, another Bloomington classic that closed in the mid-1980s) is a pinnacle of old-school, Canton-meets-Minnesota dining. When food arrives at the table, it makes an entrance, complete with ornate serving dishes and elegant waiter-ly flourishes. All of the genre's classics are here: shrimp toast, moo goo gai pan, barbecued pork egg foo young, fried rice and the aforementioned chicken chow mein, a signature dish if ever there was one. Oh, and a triple-decker club sandwich, for those who prefer to eat straight-up American. Just one of many gracious touches, by one of Minnesota's leading restaurant families.

9329 Lyndale Av. S., Bloomington, 952-888-9294, www.davidfongs.com. Dining room open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; lounge open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday.

Lindey's Prime Steak House

There are no printed dinner menus at Lindey's Prime Steak House. Why bother? The kitchen pretty much sticks to a single item: steak.

Sure, diners can opt for a broiled shrimp option (a fairly recent concession to non-beef eaters), and, yes, there's a single side dish -- sautéed mushrooms -- and just one dessert: cheesecake. Other than that? Sirloin, done three ways. It's an asceticism that makes a wedge salad or a baked potato seem positively frou-frou, but Lindey's longstanding no-nonsense formula has made it one of the Twin Cities' most enduring and endearing restaurants.

Meals include an iceberg lettuce salad, garlic toast and a cross between au gratin and hash brown potatoes, each a comforting reminder of a less complicated dining era. The main show is, of course, the sirloin steaks, butchered and aged on-site and carved tableside. It's the one flashy thing about this amiable throwback of a restaurant; steaks, sizzling hot off the grill, are wheeled out on a cart into the dining room, their scent filling the air, and the staff performs its cut-and-plate ritual for all to watch. For steak lovers, it's the equivalent of a front-row-center seat at the Ordway.

The glorious knotty-pine dining room, all cozy amber warmth, is a bona fide Minnesota treasure. It started life as the Wagon Wheel, but entrepreneur Lewis Walter ("Lindey") Lindemer took it over in 1961. His family has been grilling great steaks -- and that's about it -- ever since.

Lindey's is the kind of fun-for-all-ages establishment where customers can join a club and save $25 on their birthday celebration (a deal, since the top steak dinner runs $27.95). During a recent visit I spied three birthday celebrations in full, beefy swing. I didn't see any candles stuck in a Lindey's "special sirloin," but it wouldn't surprise me.

Lindey's Prime Steak House, 3600 N. Snelling Av., Arden Hills, 651-633-9813, www.theplacefor steak.com. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Lowell Inn

Few Twin Cities restaurants can match the pedigree of the Lowell Inn.

For several generations, this elegant Stillwater hotel, which dates to 1927, was the place to wine and dine in style. It's probably safe to say that its status as a celebrations kingmaker has been eclipsed in recent years, although a slow-but-steady restoration is knocking a sparkle back in the old gal's eyes.

It may be close to becoming an octogenarian (it dates to 1930), but the George Washington Room, the inn's main dining room, remains a rare refuge of gracious-living loveliness. When the contemporary standard for success seems to be a deafening sound level, this room's subdued setting underscores what a refined pleasure dining out used to be, especially when the ornate grandfather clock discreetly chimes out the hour. Next time I visit, I'm booking a table in the Matterhorn Room, a quirky but stunning space where the house specialty is a multicourse fondue dinner.

Fondue. I know. So Lady Bird Johnson, right? It's not the menu's only yesteryear moment. For example, when is the last time you encountered chicken a la king or beef Wellington (both delicious, by the way)? Chicken livers sautéed with onions, pasta Primavera, chocolate fondue -- it's all a very pleasant stroll down memory lane, minus the white gloves and at much more affordable prices than my memory recalled. Most dinner entrees land, dollar-wise, in the mid-teens.

In that regard, this is definitely not your grandmother's Lowell Inn, but think of it this way: You probably couldn't have afforded it back then anyway.

Lowell Inn, 102 N. 2nd St., Stillwater, 651-439-1100, www.lowellinn.com. Open for breakfast 8 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday (8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Sunday), lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dinner 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

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