When I heard on Tuesday that 41-year-old Pracna on Main has quietly closed its doors, I used the news as an opportunity to grab my passport and head headed downstairs to the clip morgue in the creepy Star Tribune basement. I figured there had to be a Pracna file, and there was. Three, actually.
(The Strib is leaving its home of 90-plus years in March, so there won’t be many more journeys to this musty and fascinating repository of Minneapolis history, but that’s another story).
The clippings – fragile, yellowing, each one painstakingly folded and filed away in small mint-green envelopes by someone 40 years ago in that pre-computer era – were of course fascinating (well, to this history major, anyway), opening up all kinds of details of the restaurant’s early days.
First, the building. The slim brick structure went up in 1890, the first floor a saloon (serving beer from the brewery that would later become Grain Belt), the second floor a home for the Pracna family. About 20 years later the property changed hands, and the street-level saloon became Denell’s Bar. Prohibition put the squeeze on that enterprise, although a saloon returned following Prohibition’s repeal. But as the neighborhood fell into decline, the building became a machine shop and later a mattress factory .
Enter Peter Nelson Hall. In 1969, when Hall, then an architecture student, tried to buy the building (asking price: $10,000), there wasn’t a bank in town that would give him a loan.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Hall told Minneapolis Tribune reporter John Kostouros in 1979. “Even my mother.”
Hall borrowed $500 from a friend to exercise his option on the building (that's the Pracna building on the far left, in a 1972 file photo), and eventually found his loan with Louis Zelle, owner of Jefferson Bus Lines. Zelle grew up watching his father’s motorcoaches refuel at a depot in the neighborhood, and he shared Hall’s vision for restoring the building (which, according to another clipping, has a resident ghost).
Following in the Pracnas’ footsteps, the Hall family took up residence on the building’s second floor (that's the family's house, above, in a 1971 file photo).
Looking at today’s SE. Main Street, it’s difficult to imagine the derelict neighborhood that the Halls were calling their home. Those years must have been quite an urban adventure.
Twin Citians owe a debt to Hall (pictured, above, in a 1987 file photo), who can be credited with reversing the fortunes of one of Twin Cities’ most historic districts. His pioneering efforts brought eyeballs to a forgotten street and paved the way for St. Anthony Main, Riverplace and the neighborhood’s subsequent explosion of condominiums and apartments.
The public caught notice of Hall’s restoration work in 1973, when restaurateur Bill Naegele (pictured, above, outside Pracna, in a 1974 file photo) leased the building’s basement and first floor and launched Pracna on Main. No one knew it then (well, maybe Naegele did), but the restaurant would almost immediately usher in a new era in Twin Cities dining.
By all accounts, the menu wasn’t out of the ordinary. But Naegele wasn’t just selling food and drink, he was marketing something bigger.
“What Bill Naegele, the 32-year-old president of Restaurants No-Limit, Inc., is forever talking about is selling ‘experiences’ – ‘new experiences,’ ‘enjoyable experiences,’ different experiences,’ wrote Minneapolis Tribune staff writer Dick Youngblood in October 1974.
By that time, Naegele was operating Pracna (“a fastidious effort to emulate an 1890’s saloon,” wrote Youngblood), the then-new Amalgamated Eating and Drinking Company Underground in St. Louis Park and Lord Fletcher’s on the Lake, his Spring Park English pub on Lake Minnetonka.”
(Lord Fletcher’s had opened six years earlier, the work of Naegele’s father, Robert Naegele, founder of Naegele Outdoor Advertising).
Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan gave her readers a preview of the place a few weeks before it opened. In her column on June 19, 1973, she noted that the restaurant's decor was "a kaleidescope of great old Minneapolis buildings now gone," thanks to Naegele's "good taste" and "the scavenging hobby" of Carl Backdahl, head of Uptown Transfer Co.
"Doors from 'The Castle' town house on Loring Park open to the lavoratories," she wrote. "Light fixtures come from the turn-of-the-century home of a founder of the Grain Belt brewery. Embossed metal used throughout is from the old interior of Surdyk's liquor store. There's a vintage drinking fountain from the Minneapolis Park Board; a bas relief replica from San Simeon, former California home of William Randolph Hearst; and leaded glass and stained glass from churches everywhere.The main bar -- a dandy -- came out of a tavern in Weaver, Minn. The shiny brass 'cappucchino' coffee machine, however, is brand new and imported from Italy. Whee!
"I went through the backdoor of the former Jacob's jewelry store (where the plaza sidewalk cafe now stands) and stepped over a chandelier from the fur salon in the old Emporium store in St. Paul. I was in a new indoor, skylighted 'garden.' There's room for 60 lunchers or diners on the main floor, not counting the outdoor garden tables. Downstairs there is room for 100 more.
"The menu will include a daily soup and a daily special plus a few favorites, including a Welsh Rabbit "Zelle style," a bow to Louis Zelle, Minneapolis businessman involved in the restoration of the historic riverfront area."
Pracna was an immediate hit, both with the public and the critics.
"At the risk of sounding like Barbara Flanagan, our friendly common scold, I hearby flang, I mean fling, out a blanket endorsement of Pracna on Main," wrote Star Tribune columnist Don Morrison on July 9, 1973, a few days after Naegele opened the doors. He gives a great sense of the general decay of the neighborhood.
"This is a new bar and cafe across the river dere on SE. Main St., sorta under the 3rd Av. bridge," he wrote. "It is an area of derelict buildings and ruins and ugly square flour mills and railroad tracks and also happens to be one of the best favored and most inviting spots in Minneapolis," he wrote. "Main Street isn't main in the sense of traffic or urban action. It is a forgotten bywater. However, it is one of the few streets in our indifferent town that is right down at river level, that (except for abandoned railroad tracks paralleling the street) leads right down to God's own grass-grown river bank."
Then he goes inside. "Pracna on Main doesn't have to work very hard at atmosphere, as do some of the deep-downtown places going for quaintsiness," Morrison wrote. "It is a grandly nice old dump with amenities pre-existent. The ground-level main room is a shotgun-narrow space past a long bar to a slighly more expansive room at the rear, where a skylight looms over tables.
"I prefer the basement, just as elongated, where there is another attenuated bar, facign deep booths with velvet hangings redolent of all sorts of gaslit privacy and wickedness. Whatever happened to wickedness?"
As for the food, "Pracna isn't trying to make it as a fancy restaurant," he wrote. "I would guess it aims at the long cocktail hour and let's-have-a-bite crowd. I can speak in favor of the onion rings and fried shrimp, both daintily done with a flaky sort of batter coating. A member of my party professed herself pleased with a 12-ounce cut of meat billed as a 'Grub Steak.' Another tried the Pracna's 'unkept secret' sandwich, which was lightsome fried bread topped with cheese and pork sausage.
"Untested are such offerings as beef pot roast with cheese dumplings, 'old-fashioned beef and vegetable turnover' and eggs Benedict. Offensive to a former copyreader's eyes were menu items mentioning 'chedder' cheese, 'Welsch rabbit' and 'three-egg omlet.'
The restaurant was also an immediate financial success.
“[Pracna] opened in May of 1973 and is producing more profit out of 3,200 square feet of space than Lord Fletcher’s is with its 13,000 square feet of space,” wrote Youngblood.
“The restaurant is called Pracna simply because it was built 84 years ago by the Pracna family, whose name still adorns the brick structure,” added Youngblood. “And it faithfully duplicates – with its stamped-out metal ceiling and original dark wood – and 1890’s saloon because, logically enough, that’s what it was.”
Everyone, it seemed, was dining there.
“Since it opened 16 months ago, Pracna has run an average of 500 diners a day through the two levels of the 20-x-80-foot building, and Naegele talks almost reverently about the ‘incredible mix’ of customers, who range from middle-aged women in mink to bearded college students in jeans,” wrote Youngblood.
“’It’s working, I think,’ Naegele said, ‘because it fits the area, the cobblestones, the tracks, the river, the deteriorating buildings. I don’t think we could put it downtown and make it work.’”
Get these prices: The average Pracna check size in 1974 was $5.15 (by comparison, at Lord Fletcher’s, that figure was $10.25, and at Amalgamated it was $8). At the time, Pracna’s menu included 10 items, ranging from a $1.60 hamburger to a $5 steak. A Sunday buffet brunch was $3.25 for adults, $1.50 for children, with 25-cent coffee.
"Pracna's opening was celebrated with wall-to-wall beautiful people, and it's been that way ever since," said Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones in July 23, 1973, a few weeks after the restaurant's debut. "Even before the crowds arrive, when only the waitresses are present, the girlwatching is outstanding. The cafe society people come and the action starts -- front bar, skylighted rear courtyard cafe, outdoor courtyard, cool-and-cozy basement booths and basement hustling-bar where the stools are arranged with plenty of room in between."
Here’s Minneapolis Star columnist Don Morrison’s 1975 assessment:
“Pracna is situated on Minneapolis’ long misnomered Main St., across the river from downtown proper and running along the actual, honest-to-God riverbank itself, an area time absentmindedly has left to general decay and some old flour mills.
“Decaying along with the other structures was the 1890 building at 117 SE. Main St., which nestles under the 3rd Av. bridge. It once housed the business enterprise of Hans Pracna, and his family, which lived upstairs.
“About five years ago, a local architect, Peter Nelson Hall, discovered the building, restored and remodeled it and moved in his studio and family.
“Subsequently, Restaurants No Limit Inc. leased the first floor and basement for what turned out to be a very popular bar and eating place.”
(If you lived in the Twin Cities in the 1970s, chances are you have a Pracna story. Share them in the comments section below).
By 1975, Naegele was in expansion mode, transforming the Halls’ second-floor living quarters into a Victorian steakhouse (pictured, above, in a 1983 file photo).
“The Hall family has now moved from its upstairs quarters, to be replaced by the Pracna Residence Steakhouse, which opened late last month,” wrote Morrison.
“It is a really charming dining space, even more so, in fact, than that down below. My enjoyable visit was tinged with pure envy of the Halls for having been able to live in such surroundings.”
He loved the food. I’m fascinated by the prices. A 9-oz. filet was $6.95, a 12-oz. New York strip was $8.95 and a 16-oz. T-bone was $10.95.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Pracna building,” Morrison wrote. “But less impressed by the perfunctory food it has served down below. The good steaks upstairs now provide more impetus for return visits.”
In culinary terms, the restaurant certainly had its ups and downs, (my recollection from the late 1970s was that the kitchen was famous for its clam chowder). By 1979, the second-story dining room was dubbed Herman’s Steakhouse, and to say that a Minneapolis Tribune critic – byline unknown – wasn’t impressed is something of an understatement.
“It’s difficult to image how an establishment that serves only one item can serve it so poorly,” it said. “After eating at Pracna’s, I’m not sure that a chef is even on the payroll. On our waiter’s recommendation, we chose a New York strip sirloin ($11.95) and a rib-eye ($9.95). Both tasted like something you would get on an airline – dry, gray and remarkably taste-free. Our service was pleasant and the candlelight makes for a romantic atmosphere, but at these prices one expects something more – like good food.”
Pracna was a trendsetter in countless ways. For example, the booths in its basement dining room were covered with curtains, for privacy. In 1975, Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan published a rundown on the city’s six restaurant patios (the seventh, at the Black Forest Inn, was opening soon), including Pracna’s “outdoor beer garden with a skyline view and the sound of water rushing over historic St. Anthony Falls. You have to go indoors to eat, but that’s a pleasure, too. The interior is a must for ‘antique freaks.’”
As the years passed, St. Anthony Main developed around Pracna.
A mid-1980s addition to the complex (pictured, above, in a 1985 file photo, with Pracna in the center), which added structures on either side of Pracna, forever ruined, at least for me, the restaurant’s very pretty rear dining room. Pracna, both the restaurant, and the building, went through several owners and format changes. (That's the neighborhood, in an aerial file photo from 1978; Pracna is just to the right of the billboard).
Naegele sold the restaurant back to a Hall-led company in 1982. The city acquired the faltering property six years later, and Brinda Cos. took over the restaurant’s management. Ownership later fell to businessman and music producer Ira Heilicher; the building is currently owned by restaurateur John Rimarcik, owner of the Monte Carlo, Annie's Parlour and Rachel's.
The stroller magnet is at the end of its first-floor lease and is relocating upstairs to a third-floor spot near its corporate cousin, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Both restaurants are part of Houston-based Landry's Inc., which operates more than 450 restaurant properties.
The last day at the old location is Jan. 18. Construction begins on the new location this month, with a target opening date of fall 2015.
“We were presented with the opportunity to relocate Rainforest Cafe to a prime location within the Mall of America,” said Keith Beitler, COO of Rainforest Cafe, in a statement. “We look forward to serving our loyal patrons and tourists this fall; and know that families will love the new location and its convenience while shopping.”
The release added that “current employees of Rainforest Cafe will be placed at other Landry’s properties until the new opening,” but that’s not what we heard.
“We’re all pretty much out of a job,” said an employee who wished to remain nameless. “We were told we can reapply when the new location opens, but we were told that no one is guaranteed their old job.”
Calls to Landry's corporate office have not been returned. The staff was informed of the news last Friday, the employee said.
There’s a bit of nostalgia involved with the change. The Mall of America location was the chain’s prototype (there are now 27 outlets in 12 states and five countries) and was the creation of local entrepreneur Steve Schussler. Landry purchased the Rainforest Cafe chain in 2000 for $75 million.
For the staff, the news did not come as a huge surprise.
“We all knew that a change was coming, that we would be moving,” said the employee, who has worked at the jungle-themed eatertainery as a server for a year. “We thought we’d be going into the new part of the mall that's going up on the IKEA side of the building. I don’t think anyone is trying to put us out of a job, it’s really more of a series of unfortunate events. We thought we’d be closing one day and moving into the new location the next day, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
She’ll be back to reapply for her job, she said, and she probably won’t be the only one, adding that there are members of the hundred-plus staff who have worked in the restaurant since the day it opened in 1994.
“I love my job,” she said. “Of all of the jobs I’ve had, it’s one of my favorites. They treat us well, and the money is really good. It’s such a fun place to work. I mean, who else has thunderstorms and moving fake monkeys where they work?"
Solera has closed.
“With hundreds of new dining options in town, most offering small plates, the Spanish food and wine niche seems too small for a 220 seat restaurant, two floors of event space and a popular rooftop bar,” said general manager Jay Viskocil in a statement. “The building owners are looking for a more accessible concept and have a number of interested parties.”
When it opened in 2003, Solera was the influential brainchild of La Belle Vie owners Tim McKee and Josh Thoma. The ambitious project revived the former Backstage at Bravo, sprawling across a building adjacent to the Orpheum Theatre on Hennepin Av. and 9th St. in downtown Minneapolis.
On the food-and-drink side, Solera was a major trendsetter, with a menu that emphasized a huge array of Spanish tapas; the bar stocked dozens of sherries. Solera earned a four-star review from the Star Tribune; later that year, McKee and Thoma were named the Star Tribune’s Restaurateurs of the Year, a precursor to the newspaper’s annual Restaurant of the Year award.
McKee and Thoma parted ways in 2010 and sold Solera to to a subsidiary of the Hennepin Avenue Opportunity Fund, which turned over management of the facility to Graves Hospitality Corp. Longtime chef Jorge Guzman departed earlier this year to create the dining side of Surly Brewing Co.’s just-opened $34 million complex in southeast Minneapolis.
Graves has another Minneapolis project in the works. Its Bradstreet Craftshouse, formerly a first-floor anchor of the Graves 601 Hotel (which the company sold to Loews Hotels & Resorts last summer), is moving into the former Rye Deli and re-christening itself Bradstreet Neighborhood Craftshouse. Construction is underway.
The burger: The kitchen at newcomer Pub 819 channels a considerable amount of creative energy into its burger roster. That’s an agenda that merits support.
Chef Joe Wuestenhagen (a Hell’s Kitchen vet) takes some memorable twists. One subs in ground bratwurst for beef, another folds ground gyro meat into beef, and the patty of a third is a fifty-fifty blend of chorizo and beef. There’s also a turkey burger, and Wuestenhagen hits new heights, garnish-wise, when pairing blue cheese with a blueberry compote. Oh, then there’s the beef patty that’s basted in a port wine reduction.
Tempted as I was by these excursions into the offbeat, my appetite steered me to a straight-up cheeseburger, a decision sparked at the moment my accommodating server referred to me as “my dear.” I mean, a classic endearment calls for a classic burger, amirite?
It was a doozy. The thick half-pound patty – truly, a monster -- hugged the bun’s outer edges as every good burger should, and oozed juices at every bite. Seasoning was right on the money, with enough salt to both enhance the beef’s earthy flavor and play nicely against a drape of sharp Cheddar, its meltiness oozing like a show-off at every turn.
With this particular burger, the menu offers “cali-style” add-ons at no extra charge; naturally, my flinty Norwegian DNA jumped at the invitation. Besides, what Minnesotan doesn’t crave a taste of California in the dead of winter? Huzzahs to the tangy, crunchy red onion and decent-for-December tomato slice. My one complaint: Did no one notice that the spine of the lettuce leaf was well on its way to brown?
Full marks for the bun, a lovely-in-every-way New French Bakery import that receives a light toast (and a semi-silly "819" branding) before being sent out into the dining room. Yep, I’ll definitely be back.
Fries: Included, and not your standard-issue version. Long, thick-ish and golden, they’re burnished with an extra level of crunch via a beer-batter dip. The results are a kind of Potato Tempura Lite, and it’s an intriguing way to battle French fry boredom. Oh, and kudos on stockpiling 78 Red, the hyper-flavorful all-natural ketchup.
Raise your glass: Of the 32 beers on tap, 20 are ever-changing, and someone obviously has a well-schooled taste for the offbeat. The bar also stocks more than six dozen whiskeys and offers a pretty heft sample via seven three-pour flights.
Downtown charm: I spent my adolescence bored senseless by the strip-mall universe of my hometown, a characterless third-ring suburb that will go unnamed (Ok, Burnsville). Which probably explains my enduring affection for the real-life historic downtowns sprinkled around the outer edges of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the commercial districts of pre-suburban Anoka, Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Robbinsdale, Excelsior, Osseo and Shakopee.
And Hopkins. Main Street, the city’s scrappy and compact commercial spine, got a Nicollet Mall-esque makeover ages ago, and the remake (complete with a Brand X-style moniker, Mainstreet) has triggered plenty of development in the ensuing years, including a performing arts center, a busy discount cineplex and an ever-growing housing base. And now a well-run pub. All that’s missing is a third-wave coffeehouse, an artisanal ice cream shop and a taproom (scratch that: there’s LTD Brewing Co., a half block off Mainstreet). I can see the bumper stickers now: “Downtown Hopkins: A New Urbanist’s dream.”
Pub 819 is the work of Steve Benowitz and David Benowitz. The father-and-son duo (owners of the Rail Station Bar & Grill and Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room) are no strangers to downtown Hopkins; they’ve been operating the place as the Hopkins Tavern since 2001, and the conversion to Pub 819 took place over a three-month period in late 2014.
What a civic improvement it is. Giant windows draw Mainstreet strollers inside, where they discover a wide-open room, with tables and comfortable booths ringing a conversation-friendly center bar. True, the handsome space is a conglomeration of every current craft beer-driven design element (chalkboard-covered walls, a veritable forest of reclaimed lumber, exposed Edison light bulbs), and if this were Northeast or Lyn-Lake, a been-there, seen-that eye-roll might be hard to resist. But in Hopkins? It’s treading new ground, and it’s a job well done.
Master marketers: To generate interest and awareness among the local populace, the 819-ers adapted a canny launch strategy, in the form of a lawn sign campaign.
“We got the idea during the election cycle,” said operations manager Luke Derheim. “We looked around at all the political signs and we thought, ‘After all of these are gone, is there something we can do with them?’
They eventually placed more than 250 of the talk-of-the-town signs in Hopkins front yards. Although the restaurant officially re-opened nearly a month ago, many lawn signs remain. “We asked people to leave them up for a couple of weeks, and we’re certainly not telling them to take them down,” said Denheim with a laugh.
And yes, there was an incentive for participation: Each homeowner received a $10 gift card.
“It’s enough to say, ‘Come on in and enjoy a burger,’” said Denheim.
I know exactly which one they should order.
Address book: 819 Mainstreet, Hopkins, 952-933-1230. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at email@example.com.
Try finding almond flour right now in the Twin Cities. It isn’t easy. And it's our fault.
Almond flour's instantaneous popularity is linked to the key role (2 1/4 cups, to be exact) it plays in the winning recipe in our 2014 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest.
We're not surprised that Italian Almond Cookies have captured the attention of Twin Cities bakers. We love them, and it's not as if we haven't observed this phenomenon before; in past years, we've witnessed a skyrocketing demand for such items as pistachios, sliced almonds and chile-spiced chocolate bars.
Back to almond flour. Two days after we published our winning recipe, I conducted an informal in-store survey, dropping in at four randomly selected supermarkets and scoping out the almond flour situation. At all four, I encountered empty shelves. Turns out, my experience was not outside the norm.
“I stopped by my neighborhood grocery store, and they didn’t have any,” said Jennie Baltutis of Minneapolis. “And I thought, ‘Wow, how many people are making that recipe?”
"We've definitely seen a pretty big increase in sales of almond flour," said Luke Friedrich of Supervalu, the region's largest supermarket wholesaler, which fills the shelves at Cub Foods, Lunds and Byerly's, Jerry's Foods and other stores. "Our supply is very low right now. But we've ordered a significant increase -- ten-fold over the normal amount -- and we'll have shipments in by Friday, and more the following week."
If you're planning on baking our winning cookie - and you should, it's fantastic, and so easy to prepare -- here’s our tip: Shop at your local natural foods co-op.
Many stock almond flour in their chilled bulk section. We called around, and here’s what we found:
All three Lakewinds Food Co-op locations are fully stocked (“Plenty of almond flour here,” said the helpful person at the co-op’s Minnetonka location, and “We just got more in this morning” said the friendly staffer at Lakewinds' Chanhassen location, although, let's face it, pretty much everyone in co-opland is friendly). Ditto Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.
It’s the same story at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, which reports a sizeable inventory on hand (pictured, above) and more on order.
At Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, “We did have a run on almond flour when the recipe first came out, a pretty significant spike,” said marketing manager Tom Vogel. “But we definitely have it, and we’re bracing for the next run on demand.”
A few co-ops — Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, and both locations of Mississippi Market in St. Paul — skip the bulk-section thing and go the packaged route (find it in the baking supplies aisle). Still, all three stores say they’ve got almond flour on hand.
The best news? Buying in bulk at local natural foods co-ops is a fairly reliable best-value situation, with prices usually hovering in the $8.50/pound range. By comparison, some supermarkets charge as much as $14 for a l-lb. bag. Oh, and if you've never shopped at a co-op before, don't worry about membership issues; you don't need to become a member/owner to shop.
Two other options: We’ve heard from readers that they’ve seen plenty of almond flour on the shelves at SuperTarget stores. Almond meal — a coarser and less-expensive version of almond flour, and perfectly acceptable for this recipe — appears to be in stock at most Trader Joe’s stores (TJ's private label almond meal is the ingredient of choice for winning baker William Teresa).
Or make your own. It's easy: Buy blanched, shelled almonds and grind them in a food processor until they take on the texture of wet sand. Watch carefully; grind too much, and you'll end up with almond butter.
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