A surge of high-profile openings made the year’s final few weeks an exciting and delicious time to be a Twin Cities diner.
Tullibee, the Nordic beauty in the Hewing Hotel, is the province of chef Grae Nonas, an Austin, Texas, transplant. Spouses Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur of Pizzeria Lola launched their Young Joni, and crowds instantly made a beeline to northeast Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove debuted, under the tutelage of Piccolo chef Doug Flicker. McKinney Roe, Erik the Red and Oui Bar + Ktchn injected a much-needed pulse into Minneapolis’ emerging East Town neighborhood. Red Rabbit — the Italian cousin to the Red Cow mini-chain and the work of chef Todd Macdonald — opened in the North Loop on Dec. 20. Pajarito, where chefs Stephan Hesse and Tyge Nelson are focusing on “refined Mexican cuisine” in the former Glockenspiel space, served its first dinner on Dec. 21.
Trend of the Year: Big names go casual
For some of the most influential players on the Twin Cities dining scene, the key word of 2016 was “approachable.” The Bachelor Farmer took the lead by creating an ideal daytime cafe, then Restaurant Alma followed with its breakfast-through-dinner Cafe Alma. Restaurateur Ryan Burnet (Bar La Grassa, Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, Eastside) also saw the rich possibilities in the fast-casual world, launching salad-centric Crisp & Green, a total chain-in-the-making. Ditto Parasole Restaurant Holdings (Manny’s Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Salut Bar Americain), which smartly encapsulates the fresh-and-healthy mantra of its Good Earth concept into Field Day by Good Earth. More where this came from, please.
The Star Tribune’s 2016 Restaurant of the Year? It’s Upton 43, chef Erick Harcey’s indelibly personal and idiosyncratic reflection of his beloved Swedish heritage. Harcey (familiar to diners through his Victory 44) has translated the countless meals celebrated at his grandparents’ table into a must-visit Linden Hills hot spot, where smoking, charring, fermenting, pickling and other time-honored Nordic cooking techniques seamlessly merge with the latest advances in molecular gastronomy.
The year’s other major huzzahs belong to St. Genevieve. The work of Steven Brown (the Star Tribune’s 2016 Chef of the Year, and the mastermind behind Tilia), it’s the approachable French restaurant that we never knew we were missing. It’s one of those rare restaurants that seemingly have it all: a menu of meticulously prepared modern French classics, a pearl of a setting and a service staff that comes off as casual but approaches its work with a military-like precision. That sound you hear? It’s the pop of a champagne cork, a reflection of the bar’s obsession with bubbles.
So many openings
Yes, it was a year of closings. But so many openings, too, including Barley + Vine Kitchen/Bar, Bonicelli Kitchen, Bourbon Butcher, City Works, Cosi, Costa Blanca Bistro, Dumpling, Handsome Hog, Herbie’s on the Park, Hi-Lo Diner, Jefe Urban Hacienda, K-Bop Korean Bistro, Lou Nanne’s, Market House, Mercury Dining Room & Rail, Moroccan Flavors, Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, PinKu Japanese Street Food, Pracna on Main, Reverie Cafe + Bar, Scratch Burgers & Beer, Stem Wine Bar, Volstead’s Emporium and Xavi.
Two other high-profile openings of note: the farm-to-table charmer that is Heirloom, and Costa Blanca Bistro, the tapas destination from Cafe Ena chef Hector Ruiz.
A number of restaurants added follow-up locations. Bep Eatery and Green + the Grain both grew on the downtown Minneapolis skyway. Eat Street-ers Glam Doll Donuts and Lu’s Sandwiches expanded into northeast Minneapolis, and Empire Coffee & Pastry stayed northeast with its second outlet. Black Coffee + Waffles, a U of M favorite, popped up near the University of St. Thomas, and Pimento Jamaican Kitchen spiced up Eat Street. Rustica expanded into Eden Prairie, and Patisserie 46 baker John Kraus made Linden Hills sweeter with his Rose Street Patisserie. Andover’s Q Fanatic brought its brand of barbecue to south Minneapolis. Two others tweaked their formats: Himalayan Restaurant opened counter-service Himalayan Dinkytown, and Hoban jazzed up Uptown with Hoban Korean BBQ. And a bigger, even more ambitious Revival is set to open next week in the former home of the Cheeky Monkey in St. Paul.
Label 2016 as The Year That Chains Discovered Us. The big news at the Mall of America, aka Chain Central, was the June debut of top-rated Shake Shack. Of course, MoA’s penchant for the lowest common denominator also yielded new-to-Minnesota outposts of Cantina Laredo and Margaritaville.
Elsewhere, Barnes & Noble Kitchen opened in the Galleria, and the Punch Bowl Social opened at the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park. World of Beer brought its ka-jillions of bottled and tap choices to Lowertown. Golden Corral slipped into shuttered Old Country Buffet locations in Maple Grove and Maplewood (and more are on the way in 2017). Spitz brought its Southern California brand of Mediterranean street food to E. Hennepin Avenue.
On the ever-important fried dough front, two major doughnut-and-coffee players — Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons — both established Twin Cities beachheads.
And they keep on coming. Portillo’s, the Chicago-based hot dog/burger/Italian beef sandwich purveyor, is landing in Woodbury next summer.
Some addresses are born to be restaurants, only the names, menus (and sometimes, the ownership) change. The year was no stranger to transformations. Chef Max Thompson closed his 128 Cafe and reopened the space as the more casual Stewart’s. Craft & Crew Hospitality flipped its Rail Station Bar & Grill into the Howe Daily Kitchen & Bar. The husband-wife team of Charles Stotts and Kacey White brought their sharp farm-to-table sensibilities to the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub, formerly Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery.
Salt Cellar was reconfigured as Fitzgerald’s. The Minnesota History Center dropped its Cafe Minnesota in favor of Market House, a D’Amico & Partners project. Eden Avenue Grill co-owners Ken Johnson and Brett Johnson remade their 20-year-old neighborhood gathering spot into the Hilltop.
Expect more of the same in 2017. Michael McDermott is closing his Ling & Louie’s at year’s end and rebooting it as sports-themed Randle’s; named for former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle, it’s expected to open in February. McDermott’s short-lived North Loop outpost of Rojo Mexican Grill (and before that, Shag Sushi) will soon reopen as Jun, the work of the folks behind Szechuan.
The busy Blue Plate Restaurant Co. expects to reopen Bottle Rocket in its former Scusi in February. Low-key Rachel’s quietly closed in November, and owner John Rimarcik is promising a 2017 remake. Ditto Faces Mears Park, which will call it quits on Dec. 31; look for chef/owner David Fhima to reboot his six-year-old Lowertown property as a “French bistro with a little bit of an American flair” in the spring.
Roat Osha took over the Calhoun Square square footage left vacant by the late 2015 closing of longtime tenant Chiang Mai Thai. In Dinkytown, Wally’s Falafel and Hummus settled into new (and roomier) digs a few storefronts down from its original location. On the eve of its 20th birthday, Babani’s Kurdish Restaurant relocated from its longtime downtown St. Paul home to a new across-the-river address.
It was a banner year for fans of baked goods, with the advent of Savory Bake House (hello, pot pies!), Silhouette Bakery & Bistro (cupcakes and egg rolls), Augustine’s Bar & Bakery (craft beers at the bar, cinnamon rolls at the counter), Brake Bread (the neighborhood bread source that should be around everyone’s corner). Also of note was the debut of the singular Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, where Rustica founder Steve Horton is stone-milling grains into flours and baking naturally leavened breads that are sold at a handful of stores.
The most winter-friendly trend of the year was definitely the ascendancy of ramen, as witnessed through the proliferation of first-rate practitioners, including Ramen Kazama, Tori Ramen, Kung Fu Noodle and Ippindo Ramen House.