Cocktail glasses clattered and hearty laughter threatened to swallow up the bar area at Cafe Maude at Loring on a recent afternoon. The garrulous group of men then repaired to their tables in the back, their chatter receding as mixmaster Shawn Jones explained how he had concocted an “inverted martini.”
And then wave upon wave of chef Tommy Begnaud’s delicious food arrived: house-made burrata and crawfish étouffée, plump lamb chops and scallops and finally a pistachio cake. As special as the food and craft cocktails tasted, talk reigned supreme over three-plus hours for these 29 seasoned, successful men. At different tables conversation topics ranged from meteorology to golf to rhubarb vodka.
For the Epicurean Society, it was just another first Wednesday of the month, the latest repast in an unending string that began 42 years ago in Hopkins and quickly became a movable feast.
“This is purely social. There’s only one meeting a year where we do any business, and that’s electing the president and voting on the best restaurant of the past year,” said Scott Griggs.
“Most of us check out for the afternoon,” said Jim Griggs, Scott’s father and one of the society’s founders. “Our afternoons on the first Wednesday of the month are gone — they don’t exist.”
Not only are these men not at work — it helps that most are their own bosses — they’re not even talking about it. Under the society’s bylaws, no more than two people in any profession can be members, and networking is not encouraged.
“This is not business-affiliated by any means,” said Chip Reynolds. “It’s just a just a great group, really diverse. We’re here for food and fellowship.”
The club’s annual dues help pay for the $40-per-person lunches every month, and the restaurant is selected by a different member each time. They meet at 12:30 p.m. for beverages and sit down to eat at around 1:30.
“It’s really an easy sell,” said Chuck Tambornino. “We tell them: ‘We’re going to come when you’re not busy. It’s 25 or 30 businessmen, and we’re going to talk the place up after we come here.’ ”
Added Jim Griggs, “And we’re going to give you a check for $1,000.”
The check might not have covered the customized meal, beverage and service costs on this day, Cafe Maude at Loring owner Kevin Sheehy said, but hosting the event is not without its benefits.
“These kinds of guys, we want to turn them on to our chef,” said Sheehy. “Plus it’s an opportunity for Tommy to flex his creative muscles, get off the menu, and for us to look for future possibilities to add to the menu. It’s a win-win with a group like this.”
More chef involvement
The society was launched in 1971, when members of the Hopkins Exchange Club decided against merging with the St. Louis Park branch and instead formed a coterie around a late — and long — lunch every month.
“We wanted our own club,” said original member Jerry Richards. “We wanted to party a little, have a luncheon and play cards, maybe a guest speaker. Sometimes we would bring in someone in the wine trade and have a tasting. It was the whole afternoon. A few cocktails, lunch, maybe a few cocktails afterward.”
The first lunch was at a classic midcentury chophouse in Hopkins called Bursch’s, and early on the restaurant rotation hewed to Hopkins and Minnetonka, partly to avoid long drives after an afternoon of revelry. Over the years, as Twin Cities eateries improved and diversified, the focus shifted a bit more toward food.
These days, Jim Griggs said, “We always try to get the chefs involved.” Often that takes the form of a challenge that goes beyond trying to win the plaque given out every year (to Stella’s Fish Cafe and the original Cafe Maude most recently).
“We tell them,” Scott Griggs said, “ ‘If you were given $40 to put on the best lunch in town, what would you put together?’ Then they can do totally what they want.”
More often than not, the results have made Epicurean Club members, and at least one of their significant others, quite pleased.
“I always bring the menu home to my wife,” said David Spong, “and then she gets jealous and we come back here.”