In 1977, two friends decided, on a handshake deal, to open a restaurant they christened Muffuletta (2260 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-644-9116, muffuletta.com).
"We had no idea what we were doing," said Phil Roberts with a laugh, referring to himself and business partner Pete Mihajlov. "We liked to eat out, that was the extent of our restaurant knowledge."
Something obviously clicked, because their partnership grew into Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the powerhouse operator of Manny's Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Salut Bar Americain and other properties.
But their baby? It was always the cozy restaurant they named after a sandwich invented in New Orleans. Now the time has come for Muffuletta to close.
"We've kept 'Muff' open for longer than we should," said Roberts. "We've kept it open for purely emotional reasons, because we've bonded with the neighborhood. It was a tough decision. But we haven't made money here in a long time. Our lease is up come December, and we've decided not to renew it."
Another factor was the not-so-bright-looking near future. Como Avenue is closed and under construction a block to the east.
"And next summer, this whole street will be torn up completely," said Roberts. "We thought it was best to go out on a high note."
Just as he and Mihajlov saw an opportunity in what had been the Lamplighter Inn, Roberts is confident of the address' future potential.
"Hopefully a new generation will come along and take our place," said Roberts. "Some young Turk who wants to put their name on the door and give it a shot. But for us, it's just time."
The restaurant and its eclectic menu was a groundbreaker in many ways. Not only was its sunny deck one of the region's first patios, but Muffuletta proved to be a role model for the neighborhood restaurant movement that we enjoy today.
"In this room, we've had marriage proposals and divorce discussions, funerals, weddings, birthday and anniversary celebrations and people out for dinner on a Tuesday," said Roberts. "When I'm not depressed about the closing, I think, that in some small way, we've improved the quality of life in this neighborhood. That's what I feel good about."
It's the company's second closing of the year. Mozza Mia, their Edina pizzeria, went dark in March.
As for Muffuletta's employees, "We're going to try to take care of them throughout the system," said Roberts. "A lot of people are going to land on their feet. And I'm grateful for the hundreds and hundreds of servers and cooks and dishwashers who cared about the place over all these years, and kept its standards up."
The restaurant's final day is Nov. 11.
"It's going to leave a big hole in my life, that's for sure, and I'm sad," said Roberts. "But it's like Dr. Seuss said, 'Don't be sad that it's over; be glad that it happened'."