When I heard that Pracna on Main was closing, I descended to the Star Tribune’s basement morgue and discovered not just one but three files full of yellowed news clippings about the 41-year-old restaurant. They told a story of very gradual development just across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis over the past 150 years.
First, the building. The slim brick Victorian 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.
Two neighboring buildings, the Upton Block (now the Aster Cafe) and the Martin and Morrison Blocks, are even older than Pracna, dating to 1855 and 1858.
About 1910, the Pracna property changed hands, and the street-level saloon became Denell’s Bar. 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), no bank in town 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 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. Looking at today’s SE. Main Street, it’s difficult to imagine the derelict neighborhood that the Halls were calling home.
Twin Citians owe a debt to Hall who can be credited with reversing the fortunes of one of the 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, offices and apartments.
The public caught notice of Hall’s restoration work in 1973, when restaurateur Bill Naegele leased the building’s basement and first floor and launched Pracna on Main. The restaurant became an immediate hit, and almost immediately ushered 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 “experiences.”
Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan previewed the place a few weeks before it opened. In June 1973, she noted that the restaurant’s decor was “a kaleidoscope 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.
“This is a new bar and cafe across the river dere on SE. Main St., sorta under the 3rd Av. bridge,” wrote Star Tribune columnist Don Morrison in the summer of 1973. “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. 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 riverbank.”
The restaurant was also an immediate financial success.
“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 Star Tribune business columnist Dick 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.’ ”
By 1975, Naegele was in expansion mode, transforming the Halls’ second-floor living quarters into a Victorian steakhouse.
In culinary terms, the restaurant 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,” wrote the critic. “After eating at Pracna’s, I’m not sure that a chef is even on the payroll.”
A mid-1980s addition to the complex which added the St. Anthony Main movie theater and other new 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.
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.
Pracna’s future remains unknown, but the place undeniably played a role in transforming a derelict district into a crown jewel for both city dwellers and tourists.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib