Cue the tears: Wild Rice is closing.
The Bayfield, Wis., restaurant, one of the Midwest's great culinary destinations, announced that this summer will be its last.
"After 16 years of being By the Water, In the Woods, On Lake Superior, we announce that Saturday, Oct. 14th will be the last day of service to the public who have supported us faithfully through all of these seasons," reads the message on the restaurant's website.
Owner Mary Rice opened Wild Rice in 2001, a mainland follow-up to her first fine-dining operation in the tourist-magnet region, the former Clubhouse on Madeline Island. (Rice also owns Bayfield's casual Maggie's, and operated the breakfast-focused Egg Toss for nearly 21 years; she recently sold it). The restaurant's name is a play on Rice's last name, as well as a tribute to Zizania palustris, or wild rice, the staple of region's ecology and food economy. Bayfield is located about four hours northeast of the Twin Cities.
A key to the restaurant's enduring popularity is its impressive, long-serving leadership. Chef Jim Webster (pictured, above, in a 2010 Star Tribune file photo) has been at the helm at Wild Rice for the restaurant's entire run, and was the force in the Clubhouse kitchen from 1983 to 2000. As a measure of his excellence, Webster has racked up four semifinalist nods for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Midwest award, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2014. General manager Randy Anderson has a similarly lengthy and distinguished tenure.
"Jim and Randy plus our entire staff will be here to provide you with the dedication to excellence you’ve come to enjoy," notes the website's message.
Wild Rice is not just a memorable food-and-drink experience, it's also a distinguished and beloved architectural landmark, the work of Duluth architect David Salmela. Shortly after the doors opened, Star Tribune architecture critic Linda Mack wrote this appreciation:
"David Salmela, in his first restaurant commission, has created a work of genius equal to the culinary feasts offered by the restaurant team of owner Mary Rice, chef Jim Webster and sommelier Randy Anderson. The designers, including Minneapolis landscape architects Coen + Stumpf [now Coen + Partners] and graphic designers Sassafras Design, have melded the best of two worlds: an attention to detail worthy of the top Parisian restaurants and a style as American as its eponymous food, wild rice. It's a shame this team doesn't have another project in the offing. They could revolutionize eating in America."
They certainly revolutioned dining in region, creating and sustaining a fine-dining experience in a rural setting that is the equal of its urban counterparts. And following the trend in cities across the U.S., including Minneapolis-St. Paul, that fine-dining experience is disappearing.
There's hope for the extraordinary facility, which is located on a wooded site on the bluffs above Lake Superior.
"As this final chapter of Wild Rice Restaurant ends Wild Rice Reborn begins," reads the website's message. "Wild Rice is exploring a partnership with Artspace, to be reborn as A Center for Arts and Well Being. Artspace is the nation’s leading nonprofit developer of arts facilities. We feel Artspace will be a wonderful complement to this beautiful building and the arts community of Chequamegon Bay."
That’s the hope, anyway.
Artspace’s involvement is in its preliminary stages, said Kathleen Kvern, its vice president of national advancement. The Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which owns and operates 46 affordable artist housing projects around the country, and has another 10 to 15 in development, has a long, well-documented development process. In Bayfield, that process began three years ago, with a study on the area’s viability.
“From that study, we did determine that there is a market for the arts in Bayfield,” said Kvern. “There’s a real need to provide stability and sustainability in the area for artists. We know that the arts is an economic driver, and can be a real force in rural areas.
“What we also heard up there was this desire for aging in place,” she added. “Lots of artists are getting older. Mary [Rice] is an artist, and she’s getting older, she’s retiring, which is why she’s decided to do what she’s doing with Wild Rice. It’s also about retaining young people, who want year-round affordable housing and year-round jobs, and if they don’t find them, they leave. These are the issues that Bayfield is dealing with, and although one Artspace project isn’t going to solve all of that, it’s a reason that the community brought us in.”
After garnering financial support from several foundations, Artspace is currently in the second phase of its research, which involves conducting surveys (find them here) to determine actual numbers.
“The surveys will quantify how many people would live in an affordable arts project,” said Kvern. “All of that is to say that, sure, the Wild Rice space could be a fantastic place for something to happen, and that when we get the results of the surveys it may show a need for flexible artists' space, in addition to housing.”
Stay tuned. In the meantime, pick up the phone and make a reservation.