Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Star Tribune’s Taste section throughout October is a reason to pause, reflect and savor. It’s an especially fun assignment when the subject turns to restaurants.
Think of all the fantastic restaurants that have come and gone over the course of those decades, enriching our lives and our community.
I grew up in the Twin Cities area, and have very happy dining memories that reach back to the early 1970s. I can still recall the thrill of my 10th birthday party at Farrell’s, when a pair of waiters ran around the dining room, holding a stretcher aloft bearing the Zoo, an-over-the-top sundae that served 10.
As I started compiling a roster of favorite restaurants no longer with us, the list quickly became too lengthy to recite from memory.
In the interest of expediency, let’s set aside the tentpole establishments of the past half-century, the giants that immediately come to mind: Aquavit. Cafe Brenda. Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale. Chouette. CocoLezzone. D’Amico Cucina. 510 Restaurant. Goodfellow’s. Heartland. La Belle Vie. Lucia’s Restaurant. New French Cafe. The Blue Horse, the Nankin, the Lincoln Del. The lamentations on those departed culinary landmarks have been thorough and frequent.
Instead, here’s a highly subjective list of 20 extinct Twin Cities restaurants that managed to forge lasting impressions. On this critic, anyway.
Azur, Minneapolis, 1990-1995
In the 1980s and 1990s, brothers Richard and Larry D’Amico were instrumental in creating a new era in Twin Cities area dining, with their Primavera, D’Amico Cucina, Campiello, Cafe Lurcat and this Gaviidae Common stunner, a glitzy destination restaurant that placed a glossy, risk-taking sheen on rustic southern French-coastal Spanish cooking. Next-door neighbor Toulouse was more suited to the shopping mall surroundings, and turned out to be a lively precursor to the company’s popular D’Amico & Sons chain.
Barbary Fig, St. Paul, 1989-2016
It was always such a deeply personal experience to dine at this Grand Avenue anchor, because chef/owner Brahim Hadj-Moussa was a solo act at the stove, preparing the spirited and colorful tagines that reflected his Algerian heritage.
Be’wiched Deli, Minneapolis, 2007-2018
Michael Ryan and Matthew Bickford brilliantly adapted the high-end practices they acquired while working in top Twin Cities kitchens — D’Amico Cucina, Restaurant Alma — into elevating the lowly sandwich. By introducing nuance and technical prowess into an everyday staple, Be’wiched forever altered the perception of egg salad, pastrami, pulled pork, roast beef and smoked turkey to a generation of North Loopers. A suburban Plymouth branch didn’t last long.
Cayol Natural Foods, Minneapolis, 1969-2004
A signature drink at what had to have been one of the city’s first juice bars was the Fresh Banana Lo-Cal, a refreshing, high-protein liquid lunch produced in a soft serve-like machine. The Gold family had been running its “health food” store for decades before relocating the business into LaSalle Court (now 811 LaSalle) when the shopping mall-parking ramp opened in 1969; its juice bar remained until 2001, and the store closed in 2004.
Cafe Un Deux Trois, Minneapolis, 1992-2003
For a decade, this first-rate bistro was a magnet for downtown movers and shakers. Part of the draw was owner/plutonium-grade schmoozer Michael Morse, who also had the good sense to hire a pair of influential transplants to run the kitchen. First came New Yorker Andrew Zimmern, who went on to TV fame as the force behind “Bizarre Foods,” followed by Vincent Francoual, a young Frenchman who opened his own (2001-2015) beloved downtown restaurant, Vincent.
Eat This, Minneapolis, 1998-2001
Picture this: a casual pizzeria that specialized in expertly rendered all-vegetarian pizzas (roasted garlic-caramelized onion-Fontina, a combination for the ages), baked in rectangular pans, sliced with scissors and sold by weight. Clearly, owner Renee Holoien was way ahead of her time (the excellent Bonci in Chicago — by way of Rome — now offers a similar al taglio experience), and it’s comforting to know that a Punch Pizza outlet now occupies the space on E. Hennepin. If only Holoien had shared her glorious brownie recipe for future generations of home bakers.
Faegre’s, Minneapolis, 1982-1992
The kitchen’s revolving door (“In eight short years, the trendy cafe has had at least as many chefs as Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands,” quipped Star Tribune restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers in 1991) didn’t hurt this influential Warehouse District hot spot. No matter the chef (the A-team included Peter Kelsey, Ken Goff, Alexander Dixon and Lenny Russo), the food leaned into trendy and eclectic (French fries with bearnaise sauce, a standard-setting Chinese chicken salad) and drew a cosmopolitan crowd.
Figlio, Minneapolis, 1984-2003
Although it was never the high-water mark in the Parasole Restaurant Holdings portfolio (that honor belongs, arguably, to the great Pronto Ristorante, 1981-98), this fun-loving, fast-living Uptowner constantly reflected the handiwork of forward-thinking hospitality professionals. Figlio not only possessed — and made good use of — a then-rare wood-burning oven, but the restaurant and bar also compelled locals to stay out past the 10 o’clock news.
Francesca’s Bakery & Cafe, St. Paul, 1984-2003
Frances McGinnis channeled her spot-on cooking instincts and sure-handed baking skills (some of which she surely inherited from her grandmother, Francesca Palermo) into an early example of the now ubiquitous counter-service format. The restaurant eventually relocated and reinvented itself — first to a prime downtown St. Paul corner, then to more modest circumstances on W. 7th Street — but Francesca’s was never more appealing than during its initial iteration in a cozy Cathedral Hill storefront.
Gallery 8, Minneapolis, 1971-2003
Nothing against Esker Grove — the Walker Art Center’s excellent first-floor restaurant — but pulling the plug on this cafeteria-in-the-sky was the equivalent of dismantling “Spoonbridge and Cherry” and selling the parts for scrap. The kitchen, working primarily within a soup-sandwich-salad framework, forged quality and creativity standards while maintaining quick-service prices, no easy feat. The crusty baguette had few peers (ditto the desserts), and the warm-weather tables on the museum’s adjacent sculpture terrace predated the rooftop dining craze by several decades.
Heidi’s, Minneapolis, 2007-2013
Twin Cities diners first encountered Stewart Woodman’s prodigious skill set when he opened Levain in 2003; his replacement, Steven Brown, took the place in equally exciting directions from 2004 to 2006. But it was Woodman’s ingenious collaborations with his then-spouse (and gifted pastry chef) Heidi Woodman that really stand out. The first iteration, a sliver of a storefront in south Minneapolis, was destroyed by fire; the second, a far more ambitious effort, glammed up the Lyn-Lake area.
Hosteria Fiorentina, Minneapolis, 1987-1990
Giorgio Cherubini, a former Rosewood Room waiter, introduced Minnesotans to the cooking traditions of his native Tuscany, focusing on adventurous, uncomplicated dishes (hello, tagliatelle with a wild boar-wild mushroom ragu) with unapologetically bold flavors. Cherubini went on to open a pair of successful Uptown restaurants that he christened with his first name.
Lucille’s Kitchen, Minneapolis, 1996-2004
A textbook example of a restaurant that not only fed its community but served as its social, political and cultural nexus. Louisiana-born Lucille Williams developed a faithful following with her smothered chicken, gumbo, red beans and rice, collard greens, peach cobbler and other soul food staples.
Matin, Minneapolis, 1980-1991
One of the Twin Cities area’s first Vietnamese restaurants introduced exotic and exciting Southeast Asian cooking to a curious dining public that was just becoming familiar with flavors from that part of the world. The spare, loft-like surroundings fit right in with Warehouse District art gallery crawlers. Co-owner An Nguyen later returned to the restaurant business with her lovely Rice Paper (2000-15), which started in Linden Hills, then moved to 50th and France.
Modern Cafe, Minneapolis, 1994-2015
A 1940s diner was reborn for modern-day tastes via skillfully updated versions of blue-plate fare, including an epic pot roast. During its impressively long run, the restaurant’s status evolved from rebel to establishment, and the example set by owners Jim and Patty Grell led to a northeast Minneapolis renaissance and a boom in the neighborhood restaurant movement, with the Modern serving as a role model to Chet’s Taverna, jP American Bistro, Bakery on Grand, Pane Vino Dolce, the Strip Club and many other much-missed gems.
Piccolo, Minneapolis, 2010-2016
Some would argue that chef Doug Flicker’s Auriga (1997-2007) belongs on this list, and it’s easy to agree with that sentiment. But its follow-up, Piccolo, with its unbalanced equation of tiny square footage and gigantic culinary ambitions, turned out to be a tailor-made platform for Flicker’s spellbinding, risk-taking cooking aesthetic.
Sapor Cafe and Bar, Minneapolis, 2000-2015
This North Loop pioneer possessed an invaluable one-two ownership punch. In the kitchen, chef Tanya Siebenaler’s endless curiosity resulted in delectable dishes culled from around the globe. In the understated dining room, the tireless Julie Steenerson reigned supreme, a whirling dervish of hospitable warmth that had — and has — few equals.
Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, Minneapolis, 2007-2016
Chef Sameh Wadi was a 23-year-old prodigy when he teamed up with his older brother Saed Wadi and opened this atmospheric paean to flavors celebrated across the Mediterranean. Their partnership continues to flourish, thank goodness, with World Street Kitchen, Grand Catch and Milkjam Creamery.
Sri Lanka Curry House, Minneapolis, 1976-1998
Intensely aromatic, frequently fiery curries — the likes of which had rarely been seen in meat-and-potatoes Minnesota — were business-as-usual at this influential Uptown haunt (its first four years were in northeast Minneapolis), the work of then-spouses Heather Jansz and Evan Balasuriya. Jansz’s St. Paul effort, Curry Leaf Deli (1994-98), was another prize.
Tejas, Minneapolis 1987-1994, Edina 1994-2009
Leaving Tex-Mex expectations in the dust, this stereotype-smashing innovator — it was Goodfellow’s Lone Star State cousin — delivered a cuisine with scant previous exposure in the Midwest. The kitchen’s approach to Southwestern fare was sophisticated and scholarly but never dull (the bread basket’s divine blue corn breadsticks, for starters), and the dramatic setting fit the menu like a custom-made Stetson. Although its creative mojo waned after relocating to 50th and France, the restaurant lasted 15 years in that location.