With the Aster Cafe's windows framing the Minneapolis skyline behind them, members of the band Romantica christened a new stage last Thursday.
"It's an important and historical night at the Aster Cafe," lead singer Ben Kyle told the crowd. "Because it's the start of live music."
This former hole-in-the-wall coffee shop hasn't seen this much excitement in years. Snuggled into the red-brick riverfront property that is St. Anthony Main, the Aster Cafe had a quiet and unassuming existence for 15 years before closing in April.
But in May, new owners Matty O'Reilly and Tom Peterson reopened the place with the ambition of turning it into a music haven -- much like their gemlike 318 Cafe in Excelsior. With new partners, Jeff Arundel and Amy Spartz, they laid the groundwork over the past few months by introducing a sophisticated bar operation and a new food menu that kept the rejuvenated patio busy all summer.
These guys know what they're doing. In 2004, O'Reilly and Peterson turned a withering coffee shop in Excelsior (near Lake Minnetonka) into the 318 Cafe, which has become a small yet notable music destination. The duo, musicians themselves, thought it was time to give the city a shot.
"It's easy to stand out in the suburbs," O'Reilly said.
The Aster Cafe is located in the oldest masonry building in Minneapolis, dating to 1855, says owner John Rimarcik. He opened the coffee shop in 1995, naming it after the old Aster Theatre, which opened in 1916 as a neoclassical movie house but closed in 1979 as a porn theater. When O'Reilly and company bought the Aster in May, they knew the vintage legacy of the space had to remain, including the name. They loved the room, with its open-brick walls and red curtains. The team added a large hand-carved wood bar, which anchored the room as a great place for cocktails and conversation. But would these cozy confines work as a destination for live bands?
A 'listening room'
Romantica's bassist, Tony Zaccardi, described Aster as a "listening room," where everything is set up to focus on the musicians. The audience sits at copper-topped tables, which should be reserved beforehand. (Almost every table was spoken for in advance of Romantica's performance.) The intimate experience only leaves room for about 80 seats (100 with standing). Over the crisp sound system, Romantica held the full attention its listeners, some of whom leaned forward, chins cuffed in their palms like they were watching a play.
"The room is beautiful," Zaccardi said. "I think the buzz will happen pretty fast."
O'Reilly looked relieved as he stood in the back of the cafe, happy that his vision had come to fruition. "It's almost more of a movie theater than a music club," he said. "The lights go down and everybody shuts up."
Cover at Aster ranges from about $5 to $15. For such a small room, the higher-end shows might give you sticker shock (Romantica was $15), but O'Reilly said the pricing is intentional, aimed at attracting a crowd that wants to hear music. "We're not just randomly throwing a band up in the corner to get a few more customers," he said.
It took a couple of years to build this sort of audience in Excelsior, he said. Both clubs are booked by Elli Rader, who has filled Aster's calendar with a diverse range of musicians, from singer/songwriters like Michael Johnson (last Saturday) to jazz and blues and even a little hip-hop (the Unknown Prophets played Thursday).
Charcuterie and craft beer
O'Reilly calls Aster an "all-day cafe." While the place still serves coffee (opening at 7 a.m. on weekdays), this is very much a bar. The smart beverage menu starts with a craft beer list that is showcased across a dozen taps -- everything from Fulton (Minneapolis) to Great Lakes (Ohio) to Kwak (Belgium). There's an equally diverse line-up of wines, with by-the-glass prices between $5.25 and $9.75. A half-dozen infusion jars sit over the bar, their contents used for Aster's tea-based cocktails ($6.75 each). Try the "Gin et Jus #99," a blend of gin, red-berries tea and lemonade.
The menu offers a small but refined collection of salads, sandwiches, cheese plates and flatbread pizzas. My suggestion: the generous plate of charcuterie. Everything is priced under $10.
In the summer months, there are few riverfront areas as scenic and well-traveled as St. Anthony Main. Aster's lush patio was as busy as any of its neighbors' this summer. Ira Heilicher, who co-owns three of the cafe's neighbors (Pracna on Main, Tugg's and Vic's), didn't want to overstate the new Aster's impact, but he did say this: "It's probably introduced a lot of people to the riverfront who wouldn't otherwise be here."
But now come the cool months. Soon the biking paths and patios will shut down and the snow will fall.
"The myth about this place is nobody comes here in the winter," O'Reilly said. That notion is part of the reason he held off on introducing music until now. If last week's opening night of music was any indication, this listening room will do just fine.
"If we give people a reason to come," O'Reilly said, "they'll come."
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