To say it’s been a crazy few months for Stephanie Shimp and the rest of the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. folks would be an understatement.

In June, the Twin Cities restaurant group bought a 53-acre farm near New Prague, with the ultimate goal of sourcing produce for all of their restaurants – which include the Highland Grill, the Lowry, Freehouse and others. The company, amid three major projects – two restaurants and one events center – also recently moved corporate offices.  And then there was the State Fair in August in which Blue Plate ran popular venue The Blue Barn, an experience Shimp calls “a sprinted marathon.”

On Tuesday late afternoon, Shimp was juggling media interviews, a restaurant debut and finding babysitters for her kids shortly before she was scheduled to speak at the Charlie Awards Hot Topics panel that evening.

After leading reporters on a tour throughout the historic Soo Line Building, she re-emerged in the new Mercury Dining Room and Rail space to patrons swirling around the bar. 

“I guess we’re open,” she said.

Downtown Minneapolis’ newest addition is an eatery serving up ramped up classics off a menu Shimp calls “a little bit French, a little bit coastal Southern and a lot of new American” – in the stunning space formerly occupied by Brasserie Zentral, which closed in January, after less than two years in operation.

Asked whether that prior short life caused any apprehension, Shimp nodded, sincerely.

“It is nerve-wracking,” she agreed. “But I think we’re aiming for that niche. I think timing was tough for [Zentral] with all the construction. There was scaffolding all over the building. With downtown east emerging the way it is, with the stadium there, with the high-end apartments going in, we thought it was a go.”

The niche Shimp is talking about is the attempt to offer something approachable but distinct in a historic structure she feels is rare downtown. The restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the week.

“There are food trucks and the skyway on one end [of downtown  dining] and then you’ve got celebration and expense account dining,” Shimp said. “There’s not a lot in between.

Chef Jeff Woodyear – who was most recently at national chain McCormick & Schmick's location a few blocks away on Nicollet Mall – will be creating dishes such as Dixie fried chicken, several oysters dishes and scallops, and more. 

“I think of New Orleans, or Charleston,” Shimp said.

The space meanwhile, remains familiar from its last iteration with a few tweaks aimed at striking the balance between preserving a beautiful and historical building while also loudly signaling that there has been a change. The awnings have been removed, the room was painted white, and new furnishings were brought in, all in shades of dark wood and deep blue. A section of wall near the rear end of the bar was taken down to give the dining room and bar area a more open feel.

“It was more interior decorating,” Shimp said of the tweaks. “We really wanted to respect the architecture and the bones of the building.”

Next up on the docket? Continuing to work on another stunning space across the hall in the former location of Foreign Legion, which was also run by Zentral owners Russell and Desta Klein. It will be replaced with Shindig, Blue Plate's anticipated events center. The space, which contains a couple rooms and will seat 120 for a sit-down dinner, should be ready to host parties beginning on Nov. 20, according to Carly Clark, the sales and event manager.

As for Bottle Rocket, the other ongoing restaurant project of Blue Plate’s?

Shimp said they’re aiming for a Nov. 29 open for the lunch-and-dinner eatery that will take over the space formerly filled by Scusi (1806 St. Clair Av., St. Paul) – once they can complete the hiring and training necessary.

“As soon as we feel comfortable, like we’re running on all cylinders here [at Mercury],” Shimp said, “we’ll be onto the next.”

(Photo credits: Top and bottom photos by Tom Horgen; middle photo via Amelia Rayno)