After a long run in St. Paul – first at his Fhima’s, then at Faces Mears Park – chef David Fhima is returning to downtown Minneapolis.
And it’s quite the address that he’s moving into: the former Forum Cafeteria, the glorious art deco palace hidden inside the dreary City Center complex on 7th Street, between Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue.
“It’s a stunning, stunning space,” he said. “When I walked in, it was like seeing Lori [his wife] for the first time. You know, ‘that’s it, that’s the girl.’”
When he closed 7-year-old Faces Mears Park earlier this year, the plan was to remake the Galtier Plaza concept and rechristen it Bistro 3.7.3. (the number represents the restaurant’s street address, 373 N. Sibley St.). But negotiations with the landlord were not going Fhima’s way.
“As things were falling apart in St. Paul, things were looking better and better in Minneapolis,” he said.
For the move west, Fhima’s keeping the name, sort of: Bistro 3.7.3. La Belle Epoque. When it opens next winter, the restaurant will serve lunch, happy hour and dinner. “We’ll be serving classic French bistro fare,” he said. “We’ll be going back to wonderful classic cuisine with a cleaner, lighter Mediterranean touch. Serious food, simply done. That’s what the space lends itself to.”
Yes, that space. The priceless mint-and-mirrors setting – it’s one of the country’s great art deco interiors – dates to 1930. Most of the Forum’s highly memorable features are protected by historic preservation laws and cannot be altered, so Fhima’s planned changes will occur among the non-protected elements.
“In essence, we’ll be modernizing the space while keeping its original charms,” he said. “We’re going to have to be very surgical and methodical in our design.”
Some alterations in the works include remaking the previous tenant’s floor plan. The booths in the dining room’s center will be moved to the outer walls (“We want to give the center of the room a lot of energy,” said Fhima). The bar will also be reconfigured, and its high top tables and stools will be replaced by low tables and roomy armchairs.
Two of the three of the main floor’s small private dining rooms will remain. The third, at the entrance to the City Center mall, will be converted into the project’s most visible change: a bakery and Lavazza coffee bar, a remake of the popular counter that Fhima operated at Faces Mears Park.
“It will be more boulangerie than patisserie,” said Fhima. “I’ve always made bread, but I’ve never really talked about it. I brought a mother dough with me when I came to this country, it’s from my mother’s mother, it’s 120 years old. That’s our starter, for our levain, baguette, ciabatta, batard. Our croissants, we use a local grass-fed butter. It makes them earthy. My kids say, ‘Dad, it tastes like a cow,’ because that’s what butter tastes like. Our bakery is our best-kept secret.”
A second bakery, this one servicing his wholesale clients, will take over part of the facility’s soon-to-be-expanded kitchen. Fhima’s wholesale business currently prepares all the breads and baked goods for Lifetime Fitness.
“Next year, we’ll be making brioche hot dog buns and challah burger buns for Target Center,” he said.
That growing wholesale operation is part of Fhima’s diversification strategy, a key component in the equation for making the Forum’s vast, 11,000-plus square foot space a feasible business proposition. A major special events focus is another part of that formula.
“We’ll have to have other sources of revenue besides the restaurant,” he said. “The restaurant alone just won’t cut it. The bakery, and the events, they can sustain us, because tough times happen. If the restaurant is slow – and we hope that it isn’t – we’ll still have revenue through our other partnerships.”
The restaurant’s large balcony will remain a special events space. It’s already booked for a mid-August occasion, and Fhima said that he’s keeping the entire space busy with special events through the Super Bowl. After that, he’ll open the restaurant and retail bakery.
The Forum has a long dining history. It was originally home to the Minneapolis outlet of the Forum Cafeteria chain. The company had a 45-plus year run in downtown Minneapolis, and then the space was converted to a nightclub and bar. When the City Center complex came along in the laste 1970s, the interior was carefully dismantled, catalogued and rebuilt in a new location on the same block.
Since then, a parade of restaurants, almost too many to count, have come and gone. Elegant Goodfellow’s lasted the longest, almost a decade, closing in 2005. Most recently, the space has witnessed the brief, ill-fated lives of Forum and Il Foro. The room’s giddy chandeliers have been dark for a year.
Fhima is no stranger to Minneapolis. He’s been busy overhauling the food options for Minnesota Timberwolves fans at nearby Target Center. He also ran the Mpls. Cafe at 11th and Hennepin for a number of years in the 1990s. He plans to channel some of that Mpls. Cafe programming into Bistro 3..7.3.
“We’re going to have a nightlife component, especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” said Fhima. “At the Mpls. Cafe, I was the first to do serious nightlife, and I want to bring that back. A dance floor, something lounge-ey, a cabaret, all within the Belle Epoque scene. I can’t wait to be back in downtown Minneapolis. I’ve missed it.”
For Fhima, the Forum’s checkered history is daunting, but also inspiring.
“It’s like walking into a cemetery, and having such respect for it,” said Fhima. “It’s almost like hallowed ground. Goodfellow’s was the first restaurant that I ate when I moved to the city. I have so much respect for all the restaurants that came before me. Look, I know how to fail, I know what’s that like. I know the mistakes that I’ve made. I want to learn from my mistakes, and learn from what people did here in the past. We’re not going to do what they did, and we’re going to do what we do. We have humble confidence. We know what we’re doing.”