The nostalgia is so thick inside the area's newest and, for the moment, most exclusive restaurant that you could cut it with a silver-plated butter knife. Charlie's Minneapolis Club opened to members last week, and on April 27 the public will be able to dine in the elegantly remodeled room with a nod to the glittering days of the past.
The Minneapolis Club (729 2nd Av. S.) was established in 1883 as a clubhouse for city and industry leaders to hobnob. The historic mansion is dripping in impressive architectural details that are rare in a city that seldom hangs onto its grandest old buildings.
Not far away, the legendary Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale (once occupying 701 4th Av. S.) opened in 1933 and was the place to be and be seen for Minneapolis' reigning class. It was the type of restaurant that created special dishes for visiting dignitaries and Minnesota notables and was famous for its potato salad, which people recall with a fondness that borders on fanaticism. The recipe was long the most requested in the Star Tribune's archives.
For this new era, the Minneapolis Club tapped chef Jamie Malone, whose Grand Cafe gave her plenty of experience in connecting classic French dishes to contemporary diners. She spent hours poring over a trove of Charlie's menus for inspiration.
The collaboration is part of a larger push to expand club membership, officials said, which has been on the decline. Opening a restaurant that will be available to the public is a risk that the club's CEO, Jeff Arundel, who also owns Aster Cafe and El Jefe Cocina and Bar, is betting on. "We want to be welcoming and kind," he said. "We want people to come explore and experience the space."
The room: The club's first floor has been recently remodeled, but feels untouched since the 1940s. Many of the doors, windows and wood were taken from the basement or refurbished to be reinstalled, creating a seamless transition from then to now. The result is ample, intricate dark woodwork and stained-glass windows. The centerpiece is the original Charlie's bar and bewitching frieze, both of which local restaurateur and Minneapolis club member John Rimarcik has kept in storage since it closed in the '80s. Vintage photos of Charlie's line the bar.
The food: Above and before all things: the potato salad. Potatoes are mixed with a handmade mayonnaise, plenty of green onions and served in a small bowl of the Minneapolis Club's China ($8). The rest of the menu reads like it could have been unearthed in the Minnesota Historical Society's archives: frog legs (although, tempura-battered) with sauce gribiche ($16), baked oysters casino ($18), sweetbreads and bacon lardons ($18), Roquefort stuffed celery ($11), Charlie's Chicken Exceptionale with Madeira cream sauce ($29), lobster Thermidor ($55), sour cherries jubilee ($10) for dessert and so much more. It's built to be a romp through grand old times and an opportunity to discover dishes that were once de rigueur for fancy dinners.
The bar: At the original Charlie's, there were actually two men by that name running things. Charlie Saunders was the owner, but behind the bar was Charlie Herlin, better known as Charlie the Finn. Finn was renowned for his drinks and a few have made a comeback. The President is a mix of gin, lemon, orange, bianco vermouth and grenadine ($14). The martini includes vodka and aquavit, plus vermouth, bitters and garnishes of caviar onions, pickled anchovy and mushroom garum olives ($24). (In the days of the three-martini lunch, that'd count as a whole salad.) Today's bar drinks are also made to be more inclusive, with five fresh N/A cocktails ($9) that bear zero resemblance to a Shirley Temple.
The lowdown: The restaurant has been introduced as a limited run, and Malone is only around for a few months.
How to eat there: Charlie's will be open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday for cocktail hour and dinner. Reservations are open now. Seats at the bar and a few seats in the nearby lounge will be reserved for walk-ins.
A Charlie's history lesson
A day in the life of Charlie's: In 1976, Taste writer Peggy Katalinich spent two days exploring the restaurant. strib.mn/3xQjgHM
A blemished past: When Rick Nelson took a deep dive into the Star Tribune archives, he found that the restaurant's past wasn't all potato salad and glory. strib.mn/3k3Zfp8
A peek inside: See the original Charlie's in this TPT episode of "Lost Twin Cities" at to.pbs.org/3xLvp0x
The recipe: The recipe for Charlie's famous potato salad first published in Better Homes & Gardens in 1963. It appeared in the Taste section in 1975. strib.mn/3MnnieL