When chef Max Thompson reopens his 128 Cafe next month, following a months-long construction hiatus, it won’t be the 128.
Sure, the restaurant’s DNA will remain. Still, not only has Thompson (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) given the place a makeover, but he’s changed the name. It’s now Stewart’s.
“It’s cool to do something new," said Thompson.
Old-timers will recall the Stewart’s moniker. The restaurant, located in the garden level of a century-old apartment building across the street from the University of St. Thomas, has been home to a number of cafes and bars since the 1940s, including, yes, Stewart’s.
(Brock and Natalie Obee opened the 128 in 1996, and the restaurant — located at 128 N. Cleveland Av. — has gone through several owners over the years; Thompson bought the place in 2013.)
“From what I’ve been told, Stewart’s was a longtime staple, a real neighborhood spot,” said Thompson. “He sold things like white bread, and sardines, and Ritz Crackers, and he had a soda fountain. So we’ve re-established the Stewart’s name, and updated it.”
During the renovations, Thompson unearthed a vintage Stewart’s coupon book. He’s going to frame it and hang it in the new Stewart’s.
“The name change from 128 might upset a few people,” said Thompson. “But it’s progress, and progress is good.”
Thompson had a hand in building out the redesigned space, pitching in on demolition, sheet-rocking and other construction tasks. An L-shaped, copper-topped bar is twice the size of its predecessor (“It’s now 10 comfortable seats instead of five really uncomfortable ones,” said Thompson), the floor is now covered in reclaimed fir and several tables have been replaced with banquettes.
“It’s a nice space, but we’re not re-creating fine-dining over here,” said Thompson. “It’s a neighborhood restaurant.”
Most notably, the bulk of the dining room’s signature knotty pine paneling is history, and what remains has been painted.
“It didn’t work with the new vibe,” said Thompson. “My Mom told me to send pictures of the remaining paneling, before we painted it, for old times' sake.”
A much-needed upgrade was also bestowed upon the well-worn kitchen.
“We now have a grill that actually gets hot, so we’ll be able to have some char on our steaks for a change,” Thompson said with a laugh.
Thompson continues to hammer out menu details.
“We’re going to blur the lines more, make it simpler,” he said. “The menu was so entree-based before. We’ll offer things that are more shareable, so you can get a few things and not feel like you’re spending a ton of money. Most of the menu will be the same throughout the day and night, but certain things will go on and off. Maybe a kimchi Reuben at lunch, then some kind of steak dish at dinner, and lots of vegetables.”
Fans of the restaurant's signature ribs -- the recipe has been passed along through several ownerships -- brace yourself. They're kaput.
"Yes, the ribs are gone," said Thompson. "As is the garlic [another longstanding menu staple, roasted garlic]. "We will be doing a 'Farewell 128' night in the future, for one last hurrah. We may even raffle off the recipes."
Thompson’s also hoping to lure in St. Thomas students during the day with coffee, juices and Wi-Fi, plus happy hour. Other big news: After six months of wrangling, Thompson has secured a full liquor license. Tyler Kleinow of Marvel Bar is setting up the program, and Jesse James Ostendorf (another Marvel vet) will run it. Amy Ochsner, formerly of Upton 43, will manage the front of the house.
The parking situation has also been upgraded, with lightened restrictions on surrounding streets, and the addition of a small (as in, four-spot) lot.
The plan is for Stewart’s to open the week of September 20th, starting with dinner service (Tuesday through Sunday) then adding lunch and weekend brunch a few weeks later.
“But it could be the week of the 12th for a soft opening, if we get lucky,” said Thompson.