Are restaurants welcome in Minneapolis' downtown nightclub district? On weekend nights, the blocks surrounding the Hennepin and 1st Avenue strips are clogged with bargoers. In the middle of this circus are a small number of restaurants, like Murray's, 112 Eatery, Nami and Saffron, that seem to survive on loyal regulars or critical acclaim.
After closing his beloved Azia on Aug. 8, restaurateur Thom Pham opened Wondrous Azian Kitchen just days later at the corner of 6th and Hennepin. It's a location famous for killing restaurants and also for being a busy thoroughfare for downtown's marauding partygoers.
It's too early to tell if Pham will succeed where others have not, but let's hope he does, because this part of downtown is in dire need of some sophistication. The addition of more restaurants seems like a natural way to make sure the district doesn't become a full-fledged bastion for beer pong.
Pham has definitely gotten into the spirit of downtown. Wondrous' sign has been outfitted with over-the-top bright, blinking neon and even flaunts its owner's name. "I am the host of this party," Pham told me.
Wondrous has a slightly larger footprint than Azia. One side has been cast as a more traditional dining room, with early-20th-century Chinese woodwork. Pham has mixed his fusion favorites with more classic dishes. Prices range from about $10 to $30. And yes, the cranberry puffs remain.
The other half of the restaurant is dedicated to the bar, framed nicely by a blood-red trellis. While there's no Caterpillar Lounge, a side room is working as the DJ lounge for now (with plans for nightly music).
On the new cocktail menu, you'll find classics like the Singapore Sling, as well as head bartender Brad Smith's latest concoctions. His $7 Merriweather (gin, thyme and honey) was the best I tried. But if you're going out with friends, I suggest just throwing down the gauntlet and ordering the $25 Wondrous Punch in the Face, which tastes just like it sounds. This baby is a 51-ounce behemoth meant to be shared.
Pham said his race to open on time stymied some of the cosmetic projects he wanted to finish. However, a new dragon mural by the guys at Defiant Tattoo has given the room a little more bite. Pham still plans to install floor-to-ceiling windows that will open onto Hennepin Avenue. His sidewalk patio could open this week.
The word coming out of the New York bar scene right now is this: Restaurants are the new nightlife. As bottle-service nightclubs wilted with the economic downturn, restaurants emerged as contenders for a (late) night out on the town. Pham foresaw this eight years ago when he designed Azia as a hybrid dining-and-drinking destination. Wondrous is following the same path: Come for the Peking duck, stay for the Wondrous Punch in the Face.
If he made this work on a quiet street corner in south Minneapolis, I think he can do it on Hennepin, too. The downtown scene will be all the better for it.
I caught myself calling Pham's new place "Azia" on more than one occasion, even though it's definitely not Azia. And it doesn't have to be, right?