Owamni by the Sioux Chef isn't the country's first Indigenous restaurant. But it's probably the most influential, and that's without having served a single meal.
"We're hoping to be a role model," said chef/co-owner Sean Sherman. "We're hoping that a lot of people will take some of the ideas of what we're doing, and that there can be Indigenous restaurants in every city."
The opening-soon restaurant, a centerpiece of the new $24 million Water Works park on the downtown Minneapolis riverfront, has been percolating for years. In 2014, Sherman and partner Dana Thompson founded the Sioux Chef, a catering and food education enterprise. Two years later, the couple submitted their restaurant proposal to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
"When we started the Sioux Chef, with almost nothing, I couldn't imagine that our first full-service restaurant would be this big, massive project," said Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. "And on such a beautiful, sacred Dakota site."
He's referring to nearby Owámniyomni (roughly, "the place of the falling, swirling waters"), the Dakota name for what is now St. Anthony Falls, the only major cataract on the Mississippi River.
During the busy warm-weather season, Owamni will serve lunch and dinner and follow a hybrid service format, with table service in the dining room, online ordering on the patios and takeout for nearby picnics.
"Because we have this great location, we know that there will be a lot of curious people coming in," said Sherman. "We just want to make everyone comfortable. It's going to be a place that's non-pretentious and open to everybody."
On the menu
Indigenous cooking celebrates the plants, animals, birds and freshwater fish native to the region — it's the local food movement at its most fundamental — and ignores dairy products, wheat flour, sugar, beef, pork, chicken and other ingredients introduced by European settlers.
"When you eat this food, it's very clear how good you feel," said Thompson. "It's light, it doesn't weigh you down. And it's delicious."
Sherman is still finalizing the menu, but expect to encounter arepa-style sandwiches, made with a mix of corn and wild rice, plus shareable game meat dishes and a wide range of plant-based selections.
"There are plenty of options for pizza out there," he said. "We just want to do our best and offer something unique, and we feel so humbled by having this really beautiful space to do that. By this summer, when people ask, 'Where can I go out for Native American food?' they'll know exactly where to go."
The restaurant will take on a different personality in the quiet winter months. From February through April, Sherman is planning a tasting-menu dinner series ("We'll explore a more modern edge of Indigenous cuisine," he said) and private events will be the focus during the holiday season.
The bar's alcohol-free choices will start with an Indigenous tea selection.
"We're also going to have a really amazing local botanical-led mocktail list," said Sherman. "Our bartenders are really excited to be a part of that creative process, and our kitchen will help them to utilize some of the natural flavors that are all around us."
The beer and wine lists are sourced almost exclusively from BIPOC producers.
"It has taken an extraordinary amount of effort, and we don't know of anyone else who has tried this, but we've been able to find an almost entirely Indigenous wine list, and that's from an extremely non-diverse industry," said Sherman. "We're really trying to shift the narrative about who we're purchasing from, and why we're purchasing from them. We wanted to lift up the voices of BIPOC- and woman-owned businesses."
In the kitchen, Sherman is also aiming his purchasing power at tribal vendors. Following the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats analogy, he hopes to spur economic growth for Indigenous farmers, fisheries, foragers and other groups. The Indigenous Food Lab in the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, which is the nonprofit side of the Sioux Chef, will also process ingredients for Owamni.
"This for-profit restaurant will always be supporting our nonprofit," said Sherman. "We want to open up opportunities for more producers and help popularize them. Hopefully they can then sell to other restaurants and create some lucrative business opportunities for themselves."
Reflecting the past
The site's complex history reaches back to its role as a Dakota gathering place imbued with deep spiritual significance. Its lumber- and flour-milling past is reflected in the ruins of several mills — the first dates to the 1850s — and then there's the more recent memory of Fuji Ya, the pioneering Japanese restaurant that drew diners to the postindustrial riverfront from 1967 to 1990.
"We see parallels between the Fuji Ya story and the Owamni story," said Michael Hara, design architect at HGA, the Minneapolis-based architectural firm that managed the project. "That helped to drive the design."
Owamni was originally planned for the building's parkway level. The restaurant was eventually relocated one floor up, mirroring Fuji Ya's format with new construction that has been meticulously integrated over the existing mill ruins.
Refurbishing Fuji Ya wasn't possible; the structure had deteriorated to the point of no return. But the gorgeous Owamni dining room, handsomely trimmed in white oak and handblown glass light fixtures, preserves its predecessor's postcard-worthy river vistas through banks of floor-to-ceiling windows. ("There's a river view everywhere you look," said Thompson.) A more explicit callback is a dramatic staircase that's fashioned from heavy Douglas fir beams that were salvaged when Fuji Ya's timber structure was demolished.
The 88-seat dining room, which faces an open kitchen, opens to a roomy terrace; a second, larger patio runs in front of the building's river-facing parkway level. The pavilion's first floor — which contains a meeting room and what are surely some of the city's most commodious public restrooms — boasts massive limestone walls and barrel-vaulted masonry ceilings, a revealing glimpse into 19th-century industrial architecture.
"Building the restaurant on top of the ruins made a lot of practical sense," said Hara. "Not only were we able to preserve and display a piece of history that had been neglected for a long time, but reusing the foundations from the old mills reduced costs and the project's carbon footprint."
The surrounding park is planted with 50 different species native to the area, including wild ginger, sumac, chokeberry, white cedar, lady fern, white pine and purple prairie clover. To create what Thompson calls a "botanical walking tour," 15 of the plant types will be identified with descriptive signage in both English and Dakota.
"It's doubling as a Dakota language learning site," said Jean Garbarini, a principal with Damon Farber Landscape Architects of Minneapolis. "Sean and Dana helped us research the cultural, medicinal and celebratory uses of the plants. It's so much more meaningful to have the Dakota culture integrated into the space."
Close to opening
The restaurant is now in countdown mode. Valet parking details are being formalized (look for kayak parking in the future), online reservation and ordering systems are being tested, furniture is arriving, staff is being trained and Sherman and his crew are tweaking the menu.
Manufacturing issues mean that some key kitchen equipment won't arrive for a few weeks, and those hiccups — which are being experienced nationwide — are pushing off the restaurant's opening date.
"We're looking at early-ish July," said Sherman. "That's as long as there are no more delays. But you know how restaurant openings go. It can be unpredictable."
This much is certain: The anticipation is enormous.
"Owamni is an important new restaurant, and not just for Minneapolis, or the Twin Cities, or Minnesota, or the Midwest," said Lenny Russo, chef/co-owner of the former Heartland, a longtime dining epicenter of the local foods movement. "It's a significant achievement for the United States, and even beyond U.S. borders."