The 2020 Restaurant of the Year? All restaurants
"Pandemic" has been crowned the word of the year by Merriam-Webster.
But if the dictionary's brain trust was focusing solely on restaurants, that 2020 accolade would surely belong to "pivot."
For the past nine months, COVID-19 has placed unprecedented obstacles in front of restaurants, including government-mandated shutdowns and restrictions, record unemployment within the hospitality industry and a jittery dining-out public.
It should come as no surprise that the restaurant industry, which is populated by some of the Twin Cities' most creative and hardworking individuals, has reacted to the challenge by displaying titanic levels of agility, imagination and determination.
"Necessity is the mother of innovation," said Rikki Giambruno, chef/owner of Hyacinth in St. Paul. "You've got to do what you've got to do."
Just look at the way restaurants have transformed, redrafting business models as the ground beneath their feet continued to shift in unpredictable directions. Listing them all isn't possible. Some highlights:
Tenant chef Cameron Cecchini dropped his six-course dinner format and began crafting takeout-friendly soup and sandwiches, and Pizzeria Lola chef/co-owner Ann Kim started selling frozen par-baked versions of her award-winning pizzas, imprinting them with a clever brand name: "Frozann."
At Centro, owner Jami Olson and chef José Alarcon repurposed their upscale Popol Vuh into ViV!R, a cafe/bakery/market and an outlet for the handiwork of pastry chef Ngia Xiong.
Nightingale chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston created Lake City Sandwiches, one of many "ghost kitchen" operations designed to reanimate idle production facilities and reach new audiences. Lake & Irving chef/owner Chris Ikeda delivered his contemporary gastropub fare into a takeout-only pop-up in a former Perkins in Savage.
Hope Breakfast Bar co-owners Brian and Sarah Ingram increased their seating capacity by converting the quiet street in front of their restaurant into a temporary patio, and Handsome Hog chef/co-owner Justin Sutherland invested in a knockout of a new patio, one that instantly catapulted itself into all kinds of "best" lists.
Jamie Malone and her innovative Grand Cafe colleagues took meal kits to dizzying new heights of luxury. Chef Doug Flicker jazzed up the nouveau dive bar menu at his Bull's Horn Food & Drink with a Wednesday night ramen fest. Tiny Al's Breakfast stretched beyond its a.m. boundaries and began selling a once-a-week curbside pickup dinner for two.
Tullibee chef Nyle Flynn took advantage of his kitchen's proximity to 100-plus hotel rooms (they're upstairs at the Hewing), tapping some to temporarily stage multicourse dinners for up to six people; the sellout was nearly instantaneous. Stephanie Shimp and David Burley, operators of the Minnesota State Fair's wildly popular Blue Barn, launched a food truck to serve fairground favorites when the Great Minnesota Get-Together was canceled.
Vikings & Goddesses baker/owner Rachel Anderson began delivering ready-to-bake croissants and biscuits. Bellecour closed, but its popular bakery was reborn in new North Loop digs, a collaboration with Cooks of Crocus Hill.
Smack Shack and the Lexington invested in UV-light air purification systems. And just as they were moving into their sparkling and spacious new dream home, the team at Travail Kitchen and Amusements did just about anything to keep the lights on, making takeout as famously playful as their dine-in experience; not many other restaurants offer prep-and-reheat instructions via video.
This list could go on, and on, and on. When this slow-motion crisis passes, the local restaurant industry's collective resourcefulness and grit will surely become the subject of countless academic studies, and probably kick-start more than a few great novels, plays and movies.
The heart of our community
The pandemic also has accentuated the unending generosity and compassion that are built-in components of the restaurant community's DNA.
At a time when restaurants are facing unprecedented economic roadblocks, individuals from every corner of the industry have donated time, expertise and resources to feed those in need. Their uplifting stories could fill this newspaper several times over.
Here's just one example of heroic civic engagement: Minnesota Central Kitchen, a collaboration between Chowgirls Catering, Loaves & Fishes, Second Harvest Heartland and a long list of Twin Cities chefs, recently crossed an astounding milestone.
In the nine months since its inception, the nonprofit has prepared 1 million free meals for food-insecure Twin Citians. The effort, financially supported through corporate and foundation sources as well as private fundraising efforts, has also created employment for more than 135 furloughed restaurant workers.
Consumers have been stepping up, too. There are countless instances of customers coming to the aid of their favorite restaurants by purchasing gift cards, and then asking restaurateurs to distribute them to people in need. The latest: Timberwolves player Karl-Anthony Towns recently pledged $5,000 to Soul Bowl in support of HopeKids, which aids children with life-threatening medical conditions.
There's another way — perhaps the best way — to support restaurants in their time of need.
"Order takeout," said Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable, Demi and Bellecour Bakery in Minneapolis.
A year like no other
By any measure, 2020 has been a year of loss in the restaurant universe.
Consider the heartbreaking demise of livelihoods and lifelong dreams when economic realities (or destructive violence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd) shuttered dozens of Twin Cities restaurants.
But there's also the void felt by the community when restaurants — our gathering places, memory makers and happiness factories — disappear.
Restaurants have been closing in previously unseen numbers (more on that in Thursday's Taste section), hollowing out neighborhoods and numbing a vibrant cultural force that has contributed to the region's enviable livability quotient.
And on a more personal level, who among us doesn't miss the delight of taking a seat inside their favorite restaurant? Of reveling in the anticipation of the sensory experience to come, and being immersed in scintillating conversation over great food and drink?
There's a sunnier side to this doom-and-gloom equation. Despite a record number of closings, 2020 has also witnessed nearly 75 openings, with newcomers adapting to the new normal with surprising speed. The numerous debuts are proof that, pandemic be damned, the ever-optimistic and forever-savvy restaurant industry continues to find opportunity in a wounded marketplace. More are coming in 2021.
Since 2003, the Star Tribune has named a Restaurant of the Year, spotlighting the standout achievements of a newly influential addition to the Twin Cities' dining landscape.
This year, a year like no other, when all restaurants have radiated boundless resilience and ingenuity, there's only one answer to the question, "What's the 2020 Restaurant of the Year?" And that is, "Every restaurant is the restaurant of the year."
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib