Aster Cafe reborn as 'listening room'

With the Aster Cafe's windows framing the Minneapolis skyline, members of the band Romantica christened a new stage last Thursday. "It's an important and historical night at the Aster Cafe," singer Ben Kyle told the crowd. "Because it's the start of live music."

Snuggled into St. Anthony Main, the former hole-in-the-wall coffee shop had a quiet and unassuming existence for 15 years before closing in April. But in May, new owners Matty O'Reilly and Tom Peterson reopened the place with the ambition of turning it into a music haven. They laid the groundwork by introducing a sophisticated bar operation and a new food menu that kept the rejuvenated patio busy all summer.

The Aster is located in the oldest masonry building in Minneapolis, dating to 1855. When O'Reilly and company bought the Aster in May, they knew the vintage legacy of the space had to remain, including the name. They added a large hand-carved wood bar, which anchored the room. But would these cozy confines work as a destination for live bands?

Romantica bassist Tony Zaccardi described Aster as a "listening room," where everything is set up to focus on the musicians. The audience sits at copper-topped tables, which should be reserved beforehand. The intimate experience only leaves room for about 80 seats (100 with standing). Over the crisp sound system, Romantica held the full attention of its listeners.

"The room is beautiful," Zaccardi said. "I think the buzz will happen pretty fast."

Cover at Aster ranges from about $5 to $15. The higher-end shows might give you sticker shock (Romantica was $15), but O'Reilly said the pricing is intentional, aimed at attracting a crowd that wants to hear music. "We're not just randomly throwing a band up in the corner to get a few more customers," he said.

While the place still serves coffee (opening at 7 a.m. on weekdays), this is very much a bar. The smart beverage menu starts with a craft beer list that is showcased across a dozen taps. There's an equally diverse line-up of wines, with by-the-glass prices between $5.25 and $9.75. A half-dozen infusion jars sit over the bar, their contents used for Aster's tea-based cocktails ($6.75). Try the "Gin et Jus #99," a blend of gin, red-berries tea and lemonade. The menu offers a small but refined collection of salads, sandwiches, cheese plates and flatbread pizzas. Everything is priced under $10.

Aster's lush patio was as busy as any of its neighbors' this summer. But now comes the cool months. "The myth about this place is nobody comes here in the winter," O'Reilly said. If last week's opening night of music was any indication, this listening room will do just fine.

"If we give people a reason to come," O'Reilly said, "they'll come."

  • Tom Horgen

Toby Keith finally to visit bar he loves

Three months after the opening of Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill, the man himself will finally make an appearance at the bar that bears his name. Toby Keith will appear at the suburban megabar from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday. He is not expected to perform.

The bar will roll out the red carpet for the country superstar, with bands performing throughout the day inside and outside the West End restaurant. No word yet if there will be a cover charge or if he'll be doing a meet-and-greet with fans.

Toby Keith's I Love This Bar opened in early-June to massive crowds. The 15,000-square-foot behemoth books bands almost every night of the week and features an oversized, guitar-shaped bar.

  • Tom Horgen

Northeast Social chef goes really northeast

Chef Eddie Hayes Jr. has left the Northeast Social for a new job on the North Shore, running the Ledge Rock Grille at the Larsmont Cottages resort. "A goal of mine has always been to live up north," he said. "I'm fulfilling one of my lifelong curiosities." His hire is a big boost for the property, where the food hasn't seemed to live up to the handsome setting's promise. Hayes said he's looking forward to getting the restaurant to produce more house-made items, as well as putting the kitchen's wood-burning oven to work. "Man, I can do Italian stuff for days out of that oven," he said. Meanwhile, back at the Social, sous chef Geoff Little has been promoted into the top spot.

  • Rick Nelson

Mpls. bike messengers compete in Guatemala

Imagine traveling through a jungle, down a mountain ravine and back up, hanging onto tree roots for balance. There's just been a natural disaster and dozens of people and homes have been suffocated by mudslides, but you're determined to make it to your destination: the Cycle Messenger World Championships.

That's what happened to Minneapolis bike messengers Andy Larson, 28, Chris Graham, 24, Christopher "Skinny English" Anderson, 28, and Nick Gibbons, 32.

The men successfully made it through the jungle, bikes in tow, to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, to compete in what is essentially the Olympics of bike messengers. The "Main Race" of the CMWC put messengers in a rough-terrain work simulation, on cobblestones and broken cement, navigating intensely among pedestrians, children, stray dogs and "tuk-tuks" (three-wheeled taxis). The winner becomes the bike-messenger world champion.

Of the four Minnesotans, Larson qualified for the Main Race, and got to compete against cycling Olympian Ivonne Kraft (men and women in CMWC compete both together and separately). Larson placed 20th overall -- an impressive standing given the three flat tires he had to change consecutively in the third part of the race.

"It's unquantifiable," said Larson, who also owns the Minneapolis-based Trash Messenger Bags ( "Taking a risk and having a great experience with generous locals and learning about their culture. We didn't know what we were stepping into."

  • Valerie Vande Panne