It was a standing-room-only crowd at the Modern Cafe on Saturday night, a day after owners Jim and Patty Grell announced plans to sell their 20-year-old restaurant.
You’d think the couple would have been working the dining room, soaking up the love from the well-wishers thronging the northeast Minneapolis landmark.
But, no. They were downstairs, in the restaurant’s dreary basement prep kitchen; he was trimming vegetables, she was up to her elbows in industrial-strength rubber gloves, scrubbing pots.
Yes, the glamorous life of restaurant ownership. After two backbreaking decades, the couple have had their fill.
“The restaurant is 20, and I just turned 50, and I’m old, and I’m tired,” said Jim. “We’re not failing. I just don’t want to be doing this when I’m 60.”
The restaurant will remain in the Grells’ hands through Saturday. The buyer’s identity remains a mystery. Ditto the intentions for the 74-year-old building. “They’re going to make their own announcement,” Jim Grell said.
The Grells debuted their modern-day diner on Aug. 8, 1994, focusing on contemporary renditions of blue-plate fare. The Modern’s innovative formula, a savvy blend of scruffy nostalgia, expert but unpretentious cooking, engaging service and value-conscious prices, was an instant hit, luring folks from Northeast as well as food-loving adventure-seekers from across the metro area.
At the time, the menu’s top price was $6.50 for a pan-roasted chicken breast with garlic mashed potatoes. Meatloaf was $6.25, and the dish that would come to define the restaurant, pot roast, weighed in at $6 (it’s now twice that price at lunch, and three times as much at dinner).
Oh, that pot roast, which has long enjoyed its status as one of the region’s most enduring signature dishes. Refinements have only improved it, but at its essence it has always remained a fist-sized hunk of succulent, lovingly braised beef, served with onion-steeped pan juices, carrots caramelized to dessert-level sweetness and mashed potatoes infused with enough butter and cream to support a small dairy farm.
Over the years, the Modern not only made comfort food hip, but the restaurant forged a defining role in the local move toward casual neighborhood dining. The throwback decor, a novelty in 1994, grew into a design standard. Another innovation: The Grells quietly introduced the much-copycatted half-price wine craze.
The restaurant’s popularity also proved to be a catalyst in the neighborhood’s revival. It’s impossible to imagine today’s thriving Northeast minus the Modern’s paving-the-way role.
The Modern’s impossibly tiny kitchen has been home to several influential Twin Cities chefs, including Mike Phillips (now the owner of Red Table Meat Co.), Scott Pampuch (former chef/owner of Corner Table in south Minneapolis) and Phillip Becht (now at Victor’s on Water in Excelsior). Chef Ella Wesenberg currently runs the show, and under her tenure, the kitchen’s output has remained as compelling as the day the doors opened.
In all honesty, I can’t call myself a true Modern regular, although I wish I could. Still, I have turned to Modernism probably four or five times each year over the course of the past two decades. What is that, maybe 100 meals? In retrospect, I wish it had been 200.
Goodbye, old friend. You’ll be missed.
Where: 337 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-378-9882, www.moderncafeminneapolis.com.
When: The Grells will own the restaurant through Sat., serving lunch Thu.-Fri., brunch Sat. and dinner Thu.-Sat.