Forty years ago, a new restaurant critic appeared in the pages of the Minneapolis Star. Her name was Joan Siegel, and she was embarking on a fascinating, turbulent, entertaining and influential four-year run.
Her baptism was a three-star review of Le Cafe at the Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington.
“The food at Le Cafe is demi-haute cuisine,” she wrote on Aug. 22, 1980. “How demi and how haute depend upon how carefully the executive chef is watching what leaves his kitchen.”
Her Friday column soon became an anchor of the afternoon newspaper’s popular Weekend section.
I grew up in a Star household, and by a young age I was molded into a devoted reader thanks to the contributions of columnist Barbara Flanagan and “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. During my University of Minnesota undergraduate years, Siegel’s perceptive and engaging reviews were lighting up the Star, and they certainly played a role in fostering my fascination with restaurants.
Siegel was a recently divorced mother of three children when she began her high-profile stint as a restaurant critic.
“I was what they called a ‘re-entry housewife,’ ” she said in a recent interview from her south Minneapolis home. “I had been out of the marketplace for 20 years. I knew if I got the job I’d never have to go around, hat in hand, saying, ‘I’m Joan Siegel. You don’t want to hire me, do you?’ ”
The 1980 dining landscape would be nearly unrecognizable to 2020 diners.
For starters, the region had a fraction of today’s restaurants, and openings were relatively scarce. There were fewer diners, too — in the intervening years, the metro area population has grown by nearly a million — and people dined out much less than they do today (pre-pandemic, anyway).
Chef-owned restaurants were rarities, and a meat-and-potatoes mentality dominated. “Wonder” frequently preceded “bread,” and cultural diversity could frequently be summed up in two words: chow mein.
It was a time when many of the Twin Cities’ most notable restaurants were connected to hotels, but those high-end properties didn’t monopolize Siegel’s dialogue with readers.
Instead, she used her bully pulpit to encourage diners to take notice of an emerging league of ambitious talents who were launching restaurants that operated outside the formulaic templates of their predecessors.
Siegel’s passionate advocacy and discerning standard-setting awakened a newfound enthusiasm for dining out. By shaping consumer expectations — and nudging restaurateurs to broaden their horizons — Siegel helped define the dining habits of a generation and played a role in ushering in today’s dynamic, nationally recognized restaurant scene.
A vocal cheerleader
One of the many reasons why reading Siegel’s work is such a pleasure, all these years later (find it at the easy-to-navigate newspapers.com), is that she searched high and low for quality and innovation. “I yearn to unearth the exceptional,” she wrote. When she was impressed, her praise was effusive.
More than once her worshipful gaze landed upon The 510 Haute Cuisine, the gastronomic lodestar that served as a career launchpad for many influential chefs, some of whom continue to resonate with today’s diners.
“A treasure, a jewel, a flower in our town’s withering garden of gastronomy” is how Siegel described the elegant restaurant. “The tab for dinner a deux may compare with your January-February heating bill, but it’s worth every penny.”
She was similarly rhapsodic about 510 owner Gordon Schutte’s short-lived Gordon’s, which occupied a stately space in St. Paul’s Union Depot, praising the kitchen’s fascination with dishes that were rarely given play in the Twin Cities: sautéed calves brains (“Good enough to win over the most squeamish”), grilled saddle of hare, poached turbot, foie gras mousse (“a shimmering oval jewel”) and braised partridge. In addition, she adored the cheese cart, the soufflés and the kitchen’s practice of packaging leftovers into a swan fashioned from aluminum foil, “with fresh mums and daisies folded into its wings.”
Along with Les Quatre Amis and Saji-Ya, another early influencer on Siegel’s list was La Tortue. Her gushing four-star review hailed owners Kristine and Tor Aasheim for their ahead-of-their-time mind-set and chef Klaus Mitterhauser’s savvy mix of French and Scandinavian fare.
A number of bona fide Twin Cities classics also earned raves, including Murray’s.
“Step inside and you’re back forty years,” she wrote. “This is Murray’s, the best steakhouse in town. This is Murray’s, for my money the most romantic room in town.”
A 1982 appraisal of Fuji-Ya included kudos for Minneapolis’ first sushi bar, an innovation that exemplified owner Reiko Weston’s culinary leadership.
“If you’ve never tasted cockle, sea eel, trough shell, gizzard shad, sea urchin, octopus or cuttlefish, here’s your chance,” wrote Siegel, clearly reveling in Weston’s sense of adventure in an era when prime rib was primo.
Siegel didn’t hesitate to share her disappointment when encountering the indifferent, the insipid and the inhospitable. She also questioned the long-standing, universally accepted reputations for excellence among seemingly untouchable dining icons.
“There are signs the Blue Horse is pulling up lame,” she wrote. “The only real high here anymore is the check.”
An assessment of the legendary Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale was mixed, at best.
“Despite Charlie’s longtime reputation as the best restaurant in town, it does not serve the best food in town,” she wrote. “The food can be very good, even excellent, but too frequently it is mediocre. Its presentation, while never intentionally careless, is untouched by craft, inspiration or independence. One night I spent more than $250 [that’s $775 today], and the food never made my pulse race.”
“For starters, the chef could buy some fresh fish and vegetables,” Siegel wrote. “Camelot is too pricey for frozen-food expediency. Poire Helene was the greatest insult — just a canned pear (even in winter you can always get a fresh pear to poach) over ice cream topped with a nondescript chocolate sauce and corpse-white, untoasted, extremely soggy almonds.”
The most potent example of a restaurant subsisting on the fumes of its reputation was the Flame Room. Siegel’s takedown of the Radisson Hotel’s special-occasion fixture contains a restaurant critic’s dream quote: “On my first review dinner I asked the waiter if a particular fish was fresh. His answer was blunt but devastatingly accurate: ‘Nothing is particularly fresh here.’ ”
The words “Oh, snap!” reverberate through the decades.
Exploring, high and low
Like any restaurant critic worth her weight in caviar, Siegel clearly adored making discoveries and recalibrating her readership’s entrenched dining-out habits.
“The Siam Cafe is owned by Supenn Harrison, who was a biology teacher in her native Thailand until she immigrated to the United States,” wrote Siegel. “In 1979, Harrison bought the old Gopher Grill, 331 E. Lake St., and for two years tried to compete with the street’s many greasy spoons. She made chili, she made meatloaf, she made grilled cheese sandwiches. What she didn’t make was money.
“So she threw in the towel and threw out the French fryer. She bought a couple of woks, changed the tiny restaurant’s name to Siam Cafe and started cooking what she knows best — Thai food — although she serves both American and Thai food for lunch. It worked. In no other cuisine do hot, sweet, salty and sour tastes combine with such exuberance.”
Siegel clearly possessed a populist streak, demonstrated in stories as varied as a love letter to eight vintage Lake Street diners to a graze through a new kind of downtown dining attraction, the third-floor food court (or, “eating arcade,” in Siegel-speak) inside the City Center complex.
Her opus delightfully illuminates a litany of long-forgotten dishes, back when Twin Cities restaurants were awash in French (or quasi-French) fare: Veal cordon bleu. Strawberries Romanov. Escargots en croûte. Turtle soup.
She also had a habit of calling out vexations that are still familiar to today’s diners.
“There are a lot of hard surfaces here that allow sound to bounce around,” is how she described Faegre’s, the groundbreaking Warehouse District restaurant. “I mention the noise level more as a warning to those diners who are put off by ricocheting clatter and chatter.”
Everyone’s a critic
In the pre-social media era, Siegel’s reviews generated an avalanche of spirited letters to the editor, and her naysayers did not sugarcoat their feelings.
Reader commentary fell along the lines of “Siegel’s journalism would be more appropriate in the National Enquirer,” “I would advise your readers to follow Siegel’s writings carefully — and head straight for any restaurant she pans,” and “I am waiting for a miracle — that one day Joan Siegel will locate a restaurant that in some small way meets her approval.”
On the flip side, her fans enthusiastically chimed in with their support, from “The best part of The Star is Joan Siegel,” to “I keep reading the restaurant reviews by Joan Siegel and consider them quite accurate. Joan Siegel, don’t apologize.”
A 1983 two-star review of Jax Cafe triggered such an outcry (“Whew! Joan Siegel taking a swipe at Jax is like panning Apple Pie, Motherhood and Christmas,” is how one reader voiced their displeasure) that it prompted Lou Gelfand, the newspaper’s reader representative, to devote one of his weekly columns to Siegel and her work.
“Is Siegel too critical?” Gelfand asked.
Turns out, the answer was “No.”
“I checked her ratings since Jan. 1982,” he continued. “Sixty percent of the restaurants got three stars or better [in a four-star system]. The average rating was 2.8.”
Star of the Star
A much-heralded revamp of the Star in the late ’70s and early ’80s was an attempt to reverse readership losses that were tanking the country’s afternoon newspapers.
In its last years, the Star emphasized long-format news stories and analysis along with robust features coverage (dining, arts and entertainment) in a kind of magazine-on-newsprint format that was highly unusual for a daily newspaper. The last-ditch remake clearly relied upon Seigel’s star power, and she was prominently featured in a number of ad campaigns.
That experiment ended in 1982, when the Star folded into the morning Tribune. When Siegel departed the combined Star and Tribune (now Star Tribune) two years later, she was writing to her largest audience; the weekday circulation of 372,000 was more than double the Star’s 1982 readership.
“People read her,” recalls Brenda Langton of Spoonriver and Cafe Brenda fame. “When I got written up [for her first restaurant, St. Paul’s Cafe Kardamena] by Joan Siegel, my eyes blew wide open. Never before had I seen anything like it. It was a very good review, and we were slammed, for weeks and weeks. It really woke me up to how many more people there were in Minneapolis who were my people. After that, I was, like, ‘I have to move to Minneapolis.’ ”
Siegel’s final review was published on May 4, 1984, a four-star valentine to Supenn Harrison’s Sawatdee Thai Restaurant in Lowertown.
No goodbyes, just a terse editor’s note that read: “This is Joan Siegel’s last column. She has resigned as restaurant critic to accept a position as director of promotions/public relations for restaurateur Gordon Schutte.”
One of Siegel’s happier newspaper memories involves the now-venerable Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis.
“After I’d reviewed it — and it was a positive review — the owner, Erich Christ, told me that my review had saved the restaurant,” said Siegel. “He was going under. It had been a terrible winter. Holy cow, you know that you have some influence, but that was very gratifying to hear.”
At the end of Siegel’s tenure, it was clear that the Twin Cities dining landscape had taken a significant step forward.
Her replacement, Jeremy Iggers, said as much in his first review of the post-Siegel era, a 2 ½-star appraisal of Figlio (“You name the trend, Figlio has it,” he wrote). Iggers had held the job before Siegel’s arrival and was returning to the Twin Cities after a five-year absence.
“The restaurant scene is totally different,” he wrote. “It takes a little getting used to.”
Shortly after leaving the newspaper, Siegel learned that management had conducted readership surveys. To no one’s surprise, she had cultivated an enormous following.
“I was told that there was only one writer who was more popular,” she said. “That was Sid Hartman.”