One of 2020’s most anticipated restaurant openings got off to a low-key start when Travail Kitchen & Amusements quietly opened its rooftop for dinner earlier this month.
The “rooftop patio cantina” features a 10-course tasting menu of Mexican-inspired dishes, outdoor cooking (with chefs masked and behind plexiglass) and live music.
But it’s not quite the “3.0” concept that the Robbinsdale trailblazers had set out to open this year in a new building across the street from the restaurant’s original location.
The idea for the new space was to be an interactive dining experience that would flow throughout the building, like a lavish dinner party. With coronavirus still a threat, that plan is now on hold.
“It’s hard to know what’s the next thing we’re going to have to abide by,” said chef and co-owner Mike Brown. “We’re keeping it kind of in the now.”
The theatrical antics that are hallmarks of a Travail dinner are also being kept at bay by an elevated concern for hygiene.
“The beer boot used to be passed around,” Brown explained. “There was bacon hanging off hooks. People were crowded in a room being a part of something, or walking to a different area of the restaurant as a group. All of those things have to be cut out of our dining experience.”
Other slight changes: Guests pour their own water and hold on to their silverware throughout the meal.
But when many customers might be dining out for the first time in months, even a more subdued Travail is proving to be a memorable experience, Brown said. Every meal is accompanied by live music, curated by Wundurfunk Records.
“Basically every table hasn’t seen live music yet since COVID, and these bands haven’t even really played,” he said. “Everyone’s watching together, and when the song is done, they clap. Even though you’re a table away from somebody, you’re all in this together. That was one of those unrealized things — how powerful it is to make people feel connected.”
So far, the core Travail team — Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg — has been getting only positive responses about their return to fine dining. That is, until the masks come back on.
“At the end of dinner, we can see everybody looking at each other like, ‘[Expletive], let’s put our masks back on,’ ” Brown said. “It’s sad, but hilarious. It’s this realization that man, we were gone for a bit there.”
During the months the restaurant was closed for the pandemic, Travail launched popular weekly family meals, which were accompanied by instructional videos of Brown trying to navigate the cooking with his two young children in the kitchen. Those will continue every other week, along with the Travail Marketplace of grocery and prepared items for pickup. Their nearby Pig Ate My Pizza has also maintained takeout business, and added patio seating.
But those steps weren’t enough to keep the engine running. Adding more on-site dining was necessary to keep staffers employed, Brown said.
“We got to this point where, ‘If I don’t offer some sort of experience, then I have to start letting people go,’ ” he explained. “These are the types of things that are making our decisions now.”
As for the future of Travail 3.0, Brown can’t say when the concept — which he had hoped would earn a French-rated Michelin star — will be back on track.
“What’s our future plan? Try to keep people’s jobs. And try to stay positive. And try to provide a reprieve to the people that follow us,” he said. “That’s always been a goal of ours, to transcend people once they sit down. The outside world is gone.”
Travail’s Rooftop Patio Cantina is at 4134 N. Hubbard Av., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131, travailkitchen.com/cantina. Tickets for the cantina must be pre-booked, and go on sale in two-week blocks. Tickets start at $75 per person ($150 on Saturdays with two additional courses) and are available at exploretock.com/travailkitchen.