It was a TV dinner unlike any other.
Lanoira Duhart and Holly Freeberg perched at the end of a communal high-top on the upper level of Travail's three-story complex in Robbinsdale. There for the restaurant's "signature" tasting menu, the $115-per-person dinner was a splurge for the Crystal couple, who were celebrating a trifecta of occasions: Valentine's Day, an anniversary and Duhart's acceptance into the Minneapolis Fire Academy.
"Steve-O's, that's more our place," Freeberg said, referring to the dive bar up the road. But to properly celebrate, the pair decided to try something out of the ordinary, yet familiar thanks to a pandemic television-watching habit. They had seen a lot of "MasterChef," the cutthroat reality cooking competition overseen by Gordon Ramsay, which gave them aspirational ideas about food. Not about cooking it, but eating it.
"We wanted to experience that type of dining," Duhart said.
A Travail chef stood before them, plating a sauerbraten-style pork cheek with pretzel spaetzle and sweet-and-sour cabbage on a dish no larger than a saucer. The chef rested the glistening piece of meat on top of a creamy, bright-orange dollop. Duhart and Freeberg watched closely, giddy about the orange stuff.
"Seeing Ramsay and all those guys put together a carrot purée, I don't even know what that is," Duhart said. "And then these guys give us carrot purée, and it's like, oh, this is what it tastes like? This is great!"
Throughout the dining room, couples and groups of friends were celebrating something — a recent move, a fantasy football win, or just a Wednesday night. Whatever brought them there, there was a sense among these 35 strangers that they were sharing something special: a dinner full of unexpected twists and treats, where the menu is handed to you only after it's over, and a communal nightcap with the chefs.
That the cost was steep, and paid in advance, rarely came up. Dinner for two, plus wine pairings, tax and a 21% health and wellness surcharge: $498.15.
After two-plus years of takeout and being told that dining out was a high-risk endeavor, diners are emerging from the pandemic seeking food experiences to remember — and they're willing to pay for it.
An intimate setting
Travail has long been a high-end ticket on the local dining scene. With limited seating for hourslong elaborate meals, it was an achievement just to get in, if you could afford it. Another was Demi, once the most expensive meal in town. But three years after Gavin Kaysen's tasting-menu-only restaurant debuted, the price of a still-hard-to-obtain spot at the 20-seat bar ($125) has unexpectedly become comparable to many other exclusive dinners.
Prices vary widely, starting around $75 and running up to $250 for a recent event at Alma, and even $400 for a ticket to an upcoming 18-course dinner with Travail chef and co-owner James Winberg (amounting, with fees, to more than $1,000 per couple). Still, many can be more affordable than hiring a personal chef to cater a private event. Though public, they come with the bonus that both guest and host know what they are getting into: fewer strangers breathing the same air, for one thing, and a guaranteed customer base for another.
Exclusive dinners are not just a trend, they're practically a necessity to survive as a high-end, full-service establishment, said Travail chef and co-owner Mike Brown. "It's kind of one way or the other, and I think a lot of the middle is disappearing," he said. "It's like you're going to go out and go into something special, a certain experience you're signing up for, and it works to our benefit because we geared what we do towards that."
With the pandemic seemingly waning at the moment, more people are willing to take the plunge for something intimate and truly original.
"Human beings need intimacy," said Sue Marshall, who attended the recent Love and Soul dinner from chef Soleil Ramirez at a Columbia Heights event space. "Coming out of COVID, I want to know you." It would have been impossible to not get to know fellow diners at that dinner — there were only 12 guests.
The venue, called the Central Mix, used to house an adult day care. Now, owner Shelley Santrach, of Scandia, Minn., is inviting chefs to use its multiple rooms and commercial kitchen for ticketed pop-ups. It's where "The Gentleman Forager," Mike Kempenich, is launching the Shroom Room, a monthly foraging dinner residency.
"My husband and I don't really eat out much. I'm not interested in crowds," Santrach said. So, she's bringing the restaurant experience directly to them. And such events benefit not only the customer, but the hospitality professionals behind them.
"When you're running a restaurant, there are so many variables and factors, whether it's unhappy guests or staff that's burnt out and tired — and who can blame them?" said Bill Summerville, a longtime Twin Cities sommelier who began hosting Chez Bill dinners in 2019. "This is a situation where you're fresh, and you're excited to do it and it feels great, and you wake up the next day and you feel like you were at a party.
"People who go to something like this really want to be there," he added.
Stretching culinary muscles
While restaurants were once the domain of these high-end dinners, they're now popping up in unexpected places.
In Jamie Malone's sparse white-walled loft, at a long table adorned with whimsical vintage plates and glasses, the guest list is capped at 25 and the menu is highly controlled. She launched Petite Atelier as a post-pandemic reincarnation of her now-shuttered Grand Cafe. Aspiring to better work-life balance than the restaurant world offered her, dinner is served only once a week.
"All I know is I want to create a space that fosters us doing our best and most creative work and doing the things we love the absolute most in a way that doesn't burn us out," Malone said.
For Ramirez, who has the casual Venezuelan spot Arepa Bar at Midtown Global Market, her Love and Soul series gives her a chance to branch out and show the breadth of her skills. At the candlelit gathering, the former Lexington chef de cuisine whips up a four-course menu with wine pairings.
"I miss to cook what I really love to cook," she said. "I love my Venezuelan restaurant and my roots, but I miss fine dining so much."
Hosting pop-up dinners lets Jametta Raspberry tap into her artistic side, something she feels she can only do by being "less confined by the restaurant structure."
"My passion is being creative and setting the table and coming up with new menu concepts," said Raspberry, chef and founder of House of Gristle catering company. "As restaurants are struggling, I think there's been more of a draw to these intimate gatherings — picking up the people that want to go out, they want something different, but they don't want to deal with the problems of going out to a restaurant. I see it as a huge opportunity for me."
But even within restaurants, special tasting dinners give chefs a chance to flex their culinary muscles. In the po'boy shop behind the trendy Mr. Paul's Supper Club in Edina, a counter seats about a dozen guests on weekends for an off-the-wall cocktail tasting with food that allows co-owner and mixologist Nick Kosevich to show off his one-of-a-kind technique. It's called the Balloon Emporium, and the $150 tickets have been quick to sell out. "It's an edible art thing," Kosevich said. "It's an exhibition."
The comforts of home
But there's a legal gray area for some of the events held outside restaurants or established venues. Liquor might be served without a license; food may be prepared outside of a commercial kitchen.
Mohamed Kotb, an Egypt-born bartender with a passion for cooking, had been hosting dinners, called Dervish Mazza, at his north Minneapolis home via EatWith, an international company that matches travelers with home-cooked meals. Without a job as the pandemic hit, he relied on the dinners, served under twinkle lights on his patio or in his Victorian dining room, to support him.
"This is really the child of the pandemic. It was in the womb for decades, and the pandemic induced it and helped deliver it," Kotb said.
But he was recently notified of a complaint against him from Minneapolis' business licensing and health departments for running a restaurant-style business out of his home. The city was alerted to Kotb's dinners from people who were inspired to host their own events, and contacted the city to find out how to go about it, said Enrique Velazquez, the director of Business Licensing for the city of Minneapolis.
"If you want to invite a private chef into your home, there are no rules or regulations on that," said Ryan Krick, a supervisor and inspector with the Minneapolis Health Department. "But you can't run your household like a restaurant and invite people into your house on a continued basis. That is not licensed."
Despite the city's warning, Kotb presses on, lobbying for looser restrictions. He relates the current proliferation of exclusive dinners in unorthodox venues to the early years of food trucks in the Twin Cities. Once they were officially recognized, there was a floodgate of mobile kitchen creativity.
"This is how we help our economy, by creating a micro-economy," Kotb said.
Wherever they occur, intimate, chef-driven tasting dinners have become a new norm, an essential stream of revenue for operators and a sought-after ticket for customers. It's one more way that fans of fine dining are adapting to a post-pandemic world.
"We're not going out that much," said Anne Birch, of south Minneapolis, who spent nearly $500 for dinner for two at Petite Atelier. "It has to be the most incredible food to be worthwhile through COVID. This is well worth the risk."
Small-group tasting dinners
Varying in size and price, tasting dinners have become the bread and butter of some of the Twin Cities' best restaurants and event spaces.
Balloon Emporium: A daytime po'boy shop turns into a zany cocktail tasting on occasional weekends, overseen by mixologist Nick Kosevich, with New Orleans-style plates from chef Tommy Begnaud. $150, 3917 Market St., Edina, mrpaulssupperclub.com
Demi: Gavin Kaysen's petite counter seats 20, and offers impeccable seasonal tasting menus, plus wine or nonalcoholic pairings, $125-$150. 212 N. 2nd St., Mpls., demimpls.com
Kado No Mise: Most offerings are a chef-guided journey — omakase means "I leave it up to you." Inspired by Japanese tea ceremonies, the once-a-week kaiseki from chef Shigeyuki Furukawa is 10 courses. $160, 33 1st Av. N., Mpls., kadonomise.com
Myriel: Karyn Tomlinson's St. Paul restaurant, where hospitality comes first, allows guests to order a la carte or join a chef's tasting menu. $135, 470 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul, myrielmn.com
Petite Atelier: Jamie Malone re-creates some of her Grand Cafe magic on Friday nights. $125, 414 3rd Av. N., Mpls., petiteateliermpls.com
Restaurant Alma: The dining room at Alex Roberts' venerable Minneapolis restaurant serves only prix-fixe meals that change with the seasons. $85, 528 University Av. SE., Mpls., almampls.com
Steady Pour: Yia Vang's four-course Vinai Dinner Series, highlighting Hmong flavors with cocktail pairings, is April 13-16. $120, 2125 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls. steadypour.com
Tenant: Only six seats at the counter are available for a six-course tasting menu that's sure to include handmade pasta. $70, 4300 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., tenantmpls.com
The Central Mix: Upcoming events include the Shroom Room free open house on April 2 and a dinner on April 16 ($100). gentlemanforager.com. The next dinner in Soleil Ramirez's Love and Soul series is April 19. $90, arepabarmpls.com. 4043 Central Av. NE., Columbia Heights.
Travail Kitchen and Amusements: Famously elaborate tasting menus and culinary antics, plus wine or cocktail pairings, from chefs Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg, $115-$135. 4134 Hubbard Av. N., Robbinsdale, travailkitchen.com