Chain Fools

What you can do to revitalize downtown Minneapolis


Dear Dara,

I'm looking for a restaurant with good red wine and crème brûlée for a friend's birthday. Any suggestions?

Love among the Loring ruins: Can downtown Minneapolis steer clear of chain sameness?
Tony Nelson
Love among the Loring ruins: Can downtown Minneapolis steer clear of chain sameness?

Thanks, Amy


No. Are there restaurants these days without red wine and crème brûlée for a friend's birthday? I mean, aside from the odd taqueria or Ghanian juice bar, I can hardly think of one. In fact, if you told me that McDonald's was about to debut a crème-brûlée-and-red-wine value meal, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Oh, sure, I could have started this column with one of the countless queries I've gotten on the Loring Café closing, or the upcoming shuttering of Warehouse District staple Nikki's Café, but I'd just as soon start the discussion in the broadest possible terms: What are we looking for in restaurants right now? Are we looking for crème brûlée?

But in case you've been living beneath the sea, I'll first offer a quick recap of the big doings in Twin Cities restaurants, spring of 2002. All around town big chain restaurants are opening: Our first Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's went into Edina, and the Block E development in the heart of downtown Minneapolis promises chain upon endless chain. Simultaneously, the Loring Café and Bar closed at the end of last month, against their vigorous protest. Their landlord refused to renew their lease, and another restaurant will be going in there, probably a D'Amico property.

Meanwhile, on the other edge of downtown, Nikki's Café, a longtime Warehouse District fixture, will, according to owner Nikki Reisman, have its last night Saturday, June 29. Nikki's is closing, says Reisman, because she and her landlord have had a fractious relationship for a decade, and she suspects he's now hoping he can find a new tenant who has deep enough pockets to make capital improvements to his property. So Minneapolis loses another chunk of its heart. (Although, as of this writing, there is no other tenant signed to the space, so perhaps an 11th-hour reprieve will be granted.)

And so went the Loring, and so goes Nikki's.

As far as you, you should definitely go to the Nikki's farewell shebang. They'll be auctioning off various pieces of the restaurant, holding a raffle for the signature sign out front, and generally whooping it up.

I'll be there. I wasn't going to go to the Loring Café's last night, because I hate hate hate funerals, but I went anyway, and it was a good, sad goodbye. As I tucked into chef Patrick Atanalian's last meal, which was full of signature playfulness, like a medallion of chipotle-glazed pork tenderloin garnished with a little cherry Gummi Bear car having a cherry Gummi Bear crash up on top of a polenta hill, I couldn't help wondering how the face of Loring Park would change now. Seems like when I moved here, it was a place you went to get shot at from the bushes, and it seems now like a little jewel of movies and gardens and urban artiness.

Atanalian came by the table to say goodbye, and we got to talking about the Gummi Bear car crash, and he said something that has been ringing around in my head ever since: Everybody says that people should go to independent restaurants. But why should they, if they're getting the same garlic mashed potatoes they get at the Cheesecake Factory? Mashed potato to mashed potato, independent restaurants will never be able to compete: The big guys have economies of scale on everything from potato suppliers to health insurance, and if we are competing purely on the basis of garlic mashed potatoes--or, red wine and crème brûlée--say goodbye to independent restaurants.

Cut to Nikki Reisman thinking about relocating Nikki's somewhere else in the Warehouse District. "Every way I look at it, if I go into a new space I'm going to need to spend a minimum of $300,000 or $400,000," she says. "The owner of one building I looked at said, 'Money's so cheap right now, you can hardly not borrow it.' Yeah, right. Maybe for you." Or rather, maybe for giant deep-pocket corporations with slick business plans. "For me, the customers have always been more a reflection of who I am: artsy, creative, quirky," says Reisman. "Truth be told, Nikki's was never about the food, but then again Buca certainly isn't about the food; it's just a highly developed concept restaurant. One of the things that always happened [at Nikki's] was that people come in and say, 'What is this? What's going on here?' No one walks into Buca or Campiello and asks, 'What is this?' It's pretty obvious: This is the place you take your aunt for her birthday; this is the place you wear your new Ann Taylor dress."

Fairy godparents, Minneapolis needs you now more than ever. And yet, back at the Loring, there almost was one. You know how I--along with everyone in town--have been ranting and raving about the characterless, mall-nowhere character that seems to be evolving in Block E, the development in the heart of Minneapolis that was supposed to rescue us from blight? Well, it turns out that the project's construction manager looked at the brouhaha at the Loring, added it together with the brouhaha over Block E, and actually approached Jason McLean at the Loring about putting a 17,000-square-foot, two-level Loring in the complex. McLean says he drew up plans, got very excited about all the possibilities, and then came to a stock-still halt in the face of the realization that he'd need $750,000 to do it.

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