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.

"I haven't the faintest idea where to get wheelbarrows of cash right now," says McLean. "So it boils down to this: [The city] has how many quadmillions of dollars to kick into something that they acknowledge has a life span of only 20 or 30 years, but do they have anything in there for the human, creative part of it? They'll only deal with what they think is a no-fail entity with millions on paper, but the truth of the matter is that big chains headquartered far away are the ones that walk away quietly."

Which I can't help noting is true. McLean got a second mortgage on his house to sustain the Loring Café and the Loring Pasta Bar when things got tough last year. Reisman went into chapter 11 and toughed it out when construction snafus meant the roads around her place were closed off and torn up for an extra two years. Where are the stories about Chili's or Hard Rock Cafe presidents putting their children's college funds in jeopardy to get just one more onion blossom on a table?

 

Dear Dara,

I refuse to believe Red Lobster was the best response us savvy Twin Citians could have to "no Hooters in my backyard."

It is true what they say: Don't come to me with just a problem, bring a solution with it.

Faithful reader, Mike

 

Okay, Mike. I've got a solution. And it's not just to quit going to chain restaurants, including the Red Lobster proposed for downtown Minneapolis's Block E development. Which you should. (I know, I know, a lot of you work in far-flung offices with weirdo, fraidy-cat office mates who insist that all the work celebrations be held at T.G.I.Friday's, or so dread eating with extended family that the ease of Pizzeria Uno outweighs the pain.) But I think the solution is going to be twofold. For one thing, think about the extent to which the quirky, the uncomfortable, and the human-scale with human foibles serve to enrich, comfort, and enlarge your life. To what extent does being immersed in a world--say, the Cheesecake Factory, for one--of the perfectly humming along and bland make you uncomfortable in your own skin, considering that you yourself are not perfectly humming along and bland? The more I live in this world, the more I think a lot of the easeful choices we make ultimately lead to profound unhappiness. I think the time may have come for the silent, tasteful quarter of us all to start being a pain in the ass.

And the second thing is to issue a call to arms to people who are the real string-pullers: leasing agents, real estate developers, loan officers, city finance agencies, and politicians. It has become more and more clear to me that the number-one requirement for restaurant success nowadays is massive overcapitalization. When Nikki Reisman talks about restarting Nikki's, what stands between her and that is, in her estimate, $300,000 or $400,000. Between Jason McLean and Block E is $750,000. For the past year I've been sitting on a piece of news I desperately want to announce about a fabulous restaurant opening a fabulous new thing downtown. But I can't do it because their financing keeps crumbling.

Meanwhile, up in Roseville there's a strip mall that's serving as the most interesting incubator for new restaurant concepts, hosting roast-beef-sandwich shop Maverick's and St. Paul Bagelry and Pizza Nea. Mike Sherwood's Bagelry ended up there because every other mall he looked at insisted that the restaurant they rent to be backed by a massive chain. (Apparently based on the demonstrably wrong theory that a Pizza Hut never closes.)

The construction manager who considered putting a Loring Café in Block E had exactly the right idea. If that had happened, it would have done more to change the character of our downtown than anything I can think of. It would have been an actual tourist destination the way a Hard Rock Cafe never will be: a place to which locals actually happily bring visitors, like the Lake Harriet Rose Garden or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, not a place tourists are supposed to go.

Which is a long, long way around to saying that if we had 50 people like that visionary construction manager, and another 50,000 who use the closing of the Loring and Nikki's as a wake-up call to be more mindful about the restaurants we patronize, we could have something for everyone: good red wine and crème brûlée for Amy, a solution for Mike, and, for the rest of us, a more lovable metropolis.

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