See, for the last decade in the Twin Cities we've had a lot of individual talents, a number of talents who passed through D'Amico Cucina, for instance, like Tim McKee and Doug Flicker, or Lucia Watson at Lucia's, or the Tejas/Goodfellow's team. But there was no coherent scene. Whenever there was a survey of favorite restaurants, out-of-town chains like Kincaid's or no-brainer Italian rip-offs painted a picture of a dining public that didn't know mediocrity from greatness. Chefs were subservient to businessmen or despair, and because chefs were insecure and constantly changing jobs, the dining public learned that the well-reviewed restaurants often stank, because the talent within them changed so rapidly.

Chefs could build no coherent lifework, or customer base. Customers could build no baseline of what was normal--good, never mind extraordinarily good. But the trend over the last six years or so has been for chefs to head out on their own, found shoestring businesses, and build a customer base. Tim McKee had the least shoestring of these operations with the marvelous Stillwater La Belle Vie, and in town we had Alexander Dixon at Zander, Doug Flicker at Auriga, and Alex Roberts at Alma--chefs who stayed put, established relationships with local farmers, local provisioners who found the cherrywood balsamics and smoked oak paprikas they needed to have fun, and, slowly but surely developed a clientele who understood. Regular people now know more about, appreciate, understand, and most importantly, know where to reliably find great food in the Twin Cities.

That was then. Now, lately and just over the past few months, the next phase has been taking shape. Homegrown talents have been establishing the bigger-money, deeply rooted restaurants we need to take this dining scene to the next level. Solera expresses the concerns of a whole community of local food people who have fallen in love with Spanish ingredients. This includes importers like Scott Pikovsky, chefs like co-owners Josh Thoma and Tim McKee, wine folks like general manager Bill Sommerville, and, to me, the excitement of Solera even attaches to chefs who have nothing to do with the place but have been tinkering with Spanish ingredients for the last several years.

Meanwhile, at Cosmos, Seth Bixby Dougherty, who has deep roots here, has established a big-ticket, super-beautiful restaurant where he can showcase the fantastic Midwestern ingredients that our local chefs have been working with lo these many years. Bixby Dougherty, then, is reaching out to the businesspeople, the world travelers, and the community that doesn't know I-494 from I-394, and that is a critical, critical piece of the puzzle.

Finally, as the third leg of this restaurant-of-the-century thing, we've got Woodman and McLain, a chef with an impeccable background and a force of nature who doesn't understand the word no, raising the cooking bar a few notches.

To me, what's finally going on is that a new level of aspiration has finally been added to a really nice, really reliable pack of chef-driven, quiet, food-oriented restaurants we have here now--places like Heartland, Sapor, Zander Cafť, Luciaís, Auriga, La Belle Vie, Restaurant Alma, and Vincent. And if Solera, Cosmos, and Levain can be the chef-driven heavy hitters that carry, inspire, and drive everyone to the next level, then I think we will really be establishing a secure base camp on this new level of dining, as we move up the Mountain of Dining Greatness!

So where do I figure in the sad closings, like those of Aquavit, cafť un deux trois, and RockStar? Well, I can say that each of those places had glaring, elephant-in-the-room flaws that made their closings unsurprising: At Aquavit, they treated non-VIPs and VIPs so differently that the place consistently reminded me of one of those puppets with a face on each side: Which would you get? To me, un deux trois hadnít had a real chef since Vincent Francoual headed out on his own. And RockStar had the most hideous physical environment of any restaurant Iíve ever been toóand Iíve been to the airport. Which feels awful to say, because I feel like Iím risking minimizing the jobs that were lost, hearts that were broken, fortunes that were destroyed, and, generally, lives that were wrecked by these closings.

And yet, one canít help but notice that restaurants are opening faster than theyíre closing. jPís American bistro has come along to fill the odd-capitalization void left by un deux trois, and with Azia, Tiburůn, Mojito, FireLake, and countless suburban restaurants opening faster than one can count, all signs point to a more vital restaurant scene, not a less vital one. And that is my state of the state, and end to this whole run of our various Restaurant of the Century openings. I have really created a monster, and all you publicists that keep sending me me-too notes, thatís it! The door has closed. We now must all just sit tight and wait for some kind of coalescing of strengths and trends, and of course we must go out to eat.

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