Wilde, Civilized

An ambitious café brings Oscar Wilde--and a vibrant dose of community--to life in Northeast Minneapolis

Wilde Roast Café
518 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Let us break midway into The Importance of Being Earnest:

Jack: How you can sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

The importance of being earnest about pastry: Wilde Roast Café's Tom DeGree
Jayme Halbritter
The importance of being earnest about pastry: Wilde Roast Café's Tom DeGree

Algernon: Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

Jack: I say it's perfectly heartless, your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.

Algernon: When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins. [Rising.]

Jack: [Rising.] Well that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way. [Takes muffins from Algernon.]

Algernon: [Offering tea cake.] I wish you would have tea cake instead. I don't like tea cake.

Jack: Good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden.

Algernon: But you have just said it was perfectly heartless to eat muffins.

Jack: I said it was perfectly heartless of you, under the circumstances. That is a very different thing.

Algernon: That may be, but the muffins are the same. [He seizes the muffin-dish from Jack.]

Jack: Algy, I wish to goodness you would go.

Algernon: You can't possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It's absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that...

Oh, Oscar Wilde. My brilliant hero, my poor martyr. Dead almost 104 years and I still feel he was gypped. If you're one of those people who don't know about Oscar Wilde, please know that you, too, have been gypped: In the late 1800s he was the funniest writer alive, with more pop than Sadr City at nightfall, more sting than an eyeful of lime, and more grace than a bathtub full of ballerinas. He was feted and celebrated worldwide; he was on top of the world; he had achieved that rarest of all feats of writing, uniting brevity and depth. Then he fell in love and it all went to hell.

The love in question was one for tempestuous, rotten, sneaking, vicious, self-absorbed, dishonest, scheming (I take sides) Lord Alfred Douglas--a charming boy who spent all of Wilde's money and then positioned him in the middle of a Douglas family war. Next thing you know, bam! Wilde is on trial, for all intents and purposes, for being gay. Suddenly, he's being gawked at on his way to jail; he's rotting in jail; his wife divorces him (in a 19th-century divorce, which was much harsher than the kind we have nowadays); he loses all access to his children; he is utterly ruined; his mother dies, heartbroken; his wife dies, heartbroken; he is finally freed and promptly dies himself--humiliated, heartbroken, and in despair.

His letters from jail make some of the more harrowing reading in the English language. Well, actually, here's a funny story: Fran Lebowitz, one of my other writing heroes, mentioned in one of her columns, from the 1970s, that whenever she wanted a really rollicking read, she'd sit down with Wilde's letters. I dutifully took this to be true, and went in search of said missives. They haunt me in the night, to this day. I wake up with chills, thinking of the beautiful Bosie. And so I repeat to myself: Be careful who you fall in love with. Be careful who you fall in love with. Be careful who you fall in love with. And, uh, be careful when you're born.

Because if Oscar Wilde had been born 50 years later than he was, he'd probably just have lived in the successful but haunted style of Truman Capote. If he'd been born 100 years later he'd probably have had his own cable channel. And if he'd been born 500 years later he'd probably head his own nation-state on the moon. I very much wish he had gotten to head that nation-state; it pains me more than you would believe that someone who gave so much was stomped to bits that way.

So, when I heard that there was a new café in Northeast arranged on an Oscar Wilde theme, I went in feeling very protective of the man and his legacy. Why, if anyone dared to add one iota of pain to that poor man's troubles.... What I found has made me feel better about present civilization than I have all year.

First, you should know that as a café, Wilde Roast succeeds terrifically--it combines the best aspects of coffee shop, wine bar, and lunch spot into one elegant meeting space. As a coffee shop, they offer all the extras you hope for, including lattes served in pre-warmed mugs decorated with thick drifts of creamy foam. At breakfast--served till 10:00 a.m. weekdays and 1:00 p.m. weekends--they serve decadent brunch treats, like lush islands of French toast ($7.50), dripping with peaches and dark cherries that have been caramelized in a cinnamon sauce, further adorned with a scoop of ice-creamlike pecan butter and made unforgettable by a shot of whipped cream. An Italian strata ($7.50) is essentially a rich bread pudding plumped to bursting with oodles of sausage and cheddar cheese; when I tried it, it came with toast and a pot of homemade tart, fresh apricot jam.

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