Wilde, Civilized

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

From after-breakfast till close (11:00 most nights, 1:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays) the place is a café, wine bar, and dessert destination. As a café, they serve a lovely BLT ($7), jazzed up with a touch of chipotle mayonnaise. They set out an estimable tuna salad perked up with toasted pine nuts. They have small, slightly sweet pizzas covered with everything from apples, pecans, and Brie ($8) to salami and mozzarella. They also make better crab cakes then I ever dreamed of finding in a coffee shop, crab cakes as light as a handful of rose petals but crisp, full of real, fresh-tasting crabmeat, and served with a sprightly bit of cilantro aioli. Executive chef Jason Aronen should handily win this year's "doing more with less" award, putting this kind of food out from this coffee shop's limited kitchen space.

Wilde Roast's wine list is casual, drinkable, and affordable, as befits a neighborhood coffee shop. I particularly recommend the summertime sipper Sterling North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50 a glass/$21 a bottle) which is both brisk and fruity, or the reliable, well-knit Liberty School Cabernet with its cherry edge ($9/$29.)

The desserts, by pastry chef Jennifer Watson, can be very good. Everything I tried came in portions to feed two and had a charmingly homespun air (think of the Caffe Latté philosophy of desserts both wholesome and bearing extra-extra-fudge, and you'll grasp the sensibility). I especially liked the apple-crumb pie ($5) with its lid of buttery cinnamon-sugar crumbles, and the sour-cream chocolate fudge cake, which captivated with its daring use of different intensities of chocolate buttercream (one more buttery, one more fudgy) on different layers of dense, old-fashioned cake.

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

All the food here is counter service, which encourages you to order just as little as you want--a leisurely brunch, a quick coffee, an after-theater dessert, it's your pick. The place is smoke-free and beautifully decorated: Various turn-of-the-century chandeliers, pillars, oil paintings, and wooden moldings of every sort cover most surfaces. Couches, leather armchairs, Victorian tables, and pretty little lamps make the space feel like something appropriate for the staging of one of Oscar Wilde's plays. A few large framed photographs of him gazing down from a high wall complete this sense. How happy would he have been to see young gay men studying from organic chemistry textbooks beneath his portrait?

Actually, the Wilde Roast is a very homework-friendly environment; there's even a bookstore, called Query (www.querybooks.com), attached to the café in case your pen runs out of ink. In fact, while the restaurant doesn't have a kids' menu per se, the menu here is very friendly for school-age kids; there is a mild casserole of mac and cheese ($7), quesadillas ($7), and grilled cheese sandwiches ($6.50) served with a side of snack mix. Every time I was here I saw several tables where one parent and one child were conferencing over snacks and juice on one side of the table, coffee on the other, and homework in between.

And if that's not where you thought today's gay coffee shops were headed, guess again. In addition to hosting parent-child homework meetings, Wilde Roast also hosts eight-minute speed-dating nights for men, gatherings of the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a book club, game nights, live jazz on Wednesdays, and, last spring, was the site of a fourth-grade girl's night of musical theater, put on for her mother, who was dying of cancer.

"We thought that by naming it after Oscar Wilde the message would be out there," says Tom DeGree, who owns the spot with his partner Dean Schlaak. "Don't come in if you're going to be freaked out by the existence of gay people. But I would say a good 80 percent of the people who come in here don't really know who Oscar Wilde was, and certainly don't know he was gay. You know, even a lot of people in gay culture have never heard of him. You might assume that people know these things, but really, there are just some communities where there's very little talk, very little information passed on, about anything at all.

"In the end, what we ended up with was a place where there are often no issues of orientation at all: Older people, younger people, gay, straight, families, students," DeGree continues. "If you look at most of the gay bars in the Twin Cities, they're segregated by gender (lesbians and gay men don't go to the same bars), and they're segregated by age--older at the Brass Rail, younger at the Saloon, etc. Before we opened we had a church come and do a blessing over the café, to make it a place where everyone can feel welcome, and it looked like it worked better than we would ever have hoped. I mean, the old ladies who live behind us, they came to a community meeting to oppose our liquor license because they were afraid that this would be something loud in the neighborhood, but now they come here three times a week and they want us to cut a gate into our fence so they can get here quicker.

"Northeast has the opportunity to become [like Chicago's] Boystown, a gay mecca. But a lot of people have lived here their whole lives, and you can't just say: This is no longer your neighborhood. I'd be horrified if, say, the Ukrainian Society was forced out of their neighborhood. It's a better blend if gay couples could walk down the street hand in hand and not be afraid, and the people who have been living in this community could continue to live in it. And in our place we try to support the depth of this neighborhood. Personally, I fear for a society without a common meeting place. In November, I'm afraid that half of America is going to be really angry, and the other half is going to be really self-righteous, and probably also really angry. So we are trying to be a common meeting ground, the kind of place you would have in a classically liberal--not politically liberal--society."

For me, I can't think of anything more likely to palliate the martyrdom of poor Oscar.

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