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
612.331.4544
www.wilderoastcafe.com

Let us break midway into The Importance of Being Earnest:

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

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.

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.

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.

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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