Then There Were None

Auriga has closed—and so have Five and Levain. Is Minneapolis over?

Now, let's make it worse. It hadn't occurred to me until Brown pointed it out, but while so many independent places are trucking along on their old independent business model, a new breed of restaurant has arrived among us: The institutionally subsidized one. 20.21, the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant at the Walker Art Center; Cue at the Guthrie; Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Chambers Kitchen at the new Chambers Hotel—all of these hot new restaurants have their rent, their heating costs, and so forth folded into the budget of another institution that meets its expenses in ways other than selling plates of chicken.

When I spoke with Marianne Miller, she joked, "Can't the government subsidize restaurants?" Perhaps, in a roundabout way, with all the fancy financing that went into places like the Guthrie and the Walker, it is. Look for this subsidized economic reality to dominate this year's coming ritzy crop of new hotel restaurants. I used to think that a stand-alone restaurant was simply an architectural term; now I see it's an economic model.

Now, if that doesn't depress you enough, I'll heap some more on. It goes without saying that part of the reason that it's so distressing to lose our great restaurants is that it makes Minneapolis seem kind of podunk, cow-town, ambitionless, pathetic. We like to think of ourselves as a little more San Francisco, a little less Grand Forks. But what if we fail to understand the real difference between us and San Francisco—that they have gazillions of gazillionaires, and we're just middle-class? Maybe when we compare our food scene with the ones in New York and California, we're assuming that they operate under the same rules of business that we do, that they read a profit and loss statement the same way we do. But maybe they don't.

Goodnight, my sweet: A toast to Auriga on the restaurant's final night
Sean Smuda
Goodnight, my sweet: A toast to Auriga on the restaurant's final night

In Minnesota, restaurants need to operate in the black. Yet consider the best restaurant in America, French Laundry. To get it started, Thomas Keller signed up 48 investors for the 17-table venture—that, in case you don't feel like doing the math, is almost three investors per table. However, even though the restaurant has been packed since the minute it opened, according to a New York Times story a few years ago, it still hadn't paid back its investors, and the investors don't much care. Are we ever going to compete with that? If one of the requirements of having a great food scene is the ability to operate in the red indefinitely, we never are.

Frankly, the only real hope I see is that no one is leaving town: Flicker, Brown, Woodman, and Miller all say they love it here, and plan to stick it out—we're hanging on here by the skin of our quality of life.

Of course, I don't mean to give short shrift to the great, independent, home-grown fine-dining, or simply fine restaurants we have left: La Belle Vie, jP American Bistro, Vincent, Lucia's, Restaurant Alma, Café Brenda, Spoonriver, Sapor, Cue, Fugaise, the Dakota, 112 Eatery, the Town Talk Diner, Solera, the Modern Cafe, the Corner Table, the Craftsman, Bayport Cookery, and, in St. Paul, Heartland, Zander Cafe, Cafe 128, Au Rebours, and W. A. Frost. We should certainly all support these places, and whomever I've left out, to the best of our abilities—but it seems Polyanna-ish to say that that alone is the answer. Perhaps I'm just stuck in that stage of grief called "going endlessly over things that can't be changed," but this all just seems awful to me. I cherish the idea of meritocracy, and what seems to be happening in our city right now is that the best and brightest are our vulnerable outliers, and have gotten mowed down first. If it's as bad as all that, what does the future hold?

To answer that, I called up Doug Flicker again, seeking more. "Everything is born, and lives, and dies," he told me. "Hopefully sooner than later, we'll open something new. I will evolve; hopefully everyone will evolve. When we opened Auriga we wanted to change something, we didn't want to be here for the rest of our lives. At the time we thought it would go for 10 years and we'd move on, and that seems to be coming true, a few months early. It's not a failure to close—because how do you define success? I was married here, Mel was married here, Scott was married here," said Flicker, naming two of Auriga's founders. "There have been babies born, countless first dates.... The bottom line is, I'm proud of what I've done here; as hard as it is to tell people that they're out of a job, it's been nice working with so many people. I feel a little like a grandparent or something, I look out and feel good about all the things I've gotten to do. There's a part of me that will die along with this restaurant...." he trailed off. "I don't want to stop cooking, and hopefully after all the dust settles I'll start looking at places. I wish it was as simple as pointing a finger and saying, this was the cause, that was the cause, but it's not. A lot of things have changed in Minneapolis, not just competition, but what it takes to do business. It's time to reinvent myself again, to get some piss and vinegar back in me, readjust, fuel the fire."

All I can do right now is pray that this is just that for our city too, a time to fuel the fire, and not as awful as it feels.

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