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Café Maude is hotter than an oven on fire in the center of the sun—so good luck getting in there

Yet, I didn't care. Enough of what Café Maude makes has such a tasty, homey, elusive quality that the cooking seems not quite the point—you know the quality I mean. The one that makes you say: I don't care what's in it, I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to analyze it, I just want it, and I also want it maybe tomorrow or definitely next week, so get out of my way. The bun-brown, house-cut fries ($5) could inspire such thoughts: each misshapen, unique, and lovely as potatoes should be, made addictive by the accompanying little dish of cheese fondue. The wood-grilled burger ($7.50) is meaty, solid, good. The hangar steak ($12) is livery and rich, as a hangar steak should be; the gaminess of the cut is tamped down a bit by a sweet grilled-onion-and-cognac sauce.

And that's about it. There's nothing too terrifically ambitious on the menu. I wouldn't think of recommending that anyone drive here for dinner from, say, Shakopee, Hudson, or other points afar—but it's all very welcome in the neighborhood.

As are the cocktails and the lovely wine list. Café Maude has a number of unique cocktails worth the time of any highball connoisseur. A cherry black bourbon ($8), for instance, is a nice variation on a bourbon sour; "figs of paradise" ($9.50) is an admirably black, raisiny, almost chocolaty concoction made of fig-infused vodka, espresso, and syrupy Pedro Ximenez sweet wine. A long section of non-alcoholic drinks makes Café Maude the destination for daddy-daughter cocktail hours. I didn't try the rubber ducky ($3)—sparkling blue-raspberry lemonade with a peep floating in it—because I am waiting for a 10-year-old critic to give me her more authentic take on it.

The wine list, though, I am prepared to comment on. It's immensely affordable, mostly in the $20-something range; global, mostly Spanish, French, and Italian, with a bit of California and Greece thrown in; and very well chosen. Cremant de Bourgogne, for instance, is a delicate, small-bubble French sparkler that is rarely seen in this country, but Café Maude offers a stunner: Simmonet-Febvre Cremant ($8 glass, $24 bottle), which just froths from the glass like lace made of lemon and toast.

So, you see why you're never going to get in there. It will probably be even worse as of September 4, when the place starts serving a full breakfast and lunch.

What's the secret to all this success? Well, the price point is right. Café Maude brilliantly answers the question of what a better-than-casual but cheaper-than-formal restaurant might look like: It looks like an every-night party. More than that though, I think the reason for the crowds massed at the door has mostly to do with heart. Yes, I said heart.

You see, one of Café Maude's owners, Kevin Sheehy, seems to have an almost psychic knowledge of exactly what people want in the prosperous, kid-harried, abundantly blessed but abundantly overwhelmed environs south of Minnehaha Creek. Sheehy told me that his understanding of the neighborhood might just stem from the fact that he grew up mere blocks from the restaurant. "I was born and raised on 55th and Emerson," he told me. "I went to Kenney, Anthony, Washburn, the whole drill. Fishing in the creek, digging up crawfish, innertubing with a pack of other kids. We'd get all the way down to the falls, then call my mom. She was fantastic; she'd come and pick us up in a 1950 Dodge rust bucket.... We always entertained, my parents just liked everybody, so this hosting business was probably in my blood. I'm amazed, though, at the crowds. I don't know what we tapped here. I think it's political."

Political? It turns out that Sheehy named the restaurant after Maude Armatage, the namesake of this part of Minneapolis and, more importantly, a woman who, mere months after women were granted the right to vote, decided to run for public office. She landed a seat on the park board and occupied it for 30 years, guiding the creation of our city's crown jewels, its park system. "This place is about politics," explained Sheehy. "It's about getting back to the values that shaped this city. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and to me it means the values that I grew up with right here: No bigotry allowed, no sexism allowed; if you work hard you can carve out a really good life, and when you do it's your duty to ensure that fairness, equality, and justice prevail for everyone who comes after you, or next to you."

For instance, Café Maude had a particularly hard fight in getting its liquor license, with a year's worth of public meetings and much local skepticism. "People thought this might be a rocking bar, with people urinating on people's lawns," Sheehy told me. "It was a difficult process, but if I owned a house and someone was opening a bar near it, I'd want to look them in the eye and see what they were about, too. You know, there are places in this country where you give someone $200, get your license, then you buy all your liquor from them. But I'd never want to live in a place like that—I'd rather have due process, no matter how difficult."

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