Tilia in Linden Hills feels like it's been around forever

Steven Brown's comeback rings out loud and clear

It's Friday night, nearly 11. Somehow, a party of four has come into Tilia and managed to order full meals—complicated stuff, like cod with miso-soy glazed turnips and carrots, black trumpet mushrooms, and white truffle fonduta—even though the kitchen was supposed to have switched over to its simpler late-night menu an hour ago. Through some sort of miscommunication or special request, the server apparently allowed it, and now he's leaning his tattooed forearms on the kitchen's empty pass, pleading.

The cook rolls his eyes. He's been here since 9 this morning. He's already started breaking down his station, cleared all the pans from the stove, and replaced them with an enormous stockpot set to simmer.

The server fetches the boss. Chef Steven Brown is the leader of this white-shirted, knife-wielding team, though between his baggy jeans and shaggy hair, he might be mistaken for a jam band member or your old college landlord. Instead of tapping a clipboard, calling a huddle, or invoking Jesus Christ, Coach Brown produces an armful of PBR tallboys and doles them out to his cooks by the deuces. In a low voice, he says, "I just want to make them happy."

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Location Info

Map

Tilia

2726 W. 43rd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55410

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Southwest Minneapolis

Details

Tilia
2726 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis
612.354.2806; www.tiliampls.com
appetizers $3-$13; entrées $13-$20

During the dinner rush, the room's raucous din has prevented conversation with anyone outside a two-foot radius, but now the noise has finally lulled. The tension's release is audible: Crack. Psht. The beer cans open. The crew digs deep and fills the order.

Perhaps some day Steven Brown will have his own Cook Whisperer television series, but for now he's known as one of the Twin Cities' most followed chefs. Brown made his name at the fine-dining establishments Restaurant Levain and Porter & Frye, but diners whose memories stretch further back will also recall his shining stint at the short-lived RockStar. After a career working for everyone from Lucia Watson (Lucia's) and Brenda Langton (Café Brenda) to Kieran Folliard (the Local) and Jason McLean (the Loring), Brown is on his first stint as an owner at Tilia. "I'm tired of suffering under someone else's regime," he told the Star Tribune, with a bit of dramatic flair.

Some liken Brown to our local Anthony Bourdain, and there's surely some resemblance beyond the lanky builds and silver hair. Both chefs wield a pen (Brown writes a cheap-eats column for Mpls./St.Paul magazine), hold a few antiestablishment attitudes (during brief, late-night conversation with diners, Brown has been known to bring up the legalization of marijuana), and project the sort of swagger that comes from having just arrived on the other side of an adventurously lived youth (you'll have to make your own inquiries on that one).

A few years ago, "at the ripe age of 44," Brown became a father and started thinking about how his new role as a parent might better mesh with his love of food and cooking. "You don't see a lot of 60-year-old chefs," he jokes. "You either died or became a sales rep." Yet the idea of owning his own place—the holy grail for many restaurant workers—still held its allure. So when several restaurateur friends simultaneously encouraged him to check out a vacant space in Linden Hills, he couldn't resist having a look-see.

The location was a marked shift from Brown's most recent stint at Nick & Eddie—a move from one of the city's most bohemian neighborhoods to the one most aspirational for young, middle-class families. But what Linden Hills lacked in artists and bars it made up for in children's bookstores and potential for cultivating regulars. "The thing I love most about restaurants is the community that gets created out of them," Brown says. "Of all the places I've worked, I remember the food and the spaces a lot, but what I remember most is the people."

Every day, hundreds of them now cycle through his 14-table eatery. Brown has successfully democratized gourmet dining better than most of his peers. The only way to make his concept more populist would be to put it on wheels. To retain an accessible vibe, Tilia doesn't take reservations, so if you arrive at, say, 8:30 p.m. on a weekend, you might not be seated till quarter of 10. But the restaurant is a pretty enough place to wait, with its wooden booths, denim-upholstered chairs, and retro light fixtures. In a way, Tilia feels like it's been here forever, as if the space had never displayed a bamboo mural and served Vietnamese dishes during its previous tenure as Rice Paper. The restaurant's servers sport vintage eyewear and feathered barrettes and look like extras cast in some Brooklyn-set sitcom or romantic comedy. It's a worldview filtered through the iPhone's Hipstamatic camera app.

Diners can comfortably kill time strolling through the neighborhood's charming, two-block business district or sticking around and sampling the craft beers from Tilia's lengthy and well-curated row of taps. Brown has plans to create a lovely patio on the east side of the building to accommodate more diners, but as soon as the weather grows cold, the potential waits will likely seem far less appealing when crowds pack the bar, puffy coat to puffy coat.

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