The Minneapolis Club, capitalism, and that time they let socialists in

Google Street

Google Street

If you’ve spent much time downtown, you’ve seen the Minneapolis Club. You’ve eyed its spectacular, ivy-covered exterior. You’ve wondered who frequents it and what goes on in there.

Last week, the Business Journal asked power players in Twin Cities business where they like to lunch. The Minneapolis Club was among the favorites. But only a select few of us can back them up. You can’t even see the menu on the club’s website—advertised as “the best restaurant in town you can’t get into”—without punching in a password. Its illustrious membership over the years includes Pillsburys, Daytons, and Hubert Humphrey. (Humphrey’s wife became the club’s first female member... in 1978.) The squash court is named for former Vikings co-owner Wheelock Whitney.

I used someone else’s quarters to pay for a bus downtown, and met a lunch date who was relieved to learn her jeans didn’t violate the dress code. The men in the dining room wore suits and ties, with the exception of a befrocked priest. Most were 50 or older, with the smell of money.

“I can’t believe they let the socialists in,” my date whispered.

A Waygu beef burger almost melted in my hand, and the squash soup was so thick I could’ve turned the bowl upside down without spilling. Chef Hakan Lundberg, a dashing Swede with a history in high-end kitchens, admits with chagrin that fine dining is dying. No one wants to pay $250 for a nine-course, three-hour adventure anymore. They want a $15 burger and craft beers, the cheaper the better.

His club diners are different. He cooks for serious regulars, some showing up four days a week, with their go-to meals and particulars about just how they want their steak or fish cooked. “I think they come in here because... they don’t have to be elbow-to-elbow with someone who’s out getting drunk,” he says.

“With me,” I say, pointing at my flannel-sheathed chest. Lundberg laughs and nods.

Daniel Olson, the club’s charming concierge, leads a fascinating, era-spanning tour through the gloriously decorated five-story mansion. No wall is bare of Americana or British-themed pieces, and no lounge or hallway is without ornate woodwork. My date believes the reading room, replete with oft-stoked fireplace, would be a “’great place to get killed with a lead pipe.”

Upstairs are great halls which can be rented out for the night. Who parties here? “U.S. Bank or General Mills, or some of the major law firms,” Daniel says.

Downstairs, he’s told that “Mr. Fink is asking for someone to talk to.” One of the club’s most talkative members has lost his lunch companion, but isn’t done chatting. If we weren’t mid-tour, Daniel would volunteer for the job himself.

Out for a quick smoke break that evening, a different staffer gives a warm goodbye to a kitchen worker headed to his car. On her way back, the employee spots a member headed toward a locked door, and literally sprints across a driveway to swipe her in, then turns heel and races toward another member approaching another door. This is the kind of service provided.

At a champagne-and-snacks happy hour, members learn about bubbly, and drink even more of it. “Terroir,” we determine, is a fancy word for “dirt,” and claims that the tannins in red wine cause a headache are “mostly bullshit.”

When it’s over, Steve—who looks like comic Nick Swardson if he spent two hours a day on the bench press—and Mike, a lawyer-cum-psychiatrist, invite my dinner date and I to join them for free scotch and more wine. (Mike has 10 bottles in stashed in a locker here.) Turns out the dining room’s bar area, lethargic midday, comes alive at night.

Steve was once a special ed teacher. Now he does “wealth management” and has an ownership stake in a vineyard.

What happened? “I became a capitalist,” he says and shrugs.

Cell phone pictures reveal Steve’s got a “gorgeous” wife—my date’s words—a daughter, and a cute dog. Mike’s about to turn 50 and his wife has a terminal illness. We bond over strong drink and black humor; Mike debates the merits of cannibalism.

These guys are great. Any duo whose version of introduction is opening a bottle of scotch and fetching a nice bottle of red for two perfect strangers can’t be all bad.

I’d come to the Minneapolis Club wondering how the well-off get on, these people whose lives I hate, resist, and somewhat reluctantly want. It turns out their lives are a lot like those of the people I already know. They’re hungry. They’re drinkers. They’re anxious about their kids, the country, and the world itself. They want something to do. They want company.

Mr. Fink is looking for someone to talk to. Dave wants one more drink before returning to his family. Mike is losing a wife and invites funny young winos to his birthday. Try as I might, I can’t hate on any of that. If I had a lot more money, would I join the Minneapolis Club? Maybe not, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who did.

I invite Steve and Mike to join us at a dive bar—turns out they love those too. They in turn promise to have us back any time we like. We wobble out into the night a little happier than when we’d arrived, with plans to meet again.

More from Mike Mullen: