It all started back in December 2014, when Lucia Watson sold her eponymous Uptown restaurant, Lucia’s, to a group of local investors.
That group was led by Jason Jenny, CEO and majority investor of Stella’s Fish Cafe & Prestige Oyster Bar, also located in Uptown. The somewhat corporate-feeling seafood behemoth with a big boozy rooftop hardly seemed like an obvious bedfellow for the 29-year-old legendary farm-to-table institution.
And so the doomy rumors began burbling up: Lucia’s would be forever changed, corporatized or stripped of its substance. Without its beloved founder, the Uptown mainstay would never be the same.
To truly know Minnesota food, you have to know Lucia Watson. Her contributions to Midwestern farms and dining are unmovable paving stones for the current locavore movement. Her Uptown storefront seems as though it’s always been there, with its blue awnings and sidewalk cafe where dogs pant heavily in summer and their owners sip and nibble the best of everything seasonal Minnesota has to offer.
But it hasn’t just always been there. It took all of those 29 years to evolve. Watson grew the place very slowly, first establishing the restaurant, waiting years to expand into the neighboring space for the wine bar, and then doing it again with Lucia’s To Go. She resisted the urge to open a second location, or to expand the business beyond the intersection of Hennepin and 31st Street.
Slowly, quietly, surely, the place became an institution, one where employees built their careers, often staying on for 10 or 15 or more years. It’s not only an indie success story, it’s the biggest local indie success story. And Watson was actually able to exit, fully retiring, with the restaurant’s heart still beating.
But is it? Is Lucia’s without Lucia still the heart-of-gold restaurant that challenged notions of what a restaurant should be? Does it still deliver daily, nightly, and mightily to its throngs of loyal regulars?
A year and a half into the transition, Lucia’s chef of nine years, Ryan Lund, exited. (City Pages reached out to Lund for comment. He did not respond.) Matt Ellison took his place, lasting only a couple of months before leaving for personal reasons. Then in September 2016, Alan Bergo, formerly of the Salt Cellar in St. Paul, stepped into the role of chef. The rapid-fire chef turnover was not an auspicious beginning to the post-Lucia era.
Yet, when I finally ventured a visit, the kitchen was putting out some of the most elegant, technically sophisticated cooking
I’d eaten in the Twin Cities in many months. Not only was Lucia’s as good as ever, it might even have been better than ever.
I wrote about the golden planks of hash browns, seared in Mangalitsa pork fat; the root vegetable soup, a study in luscious, edgy woods-meets-cream; the bison stew, deep and profound as mole, peppered with spaetzle airy and addictive as Cheetos; the chocolate passionfruit panna cotta, so rich it nearly pulled me under, the passionfruit ingeniously ringing in with top notes of tang. Even the coffee and the Old Fashioned were exquisite.
Then the comments and emails poured in. On and off the record, there was a consensus building: Lucia’s was not doing “pretty damned good,” as my headline declared. The new ownership was doing nothing to uphold the standards of the beloved old cafe.
“The new ownership has done a terrible job carrying the Lucia’s legacy,” one commenter insisted. “They have greatly degraded the brand and have treated the staff (who actually run the business) horribly. With profit as the only thing that matters, poor decision after poor decision will slowly (or quickly) bring the amazing institution that was Lucia’s to a close.”
There were accusations that the vanguard of the local farm-to-table movement didn’t even order local butter anymore. Another commenter simply said the new management treats staff “like shit.”
Hannah Porter went to work at Lucia’s To Go about two years ago, attracted by the restaurant’s reputation for being a collaborative, family-like environment. She expected an “employee first” workplace, with a high regard for ethical food sourcing. She says she was quickly disabused of all of those notions.
Porter says the new management instead took a “business first” approach, in which most of the longtime management staff was laid off in favor of just one or two managers overseeing everything.
Those left were expected to work sometimes seven-day work weeks and 12- to 14-hour days in order to pick up the slack, she says. Porter called it an “absolutely insane amount of work.” Still, more staff was cut. She says the ones who remained, like herself, were eventually compelled to walk out. “It became clear that this was a place I’d never be supported as an employee or ever be listened to.”
According to Porter, about 95 percent of the pre-transition staff have either been forced out or left of their own accord.
She says the overall message was that people “needed to stop caring about how Lucia did things.”
“Her name is still on the door,” says Porter, “but it’s not the same place anymore.” While she says management would “like people to believe” that Lucia is in a consulting role, Porter says she’s never seen Watson physically on premises. She adds that she grew exhausted of trying to convince longtime regulars that all was fine.
“You don’t expect to have to argue with a person who owns a farm-to-table restaurant that you can’t sell water- and chemical-injected turkeys from Cub Foods, or Land O’ Lakes Butter instead of Hope Creamery.”
So I went back. And I had an even better meal. Cornmeal-crusted sunfish were a love letter to any Minnesota kid who grew up plucking lake fish off the end of the dock. It was paired with tight bricks of wild rice, sliced and seared like hard polenta. The staple every Minnesotan tires of was new again.
Rustic risotto pilaf that was a dead ringer for Rice-a-Roni, if Rice-a-Roni were an elegant Minnesota treat, blended with nubbins of cabbage coarsely cut, all of it a textural consideration of grains and winter vegetables. Finished with a silky Parmesan broth, it circled back to fine-dining territory.
Thick, rich, country terrine to make you reconsider the genre was porky, seared until caramelized and lacy at the edge, a shared plate you’ll have no desire to share.
As we floated out the door on the soul-satisfying high that comes from a singularly delicious meal, I considered another commenter who said Lucia’s “integrity was replaced with greed.”
How could I reconcile this tale of two Lucia’s?
When I got chef Bergo on the phone he was practically bursting with gratitude. After a trying stay at the ill-fated Cathedral Hill steakhouse Salt Cellar, he found Lucia’s to be a homecoming.
“I get to breathe new life into a Midwestern food legacy,” he says. “It’s like a dream come true.”
The style of cooking that Lucia’s is rooted in, which he calls “getting really good ingredients and then cooking them,” is what has always driven him. “I always tell people, ‘Imagine if your grandma was a really good cook.’ That’s what we’re doing here.”
Bergo says he’s not surprised about the disgruntlement of some former staff and possibly some current, too. “There’s going to be people frustrated when there is any change, and there is going to be extreme resistance to that change,” he says. He likens taking over a new kitchen to taking over a pirate ship.
But he insists that the ethos, goals, and morals of Lucia’s have not only not changed, but are stronger than ever. He insists that he has Watson’s ear whenever he wants it, that he has complete control over his ordering process, and that the restaurant is using more local product than ever.
As for their turkey, Bergo says that since he’s started “all our poultry has always come from Pat at Wild Acres or very occasionally Hidden Stream (or from Ferndale via Co-op Partners for Thanksgiving).”
“Regarding butter,” he adds, “we still use Hope. About 230 pounds a week.”
Bergo hopes that he can get everyone on board, in a collaborative effort, “like a family.”
John Kephart, a line cook at the restaurant, worked at Lucia’s for a year while Lucia was still at the helm, then for a year-plus after she departed under chef Lund, and now under Bergo. He says if he’s not confident about the future of Lucia’s, he is hopeful.
“If I thought [the new owners] were just a bunch of assholes who just wanted to make money, I wouldn’t be there. People are working really hard there, and it’s not a negative atmosphere.”
And, he adds, ownership has taken a step back toward running the business the way Lucia would have, admitting to previous mistakes in management styles.
“I think that’s where they are right now,” he says, adding that the proof is in the superior food the restaurant is currently serving.
“You can’t really hire anyone to replace Lucia,” Kephart says. “[She] wasn’t just about the business. She had a whole philosophy.”
Luckily, Bergo has a whole philosophy, too. His salad greens come from Bubbling Springs farm, where the farmer reports that the greens “speak to her.” The vinegar for the house dressing gets aged in a crock made from a spruce tree his grandfather built for him. He’s putting more structures in place to limit non-seasonal ingredients, so customers can expect a true representation of what is currently growing right here, right now.
But developing the reputation for these things takes time. Just ask Lucia.
1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis