The Normandy Inn has half-timbered architecture to thank for what it is, and what it isn’t.
Half-timbered architecture, in case you’re not a French contractor, is a method of building in which walls are constructed of timber frames and the spaces between are filled with materials like brick or plaster.
Travel through northern Europe, and this style fits into the landscape like a castle on a hill. Travel through downtown Minneapolis, and it makes about as much sense as a cow ambling down Hennepin Avenue. But there it is, on the corner of Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue: four massive walls of half timber, more than you’ve likely seen since you studied abroad.
The Normandy Inn has occupied this block since 1925, the middle of a prosperous decade for what was then the ritzy Elliot Park neighborhood. As the Normandy Residence Hotel, it was only one of a number of stately hotels, rooming houses, and apartment homes of the era. Photos of the neighborhood at the time show block after block of fashionable brick row houses, stone mansions, and gleaming two-story townhouses.
But then the calendar flipped to 1929. The American economy, and much of its grand architecture, fell to pieces — including the Normandy.
The posh neighborhood’s buildings turned to “derelict flophouses,” says Mike Noble, the third-generation innkeeper who now owns the Normandy hotel and restaurant. But luckily, his grandfather John Noble had a vision, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Noble the elder picked up the building in 1941 for a song, and began running the place as a hotel again, the Hotel Normandy.
“It was probably quite a task. If there was a broken window you would have had to patch it up with scrap glass, things like that,” says Mike, imagining the hard years following the Great Depression. Still, John managed to keep it going. Over the 30 or so years that he had the place, he tinkered with all sorts of restaurant iterations, including a basement-level cafeteria, a piano bar, an open charcoal grill, and a classic 24-hour diner on the corner serving “Henry VIII burgers.” Those burgers are still available at the hotel restaurant today.
But the concept that really took hold was the Normandy Kitchen, initially a classic American restaurant serving classic American dishes of the era: baked chicken in cream, Virginia Baked Ham, and potatoes how you like them. It was a one of the better restaurants in town, with lines out the door.
But by the 1960s, successful American restaurants were shifting away from more traditional models. Theme restaurants, with features like a drawbridge over a moat, reigned as the ideal setting for supper.
So the Normandy followed the wisdom of the day. Inspired in part by a little patch of half-timbered architecture that still graced the facade of the original restaurant, Mike’s dad, Tom, who had by now inherited the place, decided to plaster the entire hotel in half-timber. It added that fairytale look.
“And that’s what we’re dealing with today,” says Mike, who acquired the hotel from his dad in 2007.
Today, hiding behind all that unsightly plaster, is the classic, historic Normandy hotel and its gorgeous brick facade of the 1920s. Unfortunately, it would be prohibitively expensive to restore the original grandeur on the outside, but Mike has been working tirelessly to do so on the inside, and the difference is most noticeable in the restaurant.
When Mike first took over, he restored the Normandy Kitchen and tapped Michael Morse, whom many will remember as the colorful chef and owner of the popular downtown bistro Un Deux Trois. He wanted the Normandy to be a full-on French bistro with mother sauces, steak frites, and French onion soup.
Then, in 2016, Mike embarked on another massive remodel of the place, exposing the handsome brick at the ground level of the restaurant’s entry, refinishing the floors, and installing a raised tin ceiling. He tapped chef Tim Fave to helm the kitchen. The new dining room set the tone for a new Normandy — classic, comfortable, timeless.
“Everything, any little piece of fabric that comes in the door, has to adhere to that idea now,” Mike tells me, over a table scattered with photos documenting the hotel’s long history.
As the Twin Cities is swept up in Francophile fervor (see St. Genevieve, Bellecour, and the upcoming Bar Brigade and Bistro 373), remember that the Normandy has had your Calvados cocktails and housemade Roquefort dressing for longer than pretty much anyone.
The cooking here is refreshingly free of frippery and “updates.” It’s classic French bistro through and through. Comfortable to be certain, and timeless, too.
Chef Fave brings a pedigree from his years in the kitchen at the 21 Club, a 1920s-era New York City institution known for traditional French touchstones like chicken paillard and duck a l’orange. He approaches his executive chef position at the Normandy with enthusiasm for old French cuisine, and the competence to execute it.
French onion soup is made over the many hours it takes to properly reduce a knee-bucklingly rich stock, then topped with impossibly thick layers of good Gruyere threatening to flood the soup like a too-big water toy in a pool.
Moules Mariniéres are similarly comforting in their simplicity. An overflowing bowl of mussels is steamed with white wine, shallots, garlic, and beurre blanc and served with spongy baguette for soaking up the broth.
A pot of rich pork rillettes, accompanied by grilled baguette, fig jam, house pickles, and a little aioli lets you fix your own prim little sandwiches in between sips of a Normandy cocktail that tastes like a quaffable apple pie with Calvados, lemon, cranberry, and brown sugar.
Steak au Poivre, a dish established in the early 20th-century culinary lexicon, is prodigiously encrusted with peppercorns, the bite offset by the balance of lavish brandy cream sauce. The dedicated Minnesota diner will feel right at home with sautéed walleye, laminated with a transparent potato and horseradish crust. The filet is draped over the always-in-fashion wild rice risotto and topped with more generous ladles of beurre blanc.
There’s nothing thrilling about dining here (unless you think handmade ice cream in the malts and the same kind of burgers that they sold in that original 1940s diner are thrilling, which I do). But nor do things ever veer too far off course. The dishes remain steadfast and reliable, the way things at a good hotel restaurant ought to.
The Noble men could have easily turned the legacy of this Minneapolis institution over to the fates of time. In fact, they almost did, more than once, but ultimately, they held on.
Peel away the Normandy’s layers, and inside find the beating heart of history.
Normandy Inn and Kitchen
405 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis