Chef Sameh Wadi is roving the dining room of his restaurant Saffron, giving old friends and longtime regulars the face time they so desire.
He’s armed with kind words and hugs, as well as a thick, black Sharpie marker. He pauses to cross off items at each table’s menu in between greetings and niceties. They’re out of the lamb brain and the gnocchi, the avocado crab. It’s the last time he’ll serve these dishes, this night or any. After a decade-long stay in downtown Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, Saffron will be shuttering its doors forever after this evening’s service.
It’s good that the dishes are selling ’til gone. It will ensure that the chef doesn’t have an overflow of product, and that he can take care of his final payrolls and purveyor bills. It’s a bittersweet night to be sure. Wadi is still only in his early 30s, having spent the bulk of his adult life in this building. But in that time he realized his dream, and now he’s got new ones to chase.
“Saffron just had its best year ever,” he tells me on the eve of its closing. Exactly 10 years in, his lease was up, and he decided not to renew it. Why would he? Inside of that decade he’s opened four more successful businesses, including what is consistently the best local food truck in town, World Street Kitchen, plus a storefront by the same name, a gourmet ice cream shop called Milkjam, and a catering business. The diversification keeps him and his brother and partner, Saed Wadi, very busy, and keeps dining audiences excitedly engaged with what they might do next.
Still, speculation arose that Saffron was closing for financial reasons. Not true, Wadi insisted. The dining room was crammed for that one last bite of avocado crab. It was delicious.
Similar panicked rumors unfurled when chef Doug Flicker announced that his restaurant Piccolo, constantly on the top of local and national best-restaurant lists, would close at the beginning of this year. Flicker himself was not panicked. Not at all.
“Piccolo has always been about change,” he told me from his new post at brand new restaurant Esker Grove in the Walker Art Center.
When Piccolo opened seven years ago, there was nothing else like it in town. They were the first to offer tasting menus, and one of the first to boldly eschew the burger. They served tiny, two- or three-bite dishes in a tiny space. Piccolo is Italian for “small.” It was daring, different, even a little strange. It was what our town needed seven years ago. But perhaps not now. It was what Flicker needed to do back then. But not now. So he’s moving on.
“Cameron [Cecchini, Flicker’s sous chef who will be taking over the space] really wants to open a restaurant there. That’s a good thing. I’ve already done that,” says Flicker.
He explains that while Piccolo was and is an amazing restaurant, it was becoming “settled.” And while that may be the dream for some chefs, it is not his dream. He wants to be able to continually evolve. When he took the executive chef position at Esker Grove, he knew it had to be altogether different from Piccolo. Seven years ago, everything was pork-centric this, offal meat that. What was the opposite? Vegetables. He knew he wanted to push vegetables onto center stage, even though it felt odd, unbalanced, and uncomfortable.
“Good,” he thought. “That’s how I knew we were doing something right.”
And overseeing things at Esker Grove is hardly his final project. He’s still running Sandcastle, his seasonal place on Lake Nokomis. He’s “absolutely” got other things up his sleeve, too, though he’s not telling what. Not just yet.
Like much of the country, Minneapolis has experienced exponential restaurant growth in the past five years. There are about 30 percent more restaurants open in Minneapolis today than there were five years ago, and about 70 percent more than there were 15 years ago, according to city of Minneapolis licensing data. Some data suggests that our fair cities are the fastest growing for restaurant spending per capita in the U.S.
Simultaneously, Americans spent more money in restaurants than in grocery stores for the first time in U.S. history this past year.
We love to love our restaurants. And as with anything we love, we hate to see them go away. Ever.
Vincent Francoual, of the late, eponymous restaurant Vincent, understands the sentimentality. After 15 years in business, he closed his doors in October of last year. It took him six months to return to the neighborhood cafe for a cup of coffee. It was just too sad. He still hears from regulars and others in the neighborhood that they miss the presence of his finer dining French culinary perspective. They, and he, mourn the restaurant.
But like the other chefs I spoke to, Francoual says it was simply time to close, even though he could have stayed open.
“We were doing OK [financially],” Francoual told me on the phone, his distinctive French accent coming through over the clatter of a professional kitchen. His central reason for closing was that he had become a father.
“I had a baby. At a year and a half, I still didn’t know what time she went to bed,” Francoual says. He had a good offer from Cara Irish Pubs (the Local, Kieran’s, others) to become their culinary director, a job where he could have a more normal schedule and a family life.
And after 15 years, he was getting a little burned out at Vincent. The pace kept up by a chef/owner could shave years off anyone’s life. Francoual is of two minds about it. It’s a crazy existence, and yet, some days he doesn’t know what to do without the adrenaline.
These days, you can spy him on Facebook giving cooking lessons to his young daughter in between teasing some upcoming plans. “There is a new project we will look at,” he assures me. “I didn’t take the job to just be a culinary director forever.” Of course not.
But for now, he’s at peace with his choice. And yes, shuttering Vincent was truly a life-altering decision. One that took him six months to make, not necessarily under the duress of financial pressures, but in the name of evolution, and change. And fatherhood.
We’ve entered an era in which the dinner party is practically a relic of the past, in which each and every meal can be outsourced, and the people who cook our food are household names. Sometimes they even become our friends. Their restaurants are offshoots of our own homes. No wonder we’ve developed a fierce attachment to modern restaurants.
The place that’s taking over the Piccolo space, called Tenant, is expected to be a casual spot with a changing five-course tasting menu, for which you can bring your own wine; a come-as-you are and eat like you’re in the home of a (talented) friend kind of place. The likes of which we’ve never seen around here.
Sounds great. Sounds like just what we need. Right here, right now.