2901 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis;
Hours: Daily 7:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m.
Years ago, in a thoroughly awful restaurant, a friend of mine desperately grasped for something nice to say. "What I love about this place," she offered finally, "is that it would make such a great apartment. You could just put a bed there behind the bar, a couch here, a desk in the window, voilà!" The whole table stopped to goggle at her; it just seemed such an eccentric way of thinking. "Didn't you do that when you were little?" she asked, genuinely surprised. "Didn't you look at every room and try to figure out how to make it an apartment?" No one had.
I hadn't thought about this at all for years, until I was sitting in Vera's one evening, nursing a latté and half-listening to the Billie Holiday that was playing, and I realized that the Lyn-Lake coffee shop is like some kind of cosmopolitan Biosphere: It contains within its walls everything necessary to support grown-up, aesthetically involved life. That it took a largely gay coffee shop to bring this to town is entirely unsurprising. What is surprising is the ability of a well-timed Judy Garland CD to clear out the riffraff; no smoking tumbles of teens knocking over your table, no Gap-clad tots aiming Cheerios at your head while Mom argues on the cell phone.
But what exactly am I defining as the building blocks for cosmopolitan life? Well, there's coffee, always hot, never burnt, and starting at a civilized $1.10 a cup. And straight-backed chairs and tidy tables for working, cushy chairs for lounging (as well as an exceedingly inviting green velvet couch), coffee tables brimming with diverting reading--Australian Elle, Tatler, and other global glossies. Not to mention all the major food groups: soups, sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and lemon meringue pie.
Those soups ($2.95 a cup, with bread, $4.25 a bowl, with bread, or $3.95 for a cup, with half a sandwich,) are unpretentious, chunky, and handmade, forthrightly flavored and full of fresh vegetables: a curry lentil strong with cumin and colorful with haphazardly cut blocks of carrot; a vegetarian chili nicely tomatoey; a chicken bok choy full of meat and crisp cabbage.
Sandwiches ($4.80) are made to order and attractively simple--tuna salad, ham salad, turkey, roast beef, hot ham and Swiss, or a vegetarian cream-cheese muffuletta. They're all sweetly unambitious--standard cold cuts, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes--but what they lack in gourmet status they make up for in lunch-counter efficiency: cheap, fast, wholesome.
A half-dozen variations on scrambled eggs, made fluffy with the steamer from the cappuccino machine, are available all day. Herby eggs ($3.50) are fluffed with a blend of dried parsley, basil, and such, topped with shredded Cheddar cheese, and served beside white or wheat toast with butter and grape jelly. There's also good oatmeal all day, served with toast for $3.50. Up the ante to $4.80 and you can have your choice of many other culinary pillars of contemporary life: a big garden salad; a rice and bean burrito with chips; lasagna with garlic bread; chicken caesar salad. None of the above is a destination treat, but when you're eating alone over a book, they're some of the most comfortable meals in town. Put a piece of dense carrot cake or a slice of the aforementioned lemon meringue pie ($2.25) in the corner of the pretty antique tin tray your meal is served on and you'll feel very well cared for indeed.
Still, the food is just the tip of what makes Vera's so complete. It's more the way the coffee shop, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, fills the rest of a soul's needs. It provides Nature, in the form of the adjacent patio, an elegant little leafy park set with wrought-iron furniture. (A top-hatted, formal interaction with nature, to be sure, more Gigi than Gore-Tex.) Also Theater, courtesy of some of the more amusing patrons to be found in the Twin Cities. "I think it's an injustice that anyone has to turn 50," a fellow at the neighboring table told me one morning, mortified at having been given a muffin with a candle in it. "It sounds like a character flaw for teenagers: 'She's so 50 these days....' Why can't we get something sexy, like a drug name, with a z and an x. 'I'm turning zaxtry, I'm turning xaroz'--that has to be better." And Art, including an oil painting of a wooded winter river that's roiling so, it looks ready to curl out of the walls, and a glassed-in wooden display case of a few hundred stamps that bears close examination: Peer inside and you're rewarded with squiggly, evocative hand-drawn pictures by an artist amused by everything from the space shuttle to bunnies to cats messing with toilet bowls. And, of course, there's that Music. In addition to Judy Garland, spending time in the presence of Vera's sound system is akin to taking a course in post-World War I/pre-Vietnam popular song.
"When I started, I wanted a friendly place where there was a certain maturity level," says owner Wayne Butzer, who is responsible for every aspect of Vera's--he picks the music, he collected the furniture, and it's his grandmother's portrait that dominates one wall of the main room. "I wanted a quiet place without punk-rock music, and--well, I don't know how you say this in print without bashers showing up, but we'll see--a place where we'd have a 60 or 70 percent gay crowd (which is what we have), and a 100 percent gay-friendly crowd.
"We don't have a lot of kids hanging around, because the kids don't like the music, so they don't come in, and the people that do like it really like it," he continues. "We have regulars from Chaska and St. Paul who come in almost every day. There may be a coffee shop on every corner in Minneapolis, but there's only one coffee shop like this."
Indeed, and I can't help noticing that what makes the place so one-of-a-kind is the way Butzer's own personality can be seen in every aspect of the space, from the likeness of his grandmother to those stamps (all done by Butzer's uncle) to the cemetery gate he found for the patio to the overlapping circles of community that enliven the place. When Andy the milkman arrives in the morning, he's greeted so joyfully you'd think he was Santa Claus. And you should have been there the morning Butzer and a regular customer conspired to hide a pet chameleon in a houseplant in order to startle another regular. The late hours are a boon to the segment of the population that values a quiet, sans-alcohol, after-theater destination. The phone rings madly many mornings because neighborhood office workers need to know what the daily soup is. The Biospheroids may have had this joint beat when it came to growing their own crops, but Vera's seems to have cracked the real secret to the essential connections required to sustain human life.
SOMETHING FISHY IN D.C.: Good news for me: The Oceanaire is opening a branch in D.C. Why should I care? I just always like the idea of Minnesota restaurants moving onto other people's turf; I picture it as a giant, nationwide game of Monopoly. To help you picture it, I called up Oceanaire Inc. chief operating officer Terry Ryan, who says the outpost will have a look similar to the Minneapolis location but will also serve lunch and will tilt toward East Coast "preferences." By which he means more shad roe there, as opposed to more walleye here. "Our market is the world market," explains Ryan, noting that the local O spends five grand a month on air freight. "The menu [in Washington] will be slightly different, since local preferences will be the key." Ryan also says we can look for more O's as opportunities present themselves.
A TENTH THE PRICE AND TEN TIMES AS FRESH: No matter what they shell out on shipping at the Oceanaire, they'll never get fish as fresh as what's served Sunday afternoons at Hobo Cheffin', a weekly event at the Eat My Fish fish farm in Menomonie, Wisconsin. At Hobo Cheffin' you flick a rainbow trout out of the pond and take it up to fish farmer Herby Radmann, who proceeds to fillet it, grill it, and serve it to you alongside sweet corn and fresh boiled crawfish, all for (as near as I can figure it) less than $10 a person: $5 per live-weight pound of fish, plus $3 for a side plate of bread, corn, and crawfish. "I call it the meal of low expectations and big surprises," says Radmann. "You have to understand that we're a family farm, and there's not a lot of funds here. The hobo theme is one we've adopted because we can afford it: Basically we're just cooking by the pond."
Radmann has no idea how exotic "just cooking by the pond" sounds to a city slicker like me, and when he genuinely offers that "there's just something about that simple experience that people like," or "sometimes we'll get four generations of a single family coming down," I just about fall out of my chair with the homespun goodness of it all. And when he adds that those ill-equipped for fishing can rent a pole for $2 and buy a packet of night crawlers for 75 cents, I do. When I reseat myself, I learn that you can bring beer or buy pop from him, that you might sit on a stump or overturned buckets arranged around large cable spools, (or bring chairs), that the average fish weighs about a pound and a quarter (the record for his pond is eight pounds), and that there's a theme. "The theme is 'Farmer's Funk'--but you got to remember there's a fine line between funk and junk."
I couldn't be any more captivated...until I visit Radmann's Web site, eatmyfish.com. There I learn that when people visit Radmann they fall for him (sorry) hook, line, and sinker. Fans of the fish farm have carried eatmyfish.com bumper stickers all over the world, to the Egyptian pyramids, to the Great Wall of China--photographed the stickers, and sent them back to Radmann. For more information, driving directions, and maps, visit the Web site, call Radmann at (715) 664-8775, or stop by his booth at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. (He's there Saturdays in that southernmost, super-crowded section, selling smoked trout among the jewelry and olives.)
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