Had I known the taste of that tarragon egg salad on millet flax bread would never again cross my lips, I might have wept on that sunny July afternoon -- or at least found an excuse to enjoy a weekly meal in the restaurant, wine bar, or cafe until time ran out.
On that day, I had no idea that despite a legendary 32-year run, Lucia’s demise was imminent. So with an appetite unmarred by the now-familiar dread -- of Uptown losing yet another beloved institution, one of the stalwart torch bearers of what made Uptown Uptown -- I focused on the magical heirloom vegetable salad sharing the plate with my sandwich. Messily gorgeous to the point of obscenity, it was full of chunky garden tomatoes, bright herbs, and the kind of tangy champagne vinaigrette that seems effortless yet proves impossible to replicate at home. How can a plate of tomatoes be that good? How can a popover, a roast chicken, a salad, or a simple piece of fish?
Lucia’s was the kind of storefront neighborhood restaurant you might seek in a distant European city: charming but not self-consciously hip, contemporary but not trendy, classic rather than nostalgic. Gracefully professional servers who were warm rather than solicitous, and who resisted the rampant abuse of words like “artisanal” and “house-made.” Yes, Lucia’s was romantic, but its sense of romance was worldly, unfussy, and grown-up: You could camp out at the wine bar alone with a big fat novel, dig into a Limousin Beef Burger, and sip a Midwest Mule with nary a raised eyebrow.
It’s okay if you’re in culinary mourning right now. Stock up on tissues, try to recreate that heavenly lemon, scallop, and fennel thing you ate one time at the restaurant circa 1999, or simply refuse to believe that Lucia’s could be gone. And then, when you’re ready to move past denial and bargaining and anger into the acceptance stage of grief, when you suddenly remember that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all, you’ll know you’re ready to begin a beautiful new relationship with another charming neighborhood bistro. Here are six spots to feed your pain when that nostalgia hits hard.
Restaurant and Cafe Alma
Known for embracing a sustainable ethos not unlike Lucia Watson’s, Alma founder and chef Alex Roberts’ commitment to procuring ingredients from local family farmers remains a daily practice rather than a marketing concept. If the prix-fixe dinner at this James Beard Award-winning restaurant feels like a splurge, the fall 2016 addition of adjoining Cafe Alma has transformed this corner storefront into a more democratic neighborhood institution. The airy, artful cafe, with its small takeout bakery counter, might be the best spot in town to relive those scone and latte mornings you miss at Lucia’s To Go. Sit at the bar, where the amiable bartenders will cheerfully relieve your guilt for ordering a cocktail before five o’clock.
528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis; 612-379-4909
Bachelor Farmer Restaurant and Cafe
If this Scandi-riffic spot were called “Paul’s” after its original chef, it might be just a little more like the legend for which we mourn. Yet even with the ultra hipster waiters and the social media-friendly name, the Bachelor Farmer rocks that urban farmhouse vibe with such carefree elegance that you can forgive the fact that Yelp reviewers deem it “Totally Instagrammable.” Since 2016, it’s wielded a not-so-secret weapon in its favor: the sunny, fairly affordable daytime cafe, which serves breakfast, lunch, pastries, and coffee to North Loop freelancers and folks from the nearby Alliance Francaise, who reliably order the swoon-worthy gruyere and roasted squash galettes with the proper pronunciation.
The Bachelor Farmer: 50 N. Second Ave., Minneapolis; 612-206-3920
The Bachelor Farmer Cafe: 200 N. First St., Minneapolis; (612) 206-3923
Among a slew of hot new restaurants that are dinner-only, St. Genevieve stays true to its cafe-in-Paris inspiration, serving brunch, lunch, dinner, and weekend drinks ’til midnight at the bar. This casually chic, feel-good exercise in nostalgia -- if not for 1920s Paris, then at least for your study abroad semester in Paris, or the couple of months before that heartless vixen Marie-Chantal dumped you -- exudes a bit of that je ne sais quoi that feels not totally unlike Lucia’s. Perhaps that’s no surprise, since chef/owner Steven Brown once cooked there.
5003 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-353-4843
The Copper Hen
Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt, Coconut Walnut… sob! The pastry chefs at Lucia’s consistently turned out some damn fine cakes. Seek solace at the Copper Hen in co-founder and wunderkind baking phenom Danielle Bjorling’s luscious cakes: chocolate malt, raspberry buttercream, carrot, champagne, and a season-inspired flavor. With the rustic French decor, the deft preparations of short ribs and duck breast, and the strong cocktails with wink-wink names like “Instagram This,” it wouldn’t be wildly ridiculous to consider this adorable cafe as Lucia’s millennial little sister.
2515 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-872-2221
Imagine it as Lucia’s during Restaurant Week: an approachable prix-fixe menu showcasing French techniques and Peterson Craftsman Meats (a longtime purveyor of Lucia’s New York Strip). For those feeling bereft of Lucia’s signature popovers, the white cheddar drop biscuits double as spiritual balm.
4537 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-823-0011
Town Talk Diner & Gastropub
A former diner on Lake Street is a stretch, you say? Think again. The affinity emerges in the details: The neighborhood storefront vibe, the locally-sourced menu, the convivial bar, the boozy brunches, and the kind of simple yet obsession-worthy roast chicken for which Lucia’s earned a devoted following.
2707 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612-353-5398