When I first heard about a new restaurant and bar called the Lowbrow, the name conjured up all sorts of imagery. Shag carpet and wood paneling. Walls plastered with steamy Danielle Steele and Playboy covers. All in the Family reruns playing on one video screen and Jersey Shore on another. Maybe even a card table set up in back for playing a few rounds of beer pong?
This theoretical Lowbrow, I imagined, would be a place where a woman wouldn't need to bother plucking her chin whiskers, and a lumpy, middle-aged man might proudly display his favorite T-shirt: "This isn't a beer belly, it's a gas tank for a sex machine." The waitresses would all have bad dye jobs and tramp stamps and would chew gum with their mouths open. In lieu of buying snorts of snuff or test-tube shots of alcohol, diners would give the waitress a couple of bucks in exchange for a squirt of Easy Cheese straight to the gullet.
After that, they'd throw on plastic bibs and tuck into plates of meatloaf and tater tots, with sides of mayonnaise. Then there'd be sloppy Joes and Hot Pockets, or those dill pickle slices wrapped in ham and cream cheese. Ooh, ooh—and the coffee would come out of vending machines!
Imagine my surprise when I found the real-life Lowbrow selling...quinoa and pinto beans? The restaurant's owners, Heather Bray and Jodi Ayers, aren't interpreting the Lowbrow name quite so literally, and they're offering a more Kingfield-relevant, family-friendly variation. (The two women met a decade ago at the Birchwood Café. Now Bray, most recently of Ike's Food & Cocktails and Lucia's To-Go, is the Lowbrow's manager, while Ayers, an alumnus of Moose and Sadie's and the Wedge Co-op, runs the kitchen.) The owners' idea was to turn conscientiously produced, local ingredients into affordable bar food, to make farm-to-table eating an everyday occurrence. Such thoughtful tavern fare is a niche that's not fully met in south Minneapolis, where asking for a grass-fed beef burger and a compostable takeout container at the neighborhood dive might be met with the same confused stares as an Ani DiFranco jukebox request.
In contrast to the old-school corner bar, the Lowbrow is an airy room with big windows and high ceilings. Other than a maze of mechanical ducts, there's nothing coarse or raffish about it. In fact, the space feels less 1970s basement than commercial photography studio. (Its former tenant was Rau + Barber.)
Many a Lowbrow patron sports chunky specs, facial scruff, and hooded sweatshirts—Michael Cera in a decade—but the crowd is less defined by looks than age. Aside from the toddlers tossing grilled cheese sandwich chunks, who arrived via the high-tech chariots parked outside, at most hours everyone in the place looks to be between 25 and 40.
A small bar lies along one wall, and while it's not lined with any of those ghoulish jars of pickled eggs or pigs' feet, it does offer a well-curated line of craft beer taps. A few design elements lend the space a retro vibe (a couple of backlit waterskiing signs near the restrooms, plus artwork by local screen printers Aesthetic Apparatus, including a North Woods-themed, paint-by-number-style mural covering one wall), but otherwise the space feels surprisingly generic. Sure, you can crack open a can of Hamm's, but there's something a little disappointing about not being able to gaze on the electronically rippling water of the company's vintage animated sign. Wouldn't half the fun of owning a place called the Lowbrow be the nights spent scouring eBay?
In any case, the Lowbrow's menu takes an approach similar to its more dignified design. While the fare is certainly affordable, you won't find the instant ramen noodles and microwavable burritos of the truly lowbrow. The pinto beans and quinoa are formed into the Lowbrow's veggie burger, which is, as most veggie burgers are, perfectly acceptable without being very remarkable. The menu is very vegetarian-friendly, though the Southern Fried Tofu—tofu sticks marinated, seasoned, breaded, fried, and served with house-made barbecue sauce—is better than the tempeh Reuben, which could use more sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, or Thousand Island dressing to cover up the tempeh's skunky fermented soybean flavors. (But nobody in town makes a tempeh Reuben like they used to at the late, lamented Café Brenda.... Sigh.)
The Lowbrow's grass-fed beef burgers are good, especially one known as the Fire Breather that's topped with chipotle gouda, guacamole, and sautéed jalapeños. Served with hand-cut French fires, the burgers are more than satisfying for a neighborhood place, though unlikely to draw diners from the other side of the river, as some local Ju(i)cy Lucy specialists do.
The pulled pork sandwich is also worth ordering on a repeat visit, as it pairs tender strands of Fischer Farms pork with sassy barbecue sauce and crisp coleslaw. The jalapeño poppers make for a pleasant upgrade on their greasy predecessors, as they're filled with a lighter mix of jack and cream cheeses and served with a buttermilk dipping sauce. The bison chili, served with chips made from local La Perla tortillas, is also good and marries well with a Winter Citrus Salad scattered with pomegranate seeds and orange and grapefruit segments carefully slipped from their membranes. Such a refined technique is a welcome luxury at a place that serves Dreamsicle Floats made with Buddy's orange soda.
The Lowbrow's homemade fish sticks are the menu's best example of a modern reworking of nostalgic, unsophisticated, cheap eats. And they're quite an improvement on the ones mom used to pull from the freezer in a great blue box, which clattered onto the baking sheet like icy Lincoln Logs. The Lowbrow's fish sticks offer a thicker cut of wild-caught Alaskan cod, covered with a coarse panko breadcrumb. (If you like your tarter sauce made with sweet pickles, you're in luck; if not, ask for a lemon wedge.)
Starting Tuesday, April 12, the Lowbrow plans to start serving lunch at 11 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, but for now there's just dinner and weekend brunch. The morning menu far exceeds the expectations of those who consider coffee and a cigarette to be a well-rounded meal. The pancakes—buttermilk, blueberry, raspberry, or chocolate chip, served with Minnesota-tapped maple syrup—are tender, fluffy, and cheap, with a stack of three for less than $6. The egg-and-chorizo tacos are bland—they could use a cilantro, lime, or pico de gallo pick-me-up—though they can be redeemed by an indulgent side of freshly grated, "Wisconsin-style," cheese-and-onion-laden hash browns.
Presently, the demand for restaurants outstrips supply in food-savvy Kingfield, so those walking into the Lowbrow at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night will likely have to settle for a table at the more staid Curran's down the street. But as soon as the Skee-Balls start rolling at Pat's Tap, Kim Bartmann's forthcoming Nicollet Avenue restaurant, the Lowbrow may need to up the kitsch to compete. To survive in the rough-and-tumble restaurant business, owners often need diners to not just chew but to chatter. Take, for example, San Francisco's Butter, which offers a drink dubbed the Shotgun Wedding to wash down home-cooked selections "just like your babysitter used to make." You can bet that Butter's Friday night mini-corn dogs, deep-fried Twinkies, White Castle slyders, and Spaghetti-Os straight from the can are Monday morning's water-cooler fodder.
I'm not suggesting that Lowbrow go the gimmicky route and, say, hire a WWF mascot (we already had one failed outpost of Hulk Hogan's Pastamania) or bring in a mechanical claw machine filled with plush prizes. But I think the Lowbrow could build on what it's started by letting its imagination run a little wilder in regard to its theme, both in terms of food and decor.
While keeping in mind that all lowbrow isn't necessarily good (the most thematic item on the restaurant's current menu, the Elvis sandwich, might be considered a waste of perfectly good bacon, as it smothers the stuff in bananas and peanut butter), the kitchen might consider adding a few homemade, high-quality versions of sentimental boxed-and-canned fare. For starters, the Lowbrow employs a terrific baker, Nancy Reynolds, previously of Moose and Sadie's, who turns out a wonderfully light, moist blackberry coffee cake, a rich Summit oatmeal stout chocolate cake, and a supple carrot cake with lemon cream cheese frosting. But the best slice to snatch is the chocolate-glazed peanut butter pie—it tastes just like the Tagalong Girl Scout cookie—which is also the best illustration of the "lowbrow" concept. What if Reynolds's skills were unleashed on, say, rethinking the s'mores bars recipe on the back of a box of Golden Grahams cereal, or reverse engineering a Hostess Sno Ball?
Small details like the Lowbrow's neat bar top—it's plastered with baseball cards that Ayers collected during her childhood—and the Etch A Sketches for kids make for great entertainment and conversation starters. Boosting a few more of those elements could help the Lowbrow go from just fine to lots of fun.