Muddy Waters had a long run as one of Minneapolis's best-loved coffee shops. Its iconic neon sign—a coffee cup buoyantly floating, handle up, amidst a choppy java sea—anchored it to the corner of 24th and Lyndale. Muddy's was a funky, charismatic place that packed plenty of personality into a thousand square feet. (A sign taped to a canister on the coffee counter used to read, "Tipping makes you pretty.") For more than 20 years, it kept us caffeinated as we transitioned from punky high schoolers who aspired to live in the heart of its action-packed neighborhood to bourgeois bohemians who couldn't get away from the raucous bar traffic and competition parking fast enough.
Though it all, Muddy Waters endured—even the 2001 incident of a BMW crashing through the shop's front window. (The owner at the time described the scene: "There was glass, granita, coffee, antifreeze, and gumballs everywhere.") But as the years went on, rising costs and increased competition made business more difficult. So owners Sarah Schrantz and Danielle DePietto decided that the best way to thrive in the current market was to grow beyond it, and they moved Muddy's five blocks south to an unassuming building just north of Lyndale Tap. The new structure had once been a barn and later a garage. Most recently, the salon owner Jon English had been using it for storage. After some major renovations, Muddy's re-opened this summer as a full-service restaurant and bar.
The new space has a rustic, open feel. The front glass garage doors let the outdoors in, as do several skylights, and there's a narrow alley patio on the building's south side (that's where the neon sign ended up). There's a coffee counter near the front door, a large bar area, and an open kitchen in back. In the private dining room off to the side, guests gather around a table made from a glass-topped, medieval-looking wooden door. Custom woodworkers fashioned the booths and bar tops from reclaimed barn wood, which softens the harshness of the concrete floor. To service the larger digs, Muddy's upped its employee roster from 7 to 52. Several of its staff members are musicians, and a few also work at the Triple Rock and Cause. (Perhaps noise-induced hearing loss is the reason Muddy's heavy metal soundtrack was cranked to a near-deafening level one recent Saturday afternoon.) Aside from Pizza Luce, Muddy's appears to possess a higher ratio of tattoos and body modifications per employee than any other local restaurant.
In the morning and mid-afternoon, the space functions as a coffee shop—it's not uncommon to see at least a few people hunkered down with their laptops. But Muddy's now also plays several more roles: There's lunch and dinner service, brunch on weekends, and a lively late-night bar scene. To oversee that aspect of the business, Schrantz and DePietto took on another partner, Paddy Whelan, who used to work for Surly, so don't be surprised if the 30 tap lines contain more of Omar Ansari and Todd Haug's beers than you can count on five fingers.
Muddy's has a more eclectic vibe than the neighboring sports bar-like Lyndale Tap and Herkimer, but it's more casual than the gourmet temple Heidi's. Though Lyn-Lake has become a veritable restaurant row—It's Greek to Me, Galactic Pizza, and Tiger Sushi are among Muddy's neighbors—the newcomer fits an unfilled niche. Like any serious neighborhood hangout, the place opens at 7 or 8 a.m. and doesn't close till 2 in the morning.
So the vibe is decidedly good. But what about the food? Would you really order mussels from an establishment that used to do all its cooking with a microwave and a toaster?
Have faith! Co-owner DePietto once cooked at several favorite Twin Cities restaurants, including the old Loring, the New French Cafe, and the Vintage. The former Muddy's had limited cooking capabilities—all items needed to be simple enough to be made by one barista, who was also serving coffee—which greatly constrained the culinary possibilities. This time, DePietto and chef Scott Hurlbut, formerly of the Uptown Bar, had far more resources for their menu collaboration.
Muddy's menu might be described as American bistro and bar fare, accompanied by a few international flourishes. The selections feel approachable but not generic. Dishes have a personal sensibility to them, rather like Kingfield's Blackbird—though one more suited to an earlier life stage of later nights and more limited responsibilities. The fanciest dish among the short selection of entrées is the Moroccan pork, which is served on a lovely bed of quinoa with golden raisins, carrots, and almonds. The combination is intriguing, but the meat can be rather dry. If you're looking for a meal that breaks geographic borders, skip it in favor of pairing a couple of beer-battered mahi mahi tacos with a side of yucca fries—hearty, starchy, deep-fried strips that stand up to a garlicky chimichurri better than potatoes ever will.
Muddy's salad selections are interesting and thoughtful. Bibb lettuce is flecked with bits of green apple, date, almond, and goat cheese. When broken down, the elements fit into a reliable salad-making template—matching creaminess, sweetness, and crunch—but the combination still feels unexpected. Roasted golden beets are paired with a ground hazelnut butter, which complements their sweet earthiness, with hints of yogurt and champagne vinaigrette to add contrast.
But the restaurant will likely become best known for its hand-held American eats. Pizzas have thin but pliable crusts that pop with brown bubbles and carry a slight yeasty tang. There's always a vegetarian version, whose toppings rotate every few days, and the kitchen comes up with such basic but addictive combinations as creamy tomato sauce, onions, and Parmesan cheese. Hot dogs come two to an order for $5.25, and they get all the details right, from the classic snap of the casing to the sauerkraut spiked with fennel seeds, just to give it a little edge. The most hedonistic of the offerings is the fried mortadella sandwich, which the staff sometimes describes as "bourgeois bologna." It's a delicious, open-face heap of lettuce, Gruyere cheese, fried egg, and griddled meat—and it may also be prepared with vegetarian mock bologna.
The pot roast sliders, which come three to an order for $7, are a simple classic. The meat is braised in Surly Bender beer until it easily separates into tender strands, and comes garnished with horseradish and pickled onion. More daring is the rock shrimp po' boy, in which a roll comes stuffed with the battered-and-fried curls, paired with finely shredded cabbage and thin apple slices, along with a wicked sriracha aioli. It's a spirited flavor-texture combination—fried seafood with crunchy, creamy, spicy, sweet garnishes—that really satisfies.
In its new incarnation, Muddy Waters has added a dedicated baker and pastry maker, Sarah Botcher, who fills the glass sweets case with a changing assortment of cookies, muffins, and sometimes banana cream pudding with a gingersnap crust and toasted marshmallow top. And for those who can't stop craving Muddy's coffee, there's always the espresso shortbread and cappuccino semifreddo.