Here's one for your "Essential Minnesota" project, and while it may not fit neatly in the category, I find that much of the enjoyment I get out of dining out comes from being recognized by the staff. This really only happens by becoming a "regular" at a particular place.
Along with this recognition usually go some occasional comps, priority seating, and the like. I realize that to a true gourmet, it is more about the actual meal, but to most Minnesotans, being recognized is a close second behind the food. Of course, the food at your "regular place" needs to be consistently above average or you may as well find a new place to become a regular.
Here's what I am referring to: My wife and I and another couple were having pre-dinner drinks at our "regular" place, where we've been going since 1995 or so, once or twice a month. The other couple had been to this restaurant before, but only occasionally. This establishment keeps the bar tab separate if you are moving to the main dining room for dinner. When the time came for us to move, our bar tab came and the other couple grabbed it to pay. When they opened the tab and found all the drinks comped and a balance of zero, they were very impressed. I felt very appreciated, and our friends still talk about it to this day.
Another time at this same restaurant we were dining with a party of eight. When we were seated, there were several appetizers waiting for us, and our server just said, "Compliments of [the general manager]." This same restaurant is opening a sister branch in Miami, and my wife and I have been invited down for the opening. I feel very appreciated and would not miss it for the world.
These experiences would not happen if you only visit a place on occasion, and while they do nothing to improve the taste of my steak, they add significantly to my dining experience. We do try new places and love comparing notes with the local critics, but it is nice to have a go-to place where you know you will have a good time.
Jeff in Minneapolis
My first thought on reading your note was, "Oh, my God, does this mean I can expense a dinner at Manny's?" Hark, I hear the herald angels sing!
Because of course, despite your discretion, your letter couldn't refer to anything but Manny's Steakhouse. Do Minnesotans spend thousands of dollars a year anywhere else, and feel lucky to do it? Hell no, they don't. And while I appreciate your discretion about the comps, please know this isn't any kind of shady practice—this is exactly how you build relationships with regular customers.
In fact, it's such a part of the Manny's operation that Parasole, its parent company, has it written down in its business plan. "Recognizing regulars is one of Parasole's 'points of difference,'" assistant general manager Bill Van Offeren explained to me. "It's something we're really proud of, all the regulars that make Manny's what it is. Another 'point of difference' is to surprise the guest with something unexpected, and that's where the comp budget comes in. We're taught to support the people who support us." As part of this recognizing-regulars plan, Manny's doesn't have hosts: Only managers answer the phone, only managers seat guests. And if, in the course of taking that reservation or seating the guest, the manager sees an opportunity to make a regular feel very, very special, he takes it. This has resulted in you, Jeff, and a lot of other folks, feeling very, very warmly about Manny's. How warmly? Parasole expects dozens, if not more, of their regulars to fly down to Florida for the new Manny's February opening. What, are there those of you reading who can't imagine buying plane tickets and hotel rooms to go to the restaurant you go to twice a month anyway?
Welcome to how your boss's boss lives.
And, for at least one night, it was how I lived, too.
My date and I hit Manny's on the early side one Tuesday night—because that's the reservation we could get. Want in there during prime time on the weekends? Call well in advance, be a regular, or be out of luck. Even early on a Tuesday, the place was jam-packed. Manny's always reminds me of that kids' finger game, here's the church, here's the steeple, because the skyway leading to Manny's is always dead quiet, but cross the threshold into the restaurant, and the place is just thrumming like a carnival. Burly waiters, elderly waiters, rotund waiters, nearly all men, are running this way and that, purposefully pushing their enormous meat carts like stevedores moving cargo on the docks.
Women casually throw their furs on the benches of their favorite booths, and slide in, while their men shout into their cell phones: "I'm at Manny's. At Manny's! Yeah, you do wish you were."
At another table a woman in an Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit sips from a martini the size of a casserole dish. Her husband looks like he just got back from returning garden hoses to Home Depot, but chances are good he has cash reserves that would allow them to buy a whole Home Depot, or four.
I am an expert eavesdropper, and so was able to eavesdrop on the tables on either side of me. They were both seated with regulars. On one side, a wife explained to their server that she and her husband were spending the night in Minneapolis in preparation for "bad news" they were going to get from his doctor the next day. Whatever it was, they feared it would mean less Manny's in the future, so they wanted to have one last meal, or so they assumed. I am not making this up. And I'm sure they're not the only people in town who would choose Manny's for their last meal.
On the other side of me was a trio of young executives who ate at Manny's once a week, and didn't even place a drink order. "The usual?" asked their server. One of them barked, "Yeah!" enthusiastically, and then they all leaned forward into a low-voiced huddle, giving me the idea that they were talking about some super-big fish in the room that I was too clueless to pick out.
Then the waiter brought the cart to us, so I had to pay attention to my own table. There were the usual suspects: The tightly plastic-wrapped steaks that look like so many raw-meat balloons, the live lobster hoping to make a dive into the nearest open purse. I hadn't been to Manny's in a while, and was surprised to hear that my old regular entree, the bone-in rib eye, has been removed from the menu. "It's out at Pittsburgh Blue now," explained our server, with a sort of waggle of his eyebrows that seemed to indicate that all of us were at the mercy of foolish gods (I'm guessing management) who are annoying the old-time servers by putting a cheaper version of Manny's in the suburbs. So, what has replaced the bone-in rib eye? The $59.95 "Bludgeon of Beef," a rib eye attached to a Flintstones'-sized beef rib bone. A $60 steak? Seriously? Seriously. Manny's, by the way, has gotten even more expensive than I'd remembered: Other options on my visit included a $49.95 stone crab claw appetizer, an $89.95 seafood martini appetizer, and a surf and turf for $135.95. A side of asparagus is $13.95; even the banana split is $21.95.
Whoa. I knew the rich were getting richer, I knew the gap between the rich and poor in America is greater than at any time since the years immediately preceding the Great Depression. But these prices really brought that point to life in a new way. A $135 surf and turf? And it's got a frozen Australian lobster tail as its "surf"? Those things taste like formaldehyde-soaked cotton. Well, hell. In for a penny...we ordered.
Then we ran into trouble. "I'm having problems deciding between a couple of wines," I told our server. "Is there someone who can help me?" Our server went away and then returned. "No," he said, and explained that the only person who could help was too busy to emerge from behind the bar. That is completely unacceptable. Hey, Manny, I'm talking to you: More than half of the wines on your list are priced over $100, and you don't have a sommelier on the floor who's able to talk to guests about them? That's the equivalent of ordering a steak medium-rare and being told that everyone's too busy to deal with that.
To make matters worse, when I pointed out the wines I was trying to decide between, our server picked the most expensive one, the Kathryn Kennedy "Lateral," at $95. "Oh yeah, that's the one," he said. "It's good." When it arrived, it was served in the sort of ultra-cheap stemware that restaurants use when their primary concern is that the things go through a dishwasher safely—you know the ones I mean, they're stubby and thick, and are made by a company called Libbey whose products' chief merit is their inexpensiveness and durability.
Now, by no means am I in the pocket of the Riedel glass people, but I think it's any diner's right to have a decent glass when you're spending that much money on wine. And I particularly think this because I know that Riedel makes a special, $5-a-stem, dishwasher-safe wine glass that's available only to restaurants. But hey, if Manny's can't afford it, they can do what I've seen so many upstart neighborhood cafés do, and get some decent stemware with a big enough bowl to catch some of the wine's fragrance from Target. I watched another table near me go through several bottles of $150 Silver Oak Cabernet in those same stubby glasses. I later learned that Manny's has some Riedel in the back, which they give out upon request to regulars, but no one told me when I was there, so that knowledge did me little good. I have to say, the totality of my wine experience at Manny's made me feel slighted and undervalued. Is this the flip side of the experience of all those regulars?
But yes, I managed to recover and soldier on from that 10 minutes of my life. First, we got the $15.95 shrimp cocktail, because I was wondering what a $15.95 shrimp cocktail was about. It was bland. I kind of expected monster, giant, mind-blowing shrimp, or something, but no, these were merely big shrimp, which tasted pretty much unseasoned. We got the apple-smoked bacon appetizer ($11.95) because a friend of mine raves about it. It was two enormous slabs of mind-obliteratingly rich, smoky bacon—I mean, really, this bacon was mind-altering, you take a bite of the fatty wealth of it and your brain stops functioning entirely; it's the rock cocaine of food, and exactly as good and bad as that sounds. That said, my date and I together couldn't finish even a quarter of the mammoth order, so, if I were you, I wouldn't get it unless you've got a table of at least four to share it with.
Then the rest rolled in: my bludgeon of beef ($59.95), my date's New York strip steak ($44.95), creamed spinach ($8.95), and hash browns ($9.95). And all my irritation with Manny's wine service vanished. Well, almost all of it. It came flooding back just now when I went to write about it, but in the moment, it was just me and that remarkable steak. This "bludgeon" of beef really does look like something you could take out an intruder with: A long bone the size of your forearm curves up one side, and shelters a two-and-a-half-inch-thick slab of well-aged steak with some nice pale pockets of fat at the far ends. And it tasted just perfect: like some kind of deep, dark, wind-scored berry, juicy and, somehow, voluminous, echoing, thunderous.
My date and I spent the rest of the night passing it back and forth—it was loads better than his New York strip, definitely worth the extra $15.
The creamed spinach was the definition of the dish: light, garlic-laced, creamy, the whole leaves of fresh young spinach still bright green and beautiful. The hash browns were, as ever, the very best of the genre: as big as a Frisbee and three times as thick, the potatoes crisp as potato chips on the outside, well-steamed and perfectly fluffy within. I always get mine "extra crisp" so they make two layers of hash brown. If I went back, I'd order wine by the glass, skip the appetizers entirely, and be as happy as smiley-face pancakes.
Desserts were just as they always were, and marvelous in their obliterating-indulgence sort of way. One of their signature desserts is a bread pudding made with Maker's Mark bourbon ($9.95), and when they serve it they always leave a bottle of Maker's Mark on the table in case you want to douse it a little more. It's a fun gesture, the kind of thing that says: "We're not an indulgent restaurant—we're an exponentially indulgent restaurant." Once you add as much Maker's Mark as you like, you'll find the bread pudding a classic, so buttery, so spicy, and so sticky that you fear you might get pulled into it, like some kind of La Brea tar pit, and never emerge again. If so, what a way to go. The pecan pie ($12.95) is big enough for four, and sweet enough that I may not eat again this month.
As the desserts sat on the table, I went back to people-watching. There was a table of mother, daughter, and grandchild, the women both platinum beauties dressed head-to-toe in white, the 10-year-old boy drinking Coke contentedly out of a glass bottle—a regular in training! A man a few tables over was dining with his birdlike wife and a woman who looked to be her twin sister. The two women split every course, but drank their own Manhattans; their server brought extra plates each time, and if they had to ask him to do this, I didn't see it.
My date and I got to musing on the following: If a nuclear bomb dropped outside, sparing only the people inside Manny's, how long would it take the state to return to functioning? We decided that financially, politically, it would all be up and running by close of business the following day. By the time the couple behind me, the ones anticipating bad news in the morning, requested their check, I, too, was ready to conclude that Manny's was the place I'd come for my last meal—preferably after I'd accomplished enough to eat there a couple of times a week for 40 years.
1300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
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