Top 10: Influential restaurant openings of the decade
Here's a conversation starter for tonight's festivities: What were the most important restaurants that opened--and stayed open--this decade? Here are my 10 (okay, with a few more tucked in for good measure) to get things started...
1. Heartland Chef Lenny Russo was among those pioneering the idea of Midwestern eats (along with Lucia Watson and others, of course) back in the 80s, far before locavore was a word and diy-butchering was a Williamsburg hipster's weekend plans. Russo elegant, sophisticated work with the heartland's best flora and fauna helped pave the way for other excellent farm-to-table practitioners like Scott Pampuch at Corner Table and Mike Phillips at The Craftsman.
2. Chino Latino Despite the obnoxious bar scene and the unisex bathroom sinks, or whatever else you hate about Chino, here's why it matters: Chino is as accessible as Applebees and a helluva lot more fun. Just look back at those bachelorette party photos from five years back where you're knocking back sake with a kung-fu bandanna tied around your head: you're smiling from ear-to-ear, right? Chino has all the things that people like--a fun drink list, sharable Asian/Latin fare, cheap happy hours, party atmosphere--but then throws in a few cui for good measure.
3. Punch Pizza
Okay, so the first Punch actually opened in 1996, but I'm counting all the other branches that have popped up this decade all over the city, a testament to the Neapolitan-style pizzaria's perfection of its craft. Punch's devotion to top-quality ingredients and authentic process--the best tomatoes, the best fresh mozzarella, the insanely hot wood-burning ovens--has converted many a Minnesotan to pizza snobbery, which I mean in the best way possible.
Tim McKee and Josh Thoma's Solera is everything: drinks place, event space, nightlife scene, Monday night movies on the roofdeck, and a delicious tapas restaurant, to boot. In my mind, the opening of Solera marked a mid-decade shift in downtown dining, one that injected a new cosmopolitan chic (Cosmos, Chambers Kitchen, etc.) into a scene anchored by D'Amcio Cucina and Goodfellows that could feel a little staid and stuffy.
5. 112 Eatery
The Warehouse District felt cool again when 112 Eatery opened, squeezing great hospitality, a clubby vibe, and laid-back chef-y cooking into a narrow, thumprint-size space. 112 quickly became a favorite of foodies and restaurant industry folks for its democratization of fine-dining and night-owl hours and paved the way for Isaac Becker's white-hot pasta bar, La Grassa.
Across the street from 112, Saffron quietly started making an equally important impact on the local dining scene. The late 2000s marked big gains for upscale ethnic fare, presenting Mexican (Masa, Barrio) and Vietnamese (Jasmine 26) flavors, for example, in a more serious--and glamorous--context. Best of all, young chef Sameh Wadi is just getting started, with a lot of potential for more good things to come.
Along those lines, we also have Brasa, which serves to represent our restaurant scene's thriving middle class: for a few bucks more than what you'd spend at the local taqueria, Brasa offers a fine-dining chef's take on South American soul food, which means the ingredients arrive mostly from local, sustainable sources, and the flavors are infinitely nuanced. This trend of haute-approach-to-humble has done great things to mid-priced meals: Town Talk upscaled diner fare, Chef Shack revolutionized street food, hell, you can get a whole fresh fish cooked to order in a freaking concrete floor park pavilion at Sea Salt.
Even at the more upscale end of things, Stewart Woodman showed us the magic of restraint, his lovely, personal Heidi's (a tribute to his wife/cohort). Yes, it hardly seems possible, but it's true: at Heidi's you can have a bigwig NYC-transplant cook for you without spending more than $20 on an entree. A meal at Heidi's has none of the pretensions and all the value.
While this decade spawned the obesity epidemic and a resurgence of recession-fueled calorie-dense comfort foods like burgers, macaroni and cheese, and the like, Spoonriver made some all-important inroads in convincing diners that good-for-you and satisfaction don't have to be mutually exclusive. Brenda Langton's chic, mod dining room diffuses the patchouli haze that has surrounded healthy eats: brown rice and beets never tasted so good, and they'll probably help lengthen your lifespan, to boot.
10. Sea Change
Sea Change was a spark of hope that even in a down economy, elegance is still alive. The most recent of the McKee restaurants has taken a strong stance on the environmental ethics of the fish it sells--the health of the ocean will certainly become an even more significant story in the next decade--not to mention presenting meticulous, creative, flavorful dishes with a generous helping of grace.
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