The news hit social media like a scathing wildfire. La Belle Vie, Minneapolis' pinnacle of fine dining finery, would be closing.
Wha? How could this happen? If they— winner of constant Zagat ratings, James Beard, and other national nominations and awards, not to mention all of the local accolades— could close, well, then what?
Some commenters said it was the worst day of their lives. Eulogies were comparable to an old friend meeting an untimely demise.
For those who may be less than familiar with the restaurant— which existed for many as little more than an aspiration— it was a bit like this: La Belle Vie is the place on the hill one could always count on being there. It's the wealthy uncle who had made it big and had his Upper East Side penthouse all decked out with the Eames sofa and the view of the river and the doorman. It's the culinary equivalent of Nike, Apple or The Red Cross. It's an icon. It wasn't supposed to be going anywhere, ever. You were supposed to be able to count on it— for your birthday, for your twentieth anniversary, for when you were feeling a little flush.
For the culinary aristocracy in our town, the tippy top culinary and service pros, La Belle Vie was nothing short of Harvard, with their firm but loving dad as headmaster. If they spent any time at all there learning their craft, it meant the opening of doors untold— their own restaurants, accolades at the helms of others, but more importantly, it taught them the meaning of true hospitality.
Few and far between are the sorts of local restaurants that operate on a the integral firmament of true hospitality (though they are multiplying). A restaurant can easily devolve into little more than a place where you go to make money in order to pay the rent, rather than what the true spirit of what an eating establishment should be— a home away from home with hosts who blur the line between professionals and friends.
That said, there is no doubt that LBV could intimidate. Never mind that it was situated at the base of 510 Groveland— the sort of old money condo building that would in fact be right at home on the Upper East Side instead of downtown Minneapolis. The lobby alone seemed to scream "You do not belong here!" if your handbag didn't ring up in the quadruple digits.
But once inside, all such pretense dropped, especially if you were lounge-bound. Children, people in dungarees, chefs just off of work— everyone came, stayed and imbibed in the warm bathwater light and gauzy draped room that melted your anxieties like rose colored glasses. And if you did in fact have an extra few hundred cool ones you had no idea what to do with, you and a companion could dine on the most impressive menu in the state— the sort of caviar, sweetbread, truffle, and poussin laden feast that harkens to Roman levels of excess and regalia. You know, the stuff of special occasions.
So the local restaurant community is shellshocked. And, anytime a restaurant closes, fingers get pointed in so many directions you'd need a multi-armed Indian goddess to get it all straight. In his dual interviews with the Star Tribune's Rick Nelson and MSP's Dara Moskowitz, chef/ owner Tim McKee cited the relatively low demand for fine dining, the high business costs of same, road construction, the minimum wage hike, and too many people treating the place as a special occasion-only destination. Restaurants have more moving pieces than a 747, and when a couple pieces get out of whack simultaneously, it's instantly felt.
This year, Saveur magazine called the Twin Cities the best new food city in America. McKee told Moskowitz:
"People kept saying: [La Belle Vie] is the best restaurant in Minnesota. . . We decided that if that’s what everyone thinks, let’s dive in. Let’s be it. Along the way, after we started Solera, I really saw that we were in a position to change how Minneapolis approached food, and it was really exciting. That’s what I wanted to do, to change the way people in Minneapolis, people in the Twin Cities, experienced food. I wanted to elevate the level of dining in the Twin Cities. When I see articles calling us Best New Food City in the country I like to think I was part of it.”
A substantial cross section of the talent listed in those sorts of articles are LBV alum. They all agree that McKee was part of it, if not the worthy-of-worship royal sire of it.
So now what?
With great homage and respectful humility the students move on to supplant the master, that's what. The way it's always been, and the way it will always be.
Fine dining of a decade ago does not look like the fine dining of today, and nor does it have to by any rule book that I know of. Hollering about how nobody has reverence for dining anymore is the same screaming into the void that young cooks don't want to "work for it" anymore. Instead of stomping around like the grumpy old men and women we are, it's time to step aside for the new generation of cooking and dining. The new generation such as:
Travail Kitchen and Amusements, where fine cuisine mashes up with booming hip hop, fishing poles dangling charcuterie and chicken suits.
Haute Dish, where thousands of orders of a truly perfect burger funds and makes possible exquisite plates of slow poached wild salmon and sweetbreads over foie fried rice. And yeah, you can wear your jeans and battered T's.
Monello, where hotel business and room service will ostensibly support $35 New York Strips and $21 pasta dishes.
These experiences and hundred more are the new face of fine dining. And nobody is more savvy about it all than McKee himself, who not very long ago opened a steakhouse aimed at Millenials that specializes in treating secondary cuts like primary cuts (Libertine), or who passes off world-class BBQ in an unassuming Stillwater "Pirate Bar" (Smalley's) or was the frontrunner in our local ramen game (Masu).
This is the fine cooking of today, $5 forks be damned. I refuse to believe the sky is falling because a restaurant that lived to a ripe old age in restaurant years (17 and a half) is bowing out ceremoniously and classily, retiring before she became old and unwanted.
A lot of Reidel stemware is going to get packed off into its crates and the white linen is taking another hiatus. This has happened before (remember when Steven Brown was flipping burgers at Harry's and Sameh Wadi took the linens off his tables at Saffron?) and we still emerged as one of the finest food cities in America.
By all means, go and pay your respects to McKee and Co. They had an incredible run. Then, dust off those Levi's and go get yourself a fine meal at any of the above or the hundred other restaurants that opened this year.
From the mouth of the man himself: "It’s so important that if there’s a restaurant or business in your community that you feel is important, you’ve got to make it your mission to support them. Otherwise they will close.”
La Belle Vie will perform its final service on October 24, one day shy of their 10th anniversary in the 510 Groveland space. Good luck getting a reservation between now and then.
La Belle Vie
510 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis