After a seven-year run on East Hennepin Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, Wilde Roast Cafe recently reopened in Picosa's old spot in Riverplace. Even though the café moved only a few blocks, it quickly expanded its customer base. One neighborhood couple that visited the new Main Street space was shocked to learn of Wilde Roast's previous location. "We go to Brasa all the time," was it near there? they asked. Indeed, it was practically right next door!
The move gives Wilde Roast some well-deserved broader exposure, and it may also help revive a piece of the city's most underutilized real estate. Riverplace and its immediate neighbor, St. Anthony Main, have long been home to restaurants that, for whatever reason, never managed to draw big crowds or incite much buzz—a disappointment considering the beauty of the site's tree-lined Mississippi River overlook. But new ownership of St. Anthony Main's Aster Café has turned that once-sleepy spot into a hip music venue that lures visitors from all over the metro. And Wilde Roast is already contributing more of the same.
When life partners Tom DeGree and Dean Schlaak opened Wilde Roast in 2004, their intention was to create a gay-friendly café that wasn't "in your face gay," Schlaak says. They chose the 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, something of an icon in the gay community, as the spot's namesake, but since the average diner is unlikely to be aware of the association, don't expect Wilde Roast's demographics to look anything like those of, say, the Saloon. The café is certainly gay friendly, but mostly because it's just friendly, and welcoming to everyone.
Wilde Roast's previous incarnation was essentially a cramped coffeehouse that managed to turn out far better food than its tiny space suggested. As it turns out, that was the café's secret to differentiating itself in an increasingly competitive business. "If we were just a coffee shop, we would have been closed by now," Schlaak surmises. So this spring, DeGree and Schlaak decided to emphasize Wilde Roast's strengths and turn it into a full-fledged restaurant, tripling the size of their space and their staff and switching from an inelegant counter-ordering system to full table service.
Fortunately, the expansion hasn't cost Wilde Roast its cozy, salon-like ambiance. Though the main dining area has a somewhat generic, hotel-restaurant look, the owners did retain the comfortable conversation nook from the old space. The overstuffed, lushly upholstered couches and chairs and an antique fireplace look ripped from Wilde's era. (Wilde himself, and his penchant for peacock feathers, also make an appearance.) But the new space is also sprawling and multifunctional. Guests can sit at one of the study-friendly café tables clustered between the coffee counter and the gelato case in front, take a booth or a high-top in the main dining area, secure a spot on the elevated patio along cobblestone-covered Main Street, or book the private meeting room.
Over time, the old Wilde Roast cultivated a group of devoted regulars—people who come in three, four, five times a week, Schlaak says—which makes menu changes a challenge. "Years ago, I removed a sandwich," Schlaak recalls, "and I thought I was going to have to get a security guard because people were so upset with me." (Fans of the Constance Chicken needn't fret: The sandwich made the move to the new space.)
The current menu, which focuses mostly on sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, didn't change much through the move. There's nothing revolutionary about it, but its offerings tend to be comforting and consistent. The edgiest thing about the list may be each item's title and description—how many diners catch the joke that all the burgers are named after drag queens?
Wilde Roast's much-loved crab cakes are good for a simple reason, explained on the menu: "Mostly crab, not so much cake." They have a light, almost soufflé-like texture that's rich with flaky seafood and light on filler. A classic artichoke dip is more creamy than cheesy, blending sour cream with Parmesan and scallion bits. Flatbreads have a crust that's soft under the toppings but cracker-crisp along the edge. A new combination of fennel-spiked Italian sausage and sweet, caramelized onions sealed in melted cheese is especially good.
Just before the move, Wilde Roast incorporated a few new wraps, burgers, and sandwiches in its offerings, including a salmon BLT that adds a fish fillet to the bacon, lettuce, tomato equation, which, unfortunately, tends to get lost between the thick pretzel bun. The seafood po-boy, another newcomer, is likeable enough, but you're better off saving your craving for such a sandwich for a place like Sea Salt. The time-tested items tend to be most appealing, including a tasty curried chicken salad, studded with diced onion and cashews, that's served either between bread or on a pile of mixed lettuces. For lighter appetites, a honey-kissed goat cheese and toasted walnut salad is a nice choice, especially with its bright citrus vinaigrette.
Wilde Roast's new kitchen is equipped with a fryer, so the menu includes waffle-cut sweet potato fries—served with a marshmallow dipping sauce for those who can't wait for Thanksgiving. But the biggest change is the addition of a few heartier entrées, including a $16 filet mignon (also available in a steak sandwich and salad form) and tuna noodle hot dish. The latter is a tweaked version of Schlaak's mom's Lutheran church potluck staple, which avoids the genre's arid glueyness and instead comes out rich and creamy. The café also serves breakfast daily, starting at 7 a.m., and is famous for its crème brûlée French toast, a sort of eggy bread pudding with peaches and cherries that would be improved by homemade whipped cream.
Wilde Roast incorporated house-made gelato into the café's new operations, though the more experimental flavors, including a too-smoky chocolate-bacon, are probably better skipped in lieu of a more reliable salted caramel. Or you can always go with one of the classics, including the carrot and flourless chocolate cakes, which have been stocking Wilde Roast's pastry case since the beginning. When Wilde once said, "I can resist everything except temptation," he could have been referring to the café's dense, ganache-smooth bête noir, or "black beast," that once graced the cover of Bon Appetit magazine.