Young Joni is Ann Kim's sexy new Northeast eatery with a secret back bar

Young Joni's "bibim grain" salad is a signature dish.

Young Joni's "bibim grain" salad is a signature dish. Mecca Bos

When everything in a restaurant is running smoothly, it’s nothing short of theater.

The staff: good looking, tidy, and "on."

The lighting: flattering, soft enough to slough off the nerve-jangling day, bright enough to illuminate what you're eating.

The music: well curated, and at a volume that allows both auditory enjoyment plus conversation, all at the same time. 

The service: seamless. 

People have been anxiously awaiting the opening of Young Joni since rumblings about it began a couple of years ago. Ann Kim (of Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza), who owns the new, difficult-to-categorize bar and eatery with her partner Conrad Leifur, says it took so long to open the place because she “wanted to get the story right."

And right off the bat, even if you know nothing about Kim, or Pizzeria Lola, or Young Joni, it's readily apparent that this new restaurant is a highly personal place.

Kim is a former actress, having spent about a decade diligently working at that art form. Even now, as a restaurateur, she’s every bit the part. Open, gregarious, easy to like, and beautiful. People pick up on all of that when they meet her, and as a result, she’s one of the most well-liked restaurateurs in town.

Well, that, and the fact that she’s brought very, very, good New York-level pizza to our town. She sets the bar for all other pizzerias.

And Young Joni is a pizzeria too, with an entire section of the enormous northeast Minneapolis space devoted to the gleaming Copper Turnkey oven.

But unlike at Lola, the oven isn’t a central focus here. Instead, all eyes are on the open wood-fire grills, the place from which all sorts of pan-Asian and pan-American shareables emerge: cute little Hon-shimeji mushrooms, looking like they just jumped off a Super Mario Brothers screen, swimming in miso butter; Kalbi marinated short ribs, served in a stream of charred serrano yogurt; Thai sausage, electrified with lemongrass, ready to be wrapped in sweetheart cabbage and ladled with nam jim, a sweet Thai chile sauce.

It’s a little bit all over the place, and it's exactly the way we want to be eating right now.

When Kim comes dashing out of the kitchen to greet her many fans and guests, she’s wearing a custom apron emblazoned with, among other emblems, a Prince symbol. She’s an avid fan of our fallen hometown hero, as many of us are. It’s just one of many little winks that makes this place feel so comforting.

When ribs are delivered to the table, a couple of wet naps come along with them.

When the tray of Rose Street Patisserie "church basement" bars arrive, there is also a little pot of milk with a red-and-white striped straw, just the way you need it.

When the check drops, it comes with two little Kasugai gummies, the Japanese fruit candies that come in lychee, green tea, and candy apple.

Every one of these gestures is the kind of thing your mom would do for you, or at least your friend. Or at least someone who really cares for you, which they seem to at Young Joni. 

It makes sense then that Young Joni is the portmanteau of Kim and Leifur's mother’s last names. All of it coming together seems to say this: "At Young Joni, you’ll be taken care of." 

And this is all even before you visit the back bar. The little speakeasy through the alley is marked only by a single glowing strip of red neon. If Young Joni is mom’s house, then the back bar is dad’s basement (if dad is a supercool 1970s badass). 

All wood paneling, reel-to-reel sounds, magazine racks, and low light, the room has cocktail menus that are photo albums lined with what our tablemates coined “identity drinks.”

Are you bubbly, spicy, and happy? Then why not order a No Judgment, with vodka, ginger, pear, and sparkling wine? It’s easy and breezy just like you. Or are you passive aggressive? Maybe you’d be better off with a gin, sherry, orgeat, lemon soda; unexpected forces coming together.

See? Stories. Its a choose-your-own-adventure romp around who you are (or who you want to be tonight).

Both places are naturally instant hot spots, with two-hour-and-up waits already, and that’s possibly because they're like no other places in Northeast.

As Kim put it, “Everybody loves Northeast, but no one has really invested in making it sexy. And Northeast is sexy! And the people are sexy! It doesn’t have to be just old man dad bars all the time!”

Mom's house and dad's bar, and they're both sexy as hell. 

How's that for a story? 

Now open
165 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis