Twin Cities dining is on the up and up. Our restaurants have received a lot of love from press nationwide. Thrillest named the Twin Cities among the best US food cities, and 12 Twin Cities chefs were named semifinalists for the James Beard Award in 2016. We’ve been patting ourselves on the back for breaking the mold of Midwest boring. Look at us, we said, and all of our James Beard Award nominations. We’ve got Andrew Zimmern living here, for chrissake!
But maybe too soon.
Anthony Bourdain’s recent quote on unexpected foodie cities was lauded by local publications, but note the use of past tense:
“…Minneapolis, for a very long time had really good food and a lot of great chefs.”
We lost La Belle Vie, really the only restaurant of its type in Minnesota, to a simple lack of butts in seats. We lost Solera, Brasserie Zentral (and Foreign Legion), Vincent, Masa, Il Foro, Cafe Levain, Pilgrimage, and Workshop at Union within a few short months.
And now Heartland, also the only restaurant of its type, is closing as well.
Maybe too many places opened all at once. Maybe that’s why it seems like we’re hemorrhaging good, independent restaurants while Fogo de Chão and Kincaids thrive. We’ve heard it time and time again that we’re tapped for talent, that it’s near impossible to find top workers for both the front and back of the house. We know that bubbles can’t grow forever before they pop.
Or do Minnesotans really only want burgers, steaks, and wings?
So is the Twin Cities’ dining scene still exciting?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: But maybe not as exciting as we’d like to think.
If we were to showcase what exactly makes Minnesota (and the surrounding region) special, it would be at someplace like Heartland. While many restaurants are sourcing local (and many more claim they are, even if they aren’t), no one does it quite like Lenny Russo.
(No shade to any other locally-focused TC restaurants, it’s just true that no other place is as committed to sourcing fresh ingredients for a menu that changes daily based on what purveyors can provide)
If you look at what’s opening, or what is replacing (Salt Cellar to become nachos-and-pizza place Fitzgerald’s, Brasserie Zentral to become a Blue Plate concept), much of it is pretty mundane. We can all enjoy a burger, or pizza, or great basket of fries every now and again, but if this is really all we want then we can’t call ourselves innovators. What makes an interesting dining culture is not yet another place doing fried chicken, or ramen, or tacos, or subpar sushi.
To say that the Twin Cities doesn’t have good, boundary-pushing places to eat is more than just disingenuous. It’s insulting. There are still great restaurants here:
Spoon and Stable, Jax Cafe, Restaurant Alma, Piccolo, Upton 43, Bachelor Farmer, the restaurant empires of Kim Bartmann, Isaac Becker, Tim McKee, and Tim Niver, are all still here and kicking ass. The low key elegance of Southwest Minneapolis’ restaurants (Kyatchi, Nighthawks/Birdie, Rincon 38…) have redefined neighborhood dining.
And the consistently awesome Southeast Asian gems of Little Mekong (iPho, Trieu Chau, Cheng Heng, Thai Cafe), spices of East Africa (Fasika, Demera, Dillas), and Latin food of District del Sol and Lake Street need to be mentioned as well.
But these aren’t necessarily the norm (or standard). We must be aware of the sway that is pushing too many innovative restaurants to close their doors in favor of yet another joint doing “upscale pub fare” and jumping on trends for trends’ sake.
There are still gaps
And these trends have also halted any sort of true “Minnesotan” food culture from emerging.
As Brandon Randolph, current chef at the Governor’s Residence and line cook at Bachelor Farmer, says, “[We’re missing] smaller shops focused on the culture and heritage [of Minnesota], like bagels in New York for example.”
The Twin Cities have failed to cultivate a real, unique-to-Minnesota cuisine. But that’s not the only issue. While we have failed to create a truly Minnesotan flavor, we’re also missing options that could make us a true melting pot as well.
Two things are at the core of a dynamic dining scene: quality and diversity.
We’re still lacking in diverse Chinese food, for one. Simplified Cantonese is abundant, but we’re not getting much else. There’s no place to get excellent soup dumplings any time you want them (and you do). Dim sum is scarce.
Andrew Lehman, a career server and sommelier who has worked in restaurants from Minnesota to Hawaii, points to a lack of Chinatown, etc. as part of the cause. He acknowledges, “Most other cities have these little institutions, mostly ethnic dives that produce world class food. I can’t think of one here.”
What else is missing?
“Izakaya… and late night eats are still lacking.”
It’s near impossible to get food way after dark. Imagine the street food that could surround St. Paul’s Mears Park or the Warehouse District of Minneapolis for those getting off work late, for the revelers in need of sustenance after a night out, or for people simply hungry at hours not accepted by the general public.
Our produce is often lacking solid representation as well (another reason we’ll miss Heartland). Even at places focused on sourcing locally, vegetables are often an afterthought.
When thinking about what makes the food capitals of the U.S., cities like NYC, New Orleans, and San Francisco, special, it’s exactly that. Diversity and quality. You can find anything you want, at any hour. And New Orleans especially has developed a unique flavor that anyone in the world could associate with the city.
This isn’t meant to be a laundry list of things that the Twin Cities doesn’t have. That isn’t nearly as useful as an article describing everything that we do have. This simply illustrates that we aren’t supporting the type of cuisine that could make the Twin Cities truly special.
New restaurants aren’t inherently a bad thing, of course. It’s exciting to see “coming soon” signs hanging in empty windows across the cities. But not everything has to be meat and potatoes as per the Midwest’s reputation. As we mentioned earlier, the majority of the places opening are either another bar/pub/tavern, or a place serving burgers and steaks, tacos, pizza, or some variation thereof.
But there are some that stand out. Steven Brown’s new Saint Genevieve is excellent. Elegant-but-still-casual French cooking (tartines and tartare and other small plates, and champagne especially) are offered in an elegant-but-still-fairly-casual setting. A perfect blend of innovation and accessibility.
St. Paul has been trying to make up lost ground as well, opening over a dozen new places in the coming months. A handful hold up the importance of fresh, local culture and experience. Tori Ramen, a ramen spot opening very soon in Cathedral Hill, is putting a fresh spin on the concept by going porkless (all poultry, all day). And the missing vegetables will be well-represented at J. Selby’s, a “plant-based” restaurant opening in the same building.
(See a full list here: 17 St. Paul restaurant openings to put on your calendar)
There will always be new restaurants in the Twin Cities. And, during the next economic downswing especially, many of them will close. We have to consider what are dining scene is, and what we want it to be.
If Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding area want to lay claim as a culinary powerhouse, we have to think more about what is missing, and why. Not just in terms of theme, but also execution. We can’t keep opening restaurants willy-nilly as true culinary institutions close their doors.
If we can’t keep restaurants like La Belle Vie and Brasserie Zentral open, why bother dining out in the first place?