Saturday, January 13, 2018


I think it might be a good time to take a brief break
from the politics which will soon enough again fill our
news venues with heated headlines and speculation.

Perhaps a good alternative, and a topic always of some
interest, are the places we go to dine out.

Many years ago, I published a local newspaper in the
Twin Cities. I put my best efforts in reporting about local
politics and in writing serious editorials about the issues
of the day. One afternoon, after having written occasional
articles about food and local restaurants. I received a
phone call from one of the local daily papers inquiring if
I would become their regular food critic. Initially flattered,
I gave it some thought, but concluded that if I were to write
about dining, I should do it for my own publication. My
restaurant column turned out to be much more popular
than my editorials.

I thus began a decades-long pen name pastime of writing
about food.

Today, the restaurant industry is a major part of
American commercial and cultural life. No longer limited
to the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami,
Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and San Francisco,
serious dining out in the U.S. now reaches every city and
even many small towns.

The dining out “boom” of recent years, however, is now
going in new directions. Non-professionals often have a
romantic view of opening and running a restaurant, and
many did just that --- only to discover that preparing and
serving food to the public is a very tough and demanding
occupation. Even restaurants run by great chefs and savvy
food professionals usually have a limited life span. Most of
the great dining rooms of the recent past no longer exist.

I noticed just in the past year or so, several new Twin Cities
dining establishments opened --- and closed --- within a few
months. The demand for fresh and high quality meat and
produce has kept food costs very high, and the old model of
restaurant employment has often become untenable as
mandatory minimum wage, paid leave and other employee
benefits have exceeded the capability for many restaurateurs'
ability to make a profit.

So now many new restaurants now opt for large spaces,
communal seating, and counter food ordering with a reduced
wait staff delivering counter-ordered (and paid-for) food items
to the table. These are mostly relatively high-end restaurants,
not of the fast-food variety. Very high-end new restaurants
which attempt to maintain the traditional hospitality
amenities and services simply have to charge very high prices,
but their audience is limited to expense accounts, special
occasion diners and the very affluent. 

In addition to large spaces serving many diners at the same
time, an additional economic solution is to make a restaurant
more than just a site for a meal but also a destination for
a variety of food experiences.

This variety is usually idiosyncratic --- as is the case of three
Twin Cities restaurants, two in Minneapolis and one in St.
Paul that I will discuss as emblematic of contemporary
restaurant innovation.

In Minneapolis, LYNHALL recently opened as the vision of
attorney Anne Spaeth on a main thoroughfare in a southside
neighborhood where many other new popular bistros have
appeared in recent years. It also is very much a residential
area with many younger tenants and homeowners who are
likely to go out to eat with some frequency, and who live at
walking distance. Lynhall has a very large space with lots of
communal tables. It serves breakfast , lunch and dinner with
counter service only. Ms.Spaeth has hired top local chefs for
her kitchen. Lynhall has its own bar, bakery and coffeehouse,
and serves well-made imaginative breakfasts, soups, salads,
appetizers, sandwiches, entrees, side orders and lavish
desserts. It does much takeout business.  Uniquely, Lynhall
has its own state-of-the-art video recording studio with
tables and seating that can be leased by chefs, groups and
companies for presentations, videos, food training and
private parties. The quality of food preparation at Lynhall is
quite good, with prices slightly on the high side, but it has
its own parking lot, on-street parking is plentiful, staff are
friendly, and no special taxes are added (as they are in
downtown and other near-downtown areas). Most of the
food items, including a variety of rotisserie meats, are
displayed, and portions are generous. The result is often a
friendly, delicious, affordable and original dining experience.

Across the river from downtown Minneapolis, chef-owner
Alex Roberts has created his own version of the new dining
destination at Restaurant/Cafe/Hotel ALMA in a university
residential area. Chef Roberts is a James Beard award-winner
for his outstanding culinary work at Restaurant Alma, a prix
fixe dinner-only kitchen featuring innovative local fresh foods
and fine wines. It has been consistently rated one of the top
dining rooms in the state and the region. It is also predictably
expensive --- a dinner for two with drinks, multiple courses,
wine, desserts. taxes and tip will likely cost more than $200.
Chef Roberts  is also an entrepreneur who wanted his kitchen
to be more than fine dining for a few, so he took over his whole
corner building --- converting the second floor to a charming
boutique hotel with seven rooms, and replaced a local
coffeehouse on the corner by converting it to an adjoining
cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at more affordable
prices. The Cafe Alma menu is not large, but all the items  on
its menu are distinctive and have the touch of a James Beard
chef. Prices, as they are at Lynhall, are slightly on the high
side, but significantly less than in the main dining room
Service at Alma is among the best in the Twin Cities, with
the wait staff and baristas always welcoming and
well-informed. The hotel is the perfect spot for visitors
with a car who want to avoid the traffic, hassle and expense
of downtown, Room rates come with a delightful breakfast
from the Cafe. The location is central to all the Twin Cities
sights, and the pro sports stadiums are nearby. Excellent
municipal buses service stops in front of the Alma building.

In St. Paul, Italian food impresario Dave Cossetta took his
grandfather’s tiny Italian grocery and transformed it over
time to a near-downtown location --- and one of the largest
food destinations in the state, featuring a popular Italian
cafeteria, its own Italian bakery, the most lavish pasticceria
between New York and San Francisco (and rivaling ones in
Rome, Milan and Florence), a high-end sophisticated
Italian steakhouse, and the largest Italian deli in the area.
A third-floor open air patio is a busy summer watering
hole. Nearly all the foods are prepared in-house, often from
recipes of well-known chefs brought over from Italy to train
COSSETTA’S kitchen staff. The restaurant has its own large
parking lot. Cossetta’s is a very memorable experience.

These are three very original versions of the new restaurant
as destination. What isn’t new about them is the high quality
of the food preparation and service. Changing economic
conditions and food trends demand new ideas in dining out,
but great food well-served is still the very bottom line.

[NOTE: In full disclosure, one of the three restaurateurs
above is a total stranger, one a neighbor acquaintance, and
one someone I’ve known for many years.]

Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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