2019 Year in Review: Food

Country flavors, quality ‘Q, and numerous reboots define a busy culinary year in Minnesota

Some years it can be hard to make much sense of the “food story” in any given place. Restaurants open and close, people come and go, and patterns seem faint or downright illusory.

2019 was not one of those years.

2019 was the Year of the Country Chef, the Year of the North Loop (again!), and the Year of the Pitmaster. This is a year that the question “what does dining mean in Minnesota?” got a slightly more focused answer, as chefs and owners refined their concepts, opening, closing, and rebooting with a collective sense of possibility that taps into the strengths of northern food even while exploring new horizons such as barbecue and Cuban fare.

Poplar Lodge (L) Model Citzen (R) // Photos by Becca Dilley & Victoria Campbell

Head For The Hills (And Lakes, And Farms…)

Conventional wisdom suggests that talent follows the money and the people from the country to the town, and from the town to the city. If you can make it in Minneapolis or St. Paul, why go somewhere “smaller”?

That conventional wisdom is increasingly being upended or toppled complete—recent openings have seen some of the region’s brightest lights heading out to smaller towns and even to the countryside to commune with farmers, foragers, hunters, and artisan purveyors and build beautiful menus without the overwhelming noise and tension of urban food service.

It’s a theme that we explored time and time again this year: from the team at Poplar Haus on the Gunflint Trail to Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas’ farm-connected elevation of the dining scene at Model Citizen in New London, we explored the way talent can blossom far from the madding crowd. This month’s Minnesota Spoon stays on theme with our profile of Eric Halverson, the young chef (formerly of Left Handed Cook and Rabbit Hole) whose efforts at Rapids Brewing Company are changing the scene in Grand Rapids. Relatedly, a pop-up residency called Moose Bear Wolf sparked interest in Ely, and we told the story of Amy Huo, who changed the game for fine food in Eau Claire from her locally sourced, scratch-made food truck.

Animales BBQ // Photo by Tj Turner

The Hottest Letter Of The Dining Alphabet: Q

Ten years ago, it was a struggle to find barbecue in Minnesota worth talking about. But the last few years has seen an explosion in ambitious new options, perhaps climaxing this year with the opening of Minnesota Barbecue Co., Bark and the Bite, Animales at Able Seedhouse + Brewery, a BBQ pop-up at P.S. Steak, a new Firebox location on Marshall Ave., the relocated Market Bar-B-Que, and more. North Coast barbecue used to be about mushy texture and syrup-sweet sauce applied to everything on the menu; it’s increasingly about delicate smoke rings, beautiful burnt ends, legit brisket and more.

Key West Bistro’s Key Lime Pie // Photo by Tj Turner

¡Viva Cuba!

As trends go, it’s a small one. But for lovers of Cuban fare, 2018-2019 has been a very good year. Guavas Cuban Cafe (which opened at the end of 2018), El Cubano (June 2019), and Key West Bistro (October 2018) are all putting out plausible-to-delicious twists and classic renderings of favorites such as ropa vieja, cubanos, yuca frita, and cafes con leches. It’s one of countless signs that Minnesota has evolved past shredded lettuce and piles of cheese on hard shell tacos.

The White Hot North Loop

Anyone looking for the North Loop’s star to dim in 2019 probably instead had to invest in sunglasses, as the district has gone from hot to hotter with the opening of the ambitious Graze Provisions + Libations food hall, the massive, golf-centric Thr3 Jack, Isaac Becker’s trendy little Snack Bar, and more. The area’s increasing density and critical mass of places to eat and drink have only made it more attractive to culinary entrepreneurs, making it the default destination for downtown diners on the hunt for first-rate eats.

Chefs of newly opened restaurants: (L to R) Alejandro Castillon of Prieto, Gavin Kaysen of Demi, JD Fratzke of Falls Landing, and Marc Heu of Marc Heu Patisserie Paris // Photos by Victoria Campbell, Sam Ziegler, and Tj Turner

Some Spotlight Openings of 2019

Marc Heu Patisserie Paris opened off the radar on St. Paul’s University and Western Avenues, but its gorgeous pastry work has been turning heads ever since. The newly opened Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul is bringing far more than just breakfast to a lovely rehabbed fire station just off of West 7th Street. Kieran’s Kitchen has opened in the Food Building, replacing the former Draft Horse. Big, bold burger options have helped the newly opened Copper Cow in Minnetonka capitalize on the success of its predecessor, Copper Hen on Eat Street.

Noodles made fresh (and spectacularly right before your eyes) help give the newly opened Magic Noodle in St. Paul an edge over its rivals. Tacos are the specialty of the house at Prieto in Uptown, where the masa is ground daily, and the shrimp tacos rival (or perhaps exceed?) the excellent version at Sonora Grill on Lake Street. In Duluth, Taco Arcada launched as a taco/arcade hybrid by the powerhouse team behind Duluth Grill, Corktown Deli and OMC Smokehouse. And in Minneapolis, the former Meyvn has gotten a retrofit as a western outpost of the roaringly popular Mucci’s in St. Paul.

The steakhouse may be a venerable dining concept, but it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon—the high-profile Baldamar opened at Rosedale, Chef J.D. Fratzke’s Falls Landing has changed the dining landscape of Cannon Falls, and P.S. Steak has roosted in the former location for La Belle Vie. But when it comes to high-profile openings, perhaps nothing trumps Demi, the new pint-sized Gavin Kaysen prix fixe that’s short on elbow room but long on luxury.

Lucky Cricket’s original dining room decor before closing for renovation // Photo by Becca Dilley

Some Spotlight Closures of 2019

One of the year’s highest-profile closures, that of Lucky Cricket in St. Louis Park, wasn’t really a closure at all—it was a pause in service to let the restaurant retool and relaunch after a troubled first few months of service. There are parallels between that closure and reboot with the shutdown of high-end deli Meyvn in Uptown—owner Tim Niver rebooted the location as the Minneapolis incarnation of his popular Italian-American spot, Mucci’s. Similarly, Delicata in St. Paul has shut down and rebooted, pivoting from pizza to burgers as the new Foxtrot Burger Spot. Chef Shack’s Franklin Avenue restaurant is gone after a handful of years doing dinners and brunches, but the Chef Shack catering/food truck business persists, albeit relocated to a new headquarters in Bay City, Wisconsin.

Sadly, the venerable Russian Tea House in St. Paul really is gone for good—this adorable little dollop of a restaurant on University Avenue served some of the best borscht (and only piroshki, or “Russian hamburgers”) in the state. Likewise, Libertine is no longer jazzing up Uptown with its blend of rooftop cocktails and buoyant brunches.

The tragic death from the flu of chef Kyle Bell led to the closure of the mansion-based Forepaugh’s, a St. Paul staple for more than four decades. Justin Sutherland staple Pearl and the Thief closed in Stillwater at the very tail end of 2018, and was set to reopen in Minneapolis this year, but news about that transition has been scarce in recent months. The eclectic, chef-centered Martha’s Daughter made a big impact during its short tenure in Duluth, but it shut its doors this year amid reports of increasingly inconsistent food and service. Funky Grits took a strong shot at doing soul food in South Minneapolis and garnered praise for its State Fair food presence, but the restaurant has shut its doors and is reinventing as a cafe and catering operation.

We devote most of our column inches to writing about independent restaurants in the metro and beyond, but we couldn’t help but hail the passing of the Uptown location of Famous Dave’s as the end of an era—it always did huge numbers, and its live music program was a scene unto itself. The rapidly evolving corner of Lake Street and Lyndale in Minneapolis finally pushed out longtime tenant It’s Greek to Me, which kept its doors open for more than 30 years. As one of the original VPN (certified Neapolitan pizza) restaurants in the state, Pizza Nea helped pave the way for changing tastes in pizza. In a place without many reliable Caribbean restaurants, the loss of Marla’s in South Minneapolis will resonate for a long time. And while the Revival and In Bloom empire is going strong, fine dining fans paused this year to mourn the passing of farm-to-table pioneer and standout Corner Table.