Grand Designs: Alma is expanding to make you feel more at home

The Alma Building // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The Alma Building // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Have you ever been to Restaurant Alma? The acclaimed restaurant has been quietly sitting on the corner of University and 6th Avenue Southeast in Minneapolis for 17 years now, while Dinkytown was razed and rebuilt with luxury apartments and St. Anthony Main has waxed and waned.

It’s not new or hot, and you can’t sum up the essence of Restaurant Alma in one sentence and still do it justice, but I’m beginning to think that’s what owner and chef Alex Roberts prefers. In fact, he practically designed it that way, though he wouldn’t have the pretense to assume in 1999 that he’d built a spot that would endure two decades of seasonal, locally sourced, oft-changing menus.

The new Cafe Alma is taking shape // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Alma’s cafe and hotel are taking shape // Photo by Aaron Davidson

He designed it to be unassuming, elegant, and, above all, authentic to the guest experience. The banquettes, tables, and chairs were made from plywood and put together by Roberts and his brother. In the late afternoon sun they show their wear, but in the dimly lit dinner service they’re cozy and personable. Concrete floors honor the original space (and were less expensive than hardwood or tile).

“We said, okay, how can we take simple materials and make them work for this environment?” explains Roberts, covering his cooking philosophy in the same breath. Dishes at Restaurant Alma are ingredient-driven, prepared in a style true to their origins and cooked in an entirely exposed and miniscule space that gives new meaning to the phrase “open kitchen.” So while you’re enjoying a refined tasting menu, you can keep the line in view, see the towering jars of prepped and labeled ingredients, and feel a little less intimidated by the idea of a tasting menu.

Alex Roberts at Restaurant Alma // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Alex Roberts at Restaurant Alma // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“It’s a place where I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know what an ingredient or technique is,” one diner told me. “It’s not too shiny,” she shrugged by way of explanation, picking one particular design word to represent a whole lot of emotional baggage tied to eating in restaurants.

Related Post: Alex Roberts on the history and unexpected virtue of masa

Restaurant Alma is about to get a little shinier, however, spurred on by Roberts’ purchase of the entire building. Now that he’s made his way through the not-insignificant legal obstacles necessary to make it happen, construction has begun on Café Alma and a six-room boutique hotel on the building’s second floor. How will the identity of Restaurant Alma extend into these permutations? I spoke with Roberts alongside Abby Jensen of James Dayton Design, the firm Roberts has trusted with the redesign, to find out the direction these spaces are taking.

The cafe next door

“I never think it works to try to shape the guest, or try to make design make people react in a certain way,” Jensen says right off the bat. But subtle cues add up: just as the honeyed wood and simple tasting menu at Restaurant Alma make that diner feel comfortable asking questions, the visual nods at the café will signal different behavior.

The lobby and dining room of Cafe Alma // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The eventual lobby and dining room of Cafe Alma // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The entrance to the building will be consolidated into one front door, one check-in desk. The minute you step inside, you’ll catch sight of the pastry case. It’ll be just like any coffee shop—any coffee shop run by Alex Roberts, that is. A bar will take up a large portion of the extending room, but the seats will be on an elevated curb, another nod to patrons that it’s okay to settle in, stay a while. A few clusters of chairs along the wall say the same: “You can wait for the bus, you can wait for someone to join you,” says Roberts.

“I keep thinking of the café as Alma’s little sister. It’s a little more boisterous, a little younger, a little louder, but it’s along the same lines,” Jensen says. The theme of utilitarian materials will definitely carry over, with tile and plenty of the original hardwood floor from the building’s circa-1906 construction in the plans. “I’m the one having to deal with maintaining things,” says Roberts, explaining why he pushes for hardworking surfaces.

Abby Jensen of ___ Design // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Abby Jensen of James Dayton Design // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The design, it sounds like, will be the visual match Roberts would have dreamed up for Alma’s menu if he’d had the funds to make it happen in the early days. “Interesting fabrics, a lot of textures,” hints Jensen, talking tile patterns and window treatments. “Something that reminds you of being somewhere else.”

“We hope you can’t place it,” Roberts adds. “We want our design to reflect that the flavor is good wherever it comes from. It’s the mix of influences that make it that thing.” That thing being Restaurant Alma, a restaurant that resists being boiled down to a singular theme.

Not that there isn’t a place for that in the market—in fact, that’s what many of us flock to, what we can easily understand. Roberts was especially wary of this tendency when building Brasa. He recalls a proposal for cut-out metal chickens along a half-wall, an idea he immediately dismissed. “It’s not authentic,” he says. He stuck to cinder blocks and concrete floors, “honoring the materials for better or for worse.” Clearly, it worked.

Next page: Going behind the scenes

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