Shucking oysters in the face of doom: The staying power of Meritage

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The oyster bar at Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

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Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

G: Do you think that will be good enough to keep up? There’s a new food resurgence in St. Paul that maybe Meritage has blazed the trail for—places like Saint Dinette, Ox Cart. Do you think there will be a point where Meritage needs to evolve?

RK: We talk about this all the time: the need to constantly reinvest.

DK: Reinvest, not reinvent.

RK: As a chef, there’s always a fine balance between keeping dishes your customers love and come back for again and again, and also making sure there’s some fresh things that will interest them as well. I don’t have any problem continuing to do the things that people love. That’s what makes the restaurant successful. Nobody goes to see Madonna for the new stuff. It’s not that nobody comes here for the new stuff, they do. But I also understand that some people want the chicken every time. […] I tell people all the time that I think the most overrated quality in a chef is creativity. I believe it. Discipline and hard work matter more.

DK: The truth is that we’re hospitality-forward. You cannot only be creative and have a great kitchen. You cannot just be service-oriented. And you cannot just have a great space. It has to be all three. And we’ve got this amazing building, built in 1919. St. Paul has done nothing but become an amazing city that we’ve been privileged to grow with, and yes, I’d like to think that we’ve ushered in some of that growth. That’s been a really symbiotic thing and a really beautiful thing to watch happen. What we do here in a lot of ways is timeless. People want a place that’s going to make them feel good and look good. They want a place that knows their name—old-school hospitality. And the food has to be goddamned good.

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The dining room at Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

RK: Working hard to make sure that the staff are happy and satisfied with their work here is a key factor in our success. We’ve had servers who have been here almost since we opened. That’s a rare thing. The average tenure of our wait staff here is around five years. That makes a huge difference with even semi-regular customers. Their server recognizes them, and they recognize their server.  That provides a level of comfort and consistency to the experience that’s really vital.

DK: And experience is a key word, because it’s not just about eating. It’s about how you feel while you’re doing it, you know? Front to end. And that’s a trademark difference with Meritage—our staff genuinely cares about the guest experience, it’s in the bones of this building and this restaurant. We have our identity. And we try to be open to all; you’ll come in here and see people in Wild jerseys sitting next to people wearing ball gowns and tuxes. I love that about this place. Our diversity is what makes us strong. Russell brings the pedigree of cooking with Jacques Pépin, working in New York. I’ve got the blue-collar work ethic and the drive to make this place accessible to everyone.

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Diners at Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

G: So, tell us about the closing of Brasserie Zentral in Minneapolis. What didn’t translate there that seems to work for Meritage so well?

RK: Location, location, location.

DK: That was a huge aspect. But also, it was one of those things where literally everything that could’ve gone wrong, did.

RK: It’s like they say about battle plans—they don’t survive the first shot of the war. Opening restaurants is like that, too. The downtown business core of Minneapolis is an incredibly challenging location. I don’t think we recognized that until it was too late.

DK: And we have enough humility to know that the project was huge; there are things we could’ve done differently.

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Oysters at Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

As people who have been through it, and know both the success and failure, do you think it’s suicidal for someone to open a fine dining destination restaurant in the business core of downtown Minneapolis?

DK: God, I hope not, but I think yeah—probably. I don’t think anytime soon, unfortunately. People need to understand that menu prices are going to have to rise, because of basic economics. All commodities have gone up, all labor costs have gone up. […] There were so many factors. The amount of construction happening in the downtown business core made access difficult, parking is expensive and hard to find. And we’ve got this really nasty business climate in downtown Minneapolis. I think it’s really disingenuous to not address that directly.

RK: Vincent, Masa, Il Foro, Zentral—all gone. I mean, the only thing that’s working down there is the steakhouse.

DK: Zentral was a beautiful experience. We were proud of the menus, proud of everything we put out of it. So it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but at the end of the day I’m happy to have gone through the experience.

RK: What makes Meritage last, ultimately, is our personal investment. The fact that one of us is here pretty much all the time.

DK: With our 10th year coming up, we’re going to be making some additions to the dining room, revamping some things—you have to continue to reinvest. And the investment in downtown St. Paul and the utter change St. Paul has gone through in the last two years has been incredible. It used to be tumbleweeds in downtown.

RK: The administration of Chris Coleman, and what the mayor’s office has done down here, you continue to see the benefits. […] They work hard here to make sure the gears of government are turning and working for you.

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A bartender pours a beer at Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

G: I get the sense that a great restaurant that lasts is an iterative process—constant investments over time, tweaks, adjustments, refinements.

RK: I think we’ve always continued to get better. I’m a better chef than I was nine years ago.

DK: It starts with us. We’re the ones who travel to meet the oyster farmers and establish those connections. We’re the ones who continue to train ourselves about other restaurants and other cuisine and wine, and what’s happening across the globe, not just here. We bring it all back and educate our staff, and they pass it forward, so it’s like this cool thing. Honestly, I feel like I’m a steward of something that’s bigger than me, and it’s an honor to do that.

RK: We’ve created this thing that has a life of its own now. After nine years, we’ve never been busier. This summer is the busiest summer we’ve ever had. By far. Some of that is us, being here nine years, and some of it is the city growing around us.

DK: And our guests—there’s something about our regulars, the people who come to Meritage all the time. They’re a reflection of what we do, too. It’s their appreciation of what we do that helps us do it. The fact that they keep coming back to support us.

RK: Everybody eats dinner. At the end of the day, you know, it’s just dinner. And tomorrow it’ll be shit. Everyone takes it so seriously—people take it too seriously sometimes, you know. It’s just dinner. Let’s keep it in perspective.

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Photos by Domini Brown

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