For Minnesota’s Restaurant Scene, 2018 Was a Hell of a Year

Photos by Becca Dilley, Erin Hudson, Aaron Job, Kevin Kramer, Matt Lien, Wing Ta. Illustration by WACSO

Photos by Becca Dilley, Erin Hudson, Aaron Job, Kevin Kramer, Matt Lien, Wing Ta. Keg & Case illustration by WACSO

The state of independent restaurants in Minnesota in 2018 is not merely strong; it’s exceptionally strong. A number of high-profile openings and announced expansions leave diners with a glittering galaxy of choices that will only continue to brighten as we move into 2019.

First and foremost: Carefully curated mini-empires are expanding incrementally and wisely to make the scene stronger and more diverse. For example: Even as Spoon and Stable and Bellecour have retained fans and won converts, Gavin Kaysen and company have announced the upcoming opening of the North Loop’s new tasting menu-driven Demi. Hot on the heels of Young Joni’s explosive success and after years of prosperity at Pizzeria Lola, Ann Kim is poised to put a new spot into the former Lucia’s in Uptown. The always busy Travail team is opening a brewpub and putting the Minnesota BBQ Co. into Northeast Minneapolis. And the skillful team behind Duluth Grille and OMC Smokehouse opened the remarkably good Corktown Deli and Brews next door to a charming new ice cream shop, Love Creamery.

Soul food is experiencing a renaissance (and we’ve documented it in the pages of The Growler). Many spots are worth visiting, but we have particularly enjoyed the food at the new Funky Grits (the shrimp and grits are an obvious and correct choice) and the classic American fare at Model Citizen in New London (so good that it’s worth the drive).

On the fine dining side of things, Hyacinth and Colita both boasted openings that were smooth as glass and as soulfully luxurious as it gets. Both spots have killer cocktail programs, food that is beautifully manicured but still delicious, and service that is polished without pretense.

As Christina Nguyen has created a bold, autobiographical restaurant in Hai Hai, Ann Ahmed has done likewise with Lat14. Both spots are chic, polished, popular, and serving Southeast Asian food with real spice, depth, and funk, and they’re changing the way Minnesotans eat for the better. We also told the story this year of John Ng’s truly artisan ramen at Zen Box Izakaya, and while this is more of an ongoing slow burn than a flashy opening, it demands attention—he’s putting out noodle bowls with a depth and balance of flavor that would win favor in any part of the country (or world). Meanwhile, Yia Vang’s Union Kitchen is still going strong, redefining what Hmong cuisine means in a Minnesotan context.

Keg and Case deserves its own paragraph, as its opening this fall is one of the most significant food events of 2018 and will reverberate forward for years to come. In Bloom has come out of nowhere to become one of the boldest, most beautiful, and most ready-for-prime spots in the metro, pole vaulting onto center stage off of the strength of Revival and Corner Table. Spinning Wylde and House of Halva both do utterly off-kilter dessert (who is looking for upscale cotton candy or halva?) with a ton of skill and panache. K’nack is a humble sandwich shop / meat counter with classic roots, but it does some massively tasty sandwiches that are heavy on flavor and light on pretense. And old reliables like Five Watt, Sweet Science, Revival, and Bogart’s Doughnuts will keep traffic moving regardless of how newer concepts pan out.

There have been closures this year, too—we’ve lost some prominent spots including Rudolph’s, Be’Wiched, Smalley’s, Muddy Pig, Rabbit Hole, Heirloom, and Grumpy’s Downtown. But if you compare the incoming to the outgoing, the scene is still thriving—if not going wild. It has been a bountiful year.

For more, see our timeline of Minnesota Restaurant Openings and Closings from 2018