There’s no denying that restaurants exert a significant pull on our emotions. They’re places where we fall in love, make friends, celebrate, and raise our families. Our lives have a tendency to segregate themselves into gastronomic eras. Instead of “my late twenties,” it’s “yeah, that’s when we were always eating at that Mediterranean place on Grand Avenue, right?”
With the shuttering last week of the nationally known Nye’s Polonaise Room, it seems like an appropriate moment for our entire staff to engage in some serious nostalgia, in this case, for the restaurants, bars, and scenes that we once frequented but can never return to.
We throw out these memories in an effort to figure out what makes a place sink its hook into our minds. It’s clearly not price, judging by the number of bars and dives that we’re fondly recalling. If you’ve got a place (or two) you’d like to publicly remember, post it in the comments or tweet it our way. This is a conversation close to our hearts.
Two Pesos | Minneapolis | Closed 1995-ish
Remember when Uptown was grungy, filled with head shops, record shops, used clothing stores, dive bars, and an occasional mainstream retailer? Heck, traffic on Lake Street went in BOTH directions! Among the many bygone shops and restaurants, I fondly remember the Houston-based chain Two Pesos. You could get a cheap, slushy-style margarita and a fresh basket of chips for under $2. Most of the entrees were under $5, with the most expensive being beef fajitas at around $10. They were probably one of the first “patio-cafes” in Minneapolis, with a trend-setting focus on fresh ingredients as opposed to prepackaged, a fresh salsa bar, and house-made tortillas. And the industrial — forward thinking — open garage door interior was perfect for Uptown in the late ’80s into the ’90s. — Brenda Johnson
Atlas Deli | Madison, Wis. | Closed 1998
The word “gourmet” doesn’t begin to describe Atlas Pasta, a short-lived but brightly shining deli that made a permanent impression on many Madison residents in the late ’90s. Its meats and cheeses were painstakingly sourced and top notch, its sandwiches were big enough and good enough to give a Manhattan deli a serious run for its money, and its other wares — oils and vinegar and spreads — were as lovely as they were expensive. We remember buying a $20 bottle of olive oil at Atlas — a fortune in undergraduate financial terms, mind you — on the theory that any olive oil that expensive must taste amazing and transform even ordinary bread into a feast. And so it did. The credible story that we heard about its closure is that the owner simply couldn’t retain any help who could meet his punishing standards. — Becca Dilley and James Norton
Taqueria Gila Monster | Madison, Wis. | Closed 1999
College is a time when the palate expands, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps to impress a date. This suburban high school student’s exposure to Mexican food was hemmed in by Taco Bell on one side and mediocre food-service Tex-Mex on the other. So it was that Madison, Wisconsin’s Taqueria Gila Monster, located on the far side (and thus the wrong side for an underclassman) of the Capitol from State Street and the UW campus, made a bold and still vivid impression. It was cheap enough for a student’s budget, and the food was extraordinary. I tasted flavors at Taqueria Gila Monster that I have searched for for 20 years and have never been able to find, neither in the most authentic Mexican restaurants nor my own culinary experimentation. Maybe it was just the combination of chipotle (back when that word was still new) and cinnamon, or maybe it was something more exotic. Either way, I’d love a chance to go back to King Street in the late ’90s and eat there one more time. — Ted Held
Waterfront Coffee Co. | Excelsior, Minn. | Closed 2000
A small-town cafe with tables and counter service, a large, shiny griddle, a cook in a grubby white apron, and darned fine breakfasts. This little place on Excelsior’s Water Street was a favorite of mine and my son’s, when he was very young and we’d go there for breakfast before school. He loved the homemade chocolate muffins, and I loved the “hash brown omelet” — an egg-free omelet full of crispy, fried-in-front-of-me hash browns, cheese, peppers, onions, and sometimes a little sausage gravy over the top. Friendly staff, and they watched out for a certain local who would appear with no money and a rambling story, and they’d give him some coffee and some small thing to eat. It doesn’t get much more hometowny than that. When the owners sold it and the new owners opened a sushi restaurant, we couldn’t even bring ourselves to go in. — Amy Rea with help from the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society
Mother’s Day Downtown | Minneapolis | Aquavit Closed 2003
This was a very long time ago. We used to go to Tejas (remember the Galleria on Nicollet Mall?). Before they moved to Edina. Before they closed for good. The food was exquisite, and they had a great Mother’s Day brunch that included a free family photo, a Polaroid. I recall a prominent restaurateur, who will remain anonymous, telling me that the owner of Tejas had moved to Edina and dumbed down the menu because he wanted to make money. Expensive downtown real estate is hard to overcome. Later we went to Aquavit for Mother’s Day brunch. I loved their bright, colorful, light-but-intense flavors, and even the beauty of the tableware. But they, too, closed. We haven’t been to Mother’s Day brunch since, so no restaurant need fear our approach. — Jane Rosemarin
Nino’s Pizza Plus | North Minneapolis | Closed Mid-Aughts
My cousins, aunts, uncles, and I always went to Nino’s, a closet-sized space with an overstuffed menu, after our little league baseball games for the “plus.” Dominating the tiny room in our dirty uniforms, we would devour classic open-faced hot turkey sandwiches with perfectly rounded ice cream scoops of mashed potatoes, and wooden bowls of iceberg salad covered in bright red French dressing. The pizza wasn’t bad, either. It was classic Midwest-style, decently crispy thin crust, but cut into — gasp! — slices, as opposed to rectangles, and showered with oregano. The waitresses were quick with the chocolate milk refills, and the entire place had that quintessential feel of a neighborhood anchor. I miss it. — Peter Sieve
The Uptown Bar | Minneapolis | Closed 2009
Every time I walk down Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, I marvel at the fact that the chipper, well-intentioned Apple Store employees mostly have no idea that they’re standing on the ruins of Uptown’s last great dive bar and music venue. The Uptown’s food game was strong — I went there constantly for one of the best flat-top burgers in town, a half-pounder, juicy and classically presented. Most unexpectedly, a sleeper hit on their menu was the veggie plate: a massive platter of lovely, fresh-cut veggies of all kinds accompanied by a wading-pool-sized side of house-made ranch dressing, which made a damn great fry dip, too. It’s such a drag that where so many of us once sat under the summer sun on the parking lot patio, sipping Bloody Marys and fighting the hangover we acquired there the previous night, there now stands a table full of iPads. But that’s Uptown in a nutshell, isn’t it? — Peter Sieve
Jolly Bob’s Jerk Joint | Madison, Wis. | Closed 2014
The Caribbean food at Jolly Bob’s Jerk Joint on Madison’s East Side was always fair-to-middling, but the food was never really the point. Jolly Bob’s had a tropical drinks program the likes of which I’ve never seen before or since (and will likely not see again until actually visiting the right place on the right island at some happy future date).
There were a good 50 different rums and cachacas behind the bar, and the staff knew how to use all of them with consummate skill. The classic daiquiri (nothing foamy or sweet in this pure spirits bad boy) was a thing of beauty, and the caipirinha was stronger, fiercer, and better tasting than anything I’ve had since. Perhaps the best thing about Jolly Bob’s was the Sea Foam, a rum and blue Curaçao drink that tasted pleasingly nonalcoholic but packed a completely unexpected mammoth wallop. (A designated driver was a must at Jolly Bob’s.) On a cold winter day, with no sign of spring in sight, a visit to Jolly Bob’s was an instant ticket to a boozy, cheerful, island paradise. — James Norton