Much has been written about the thriving nature of the Upper Midwestern restaurant scene and we don’t mean to disagree with that overall conclusion. That said: there are still some gaps that could be filled, and the following concepts are modest proposals as to what those gaps might be, and what delicious food might be plugged into them.
1. City of Latkes — Deli with a Minneapolis Twist
THE PITCH: Minneapolis is the City of Lakes. How easy is it to take that slogan and apply it to a new Jewish deli called City of Latkes? And then do a small menu of lovingly crafted Jewish deli food including excellent latkes? (Yes, this would probably mean some sort of wild rice vs. latke culinary throwdown, but this could be done with grit and panache.)
THE COMPETITIVE CONTEXT: Reliable, tasty deli food is reasonably scarce around these parts. Rye was meant to be our savior, but the food has been hit or miss. Cecil’s scratches the itch, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of the 2nd Avenue Deli. City of Latkes would bring the Yiddish-inflected comfort food while playfully riffing on the local environment. Plus, seriously: the name! Beyond that: perhaps its time to push past the false choice of sour cream versus applesauce and explore some 21st Century latke customization options.
2. An Alternative to Tobies (Opie’s? Moby’s? Toobees?) — Semi-scratch made food halfway to and from Duluth
THE PITCH: There’s a screaming need for a decent food option — both sit down and grab-and-go- – halfway between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Duluth. Instead, we’ve got the once-great and still nostalgia-inspiring Tobies, now a purveyor of Denny’s-level food from bags, touting itself as “Minnesota’s Famous Half Way Stop!” while phoning in the grub. Why not open a similarly positioned restaurant with a smaller menu, a fair bit more scratch cooking, and a killer sweet breakfast app — perhaps grandma-style fresh fried cinnamon sugar doughnuts?
THE COMPETITIVE CONTEXT: Tobies thrives because it provides accessible, understandable food in a perfect “halfway there” location. Grab real estate in that same neighborhood, talk up the scratch cooking, and let the Exit 183 wars begin.
3. The Candelabra — Candlepin Bowling and Craft Beer
THE PITCH: Candlepin bowling is like regular bowling or skee-ball in that it’s a low-pressure way to “do a sport” while drinking and eating fried food. The major difference is that candlepin bowling is far, far more entertaining than anything else like it because (a) you get three balls per frame, (b) you can basically whip the ball down the lanes at around 40mph, and (c) no special shoes are required. The Upper Midwest is ripe for it. Minds would be blown.
THE COMPETITIVE CONTEXT: There are plenty of bowling-plus-food options around here (everything from Pinstripes to the newly opened Town Hall Lanes) and Pat’s Tap makes a stab at skee-ball, but there’s nobody providing legit New England candlepin fun. Novelty alone would compel everyone from 21 to 35 years old to make a visit and if the house-brewed beer and food is passable-to-good, they’ll be back, with friends. Add a really good Five Guys / In-n-Out-ish burger – not too thick a patty, “medium rare” means medium rare, a nice balance between toppings, bun, and meat – and you’d kill it. It would be deader than one of these aluminum-coated fire ants.
4. Tantalus –– Where You Never Get What You Want
THE PITCH: At Tantalus, the food is always fresh, seasonal, clever, and surprising. You just can’t typically get what’s on the menu. It’s out, or it has been changed, or it arrives at your table looking entirely different from what you were planning on. Designed for the diner who is ready to move on from the entertaining chaos of Travail to an entirely new brand of entertaining chaos.
THE COMPETITIVE CONTEXT: As a restaurant designed around the concept of confounded expectations, Tantalus would have very little in terms of actual competition, and could — if executed with panache and craft — win a loyal following of adventurous eaters. It takes a certain type of personality to enjoy ordering a steak and receiving, instead, a pile of steak tartare, a miniature hamburger, and a skewer of chicken yakitori (skewer = stake! ha!), but that sort of personality would thrive on the creative chaos of Tantalus.
5. Ramen Stop –– An oasis on the way to Madison
THE PITCH: This is actually a restaurant that Wisconsin needs, but Minnesotans would benefit. Somewhere past Eau Claire but before Tomah, let’s fire up a high quality, reasonably inexpensive ramen and dumpling restaurant accessible via the highway. Ramen would be slung in combine-as-you go dual noodle / broth containers that fit into your cup holder, there’d always be a seasonal ramen of the day, and the overall flavor impact would be light-years away from the soul-deadening procession of Culver’s and Taco Bells that comprise most of the highway exit dining on the way south.
THE COMPETITIVE CONTEXT: The majority of people driving 90/94 from the Twin Cities to Madison just want to grab some cheap fast food and keep moving quickly. But you don’t need a huge slice of all that traffic to have a busy and buzz-worthy roadside restaurant.
6. The Moo Shu Hut — A savory pancake house
THE PITCH: All moo shu, all the time. Pork moo shu. Vegan moo shu. Chicken moo shu. Scallop moo shu. Moo shu of the Month. Pancakes would be house-made on the fly in great big generous stacks, the fillings would have touches of farmers market ingredients, and the hoisin sauce would be a scratch-made compromise between the chemical sweetness of the standard condiment and the sometimes-too-austere-and-serious scratch-made condiments of the world (we’re looking at you, house-made ketchups).
THE COMPETITIVE CONTEXT: Mushu pancakes + filling have the potential to be the best thing on the menu at a Chinese takeout restaurant, but they inevitably disappoint around here due to sad, flabby little pancakes, greasy and / or damp filling that tastes like packing material, and the historic availability of three pancakes when 5-7 are actually needed. Moo Shu Hut would step into a gaping void that few people have mentally acknowledged and become dependable fast casual comfort food, like the rice bowls slung at World Street Kitchen. Could Moo Shu Hut start as a food truck? Absolutely no doubt about it.