When you write about food, people like to ask you for a favorite restaurant. For me, favorite means different things, and so there has never been just one. I have a favorite for out-of-town guests and fancy occasions, for breakfast, for pizza, and for Korean food. But the most important favorite is the neighborhood restaurant I go to at least once a week because the wait staff is lovely, the atmosphere is charming, and the food is, without fail, great. For a long time, for years, that was the Craftsman Restaurant & Bar.
A dear friend and I used to meet there once a week to hash out our life and work conundrums over the Craftsman’s fantastic Manhattans (a toothpick stacked with house-macerated sour cherries before they were a thing), or for the brief time they were available, the wonderfully tanniny Emily’s Sumac. We liked the hummus, smoky and garlicky and surrounded by simple but pleasing vegetables — bright pink watermelon radishes, pickled cauliflower, parboiled green beans, and such.
Another good memory: Early one summer evening, some friends and I gathered in the big, black leather booth at the front of the restaurant for a birthday, I don’t recall whose. Someone had brought along a newish baby boy, the first in that group, and we passed him between us so the exhausted parents could eat. The sun was streaming in the front windows, I had a trout on my plate — butter, salt and pepper, and a pile of sweet corn succotash — and it felt like everything was right in the world.
There’ve been some hard moments, too. I’m only a little ashamed to say I’ve quietly wept at nearly every table in the place for various and sundry reasons.
Yet for a couple of years now, the Craftsman has been drifting downhill. Mike Phillips, who created the restaurant’s quiet New American aesthetic, left in 2010, eventually to create Red Table Meat Co. This was not terrible; his protégée Ben Jacoby took over the place and did a great job. But then Jacoby left in what felt like a dust-up, because a large portion of the wait staff followed him out — and then continued to leave until the old crew dwindled down to one. Along the way, we lost Steve Filla, Michelle Derer, and Jeff Mitchell, the restaurant’s adventurous mixologists. The menus stayed essentially the same, and the food was fine, but the restaurant had lost so much of its institutional knowledge that it couldn’t quite hit the stellar quality of food or service it had once offered. It didn’t seem to be trying.
So when I heard that Mike Dooley and Susan Kennedy-Dooley had sold the restaurant to Dale Wicks — a regional maintenance manager from Home Depot with a “passion for food and beverage” — I thought it might be a good thing. Wicks also owns The Waters Edge on Pleasant Lake, a restaurant and event venue in St. Cloud.
Well, truth be told, I worried about Wicks’ promise to update “the lounge,” which sounded suspiciously like a TV hanging over the Craftsman’s classic wooden bar.
Shortly thereafter, a menu popped up on the Craftsman’s new website. It reminded me of the places my grandfather and I used to frequent in his tiny Northern Michigan parish circa 1986 — beef tips, chicken Parmesan, red snapper, and lots of pineapple. But at that time, the website also carried the old Craftsman reviews extolling New American, seasonal, local food. Maybe, I thought, this will be a cheeky update on beef tip.
When we visited, the Craftsman’s old Best Of awards were still hanging on the wall, but the new owners had thrown sheer, white curtains, twinkly lights, and a swag of blue satin over the windows and white tablecloths over the tables. The waiters were dressed in black polyester uniforms, the menus coated in plastic.
Nearly everything that had made the Craftsman a charming, urban eatery and, well, arts and craftsy, was under wraps. And early tastes of the menu were not promising.
Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of warm rosemary bread. (“Where do you get the bread?” we asked. “US Foods,” she said.) There were bottles of olive oil and vinegar on the table, and we poured them onto a plate and dipped our bread. The vinegar looked and smelled like balsamic, but it had none of its body or sweetness — it was all pucker.
Gone the craft cocktails and well-curated wine and beer list. The Wood Carver ($9), billed as the Craftsman’s signature cocktail, had no distinguishing features outside of bourbon and sugar. (It was supposed to include fresh-squeezed orange juice, but I couldn’t taste it.) A Craftsman Cosmopolitan ($7) was similarly basic.
The Craftsman now offers wine by only two makers. On the House Wines list, you’ll find an array of Coastal Vines wines ($6 / $24). On the Tier 2 Wines, you’ll find Kendall Jackson ($8 / $32). (Isn’t second tier generally lower in quality?)
The Beef Tips ($12) were cooked to a perfect medium rare, but the meat itself had little flavor, and the mild horseradish dip it came with (served in a black plastic ramekin) didn’t add much. The tips were served with a pile of thin onion rings that were overly breaded, so they quickly cooled to a soggy mess.
Conversely, the Grilled Red Snapper ($28) was so thickly covered in Caribbean spices that it made the dining companions cough. It came, as many of the entrees do, on a bed of roasted red potatoes that had not been seasoned at all. This lack was offset by a seared relish of heirloom tomatoes so salty we wondered if it had been brined.
The new owners have kept a couple of Craftsman classics on the menu, albeit with their own twist: the Duroc French Cut Pork Chop ($25) and the Gourmet Craft Burger ($12).
We ordered the burger, and the waiter asked us if we’d like it pink or not pink. We answered the former. The burger came out in a brioche bun with lettuce, tomato, and allegedly, garlic aioli — it was cooked to a dull gray and so charred that all we could taste was the burn. An order of twice-baked potatoes (below) was similarly incinerated beyond edibility.
Of course the new owners of the Craftsman have to make their own aesthetic choices about the restaurant’s decor and menu. And while, in a town full of fantastic bakeries, it’s a shame not to bring in fresh, local bread, it’s not a crime. There are good restaurants all over town successfully ignoring the locavore trend. That said, the owners will have to figure out how to successfully do what they’ve chosen to do, if they want to stay open.
In the meantime, the new Craftsman’s cold interior and the ’80s menu sound a final death knell for those of us who live in the neighborhood and loved the old Craftsman.
And I’m not the only one here at Heavy Table who has great memories of the place. Joshua Page was a huge fan of the old Craftsman’s burgers. “It was just a really good, very straight ahead, burger,” he says. “Good cheese, good meat, good bun.”
“You know, I never got the aioli,” he adds. “I would just kind of dip it in their chili ketchup because I really liked tasting the meat. It was flavorful, clearly very fresh, and they always put a nice, even char on it.”
He and his then-girlfriend, Letta, were regulars. She’d have the vegetarian polenta, he’d get the burger, and they’d each have a mocktail. “We’d often sit at the bar,” Josh says, “and so we got to know the staff there — Jeff and Michelle and some of the other wonderful people — and it became a kind home-away-from-home.”
So much so, that when he and Letta decided to get married, they chose the Craftsman as the venue: “We love to eat,” he says. “For our wedding, we wanted to have a big dinner with family and friends at a restaurant we love.”
The wedding was in early fall. They planned to have the ceremony on the patio, under the Craftsman’s delightfully overgrown and birdy pergola, but it snowed. So Josh and Letta were married just inside the patio doors. Afterward, they sat down to a long-winded, delicious meal — there was charcuterie, there was salad, and folks had a choice of trout, polenta, or braised short ribs.
All except the ring bearer. “My nephew was pretty young at the time, six or seven,” Josh says. “They made him a really good grilled cheese sandwich. It was sweet.”
At the end of the night, guests — and the staff of the Craftsman — took home a print of the Craftsman (top), created by Adam Turman, a friend of the Pages. In the picture, the restaurant’s windows cast a dim, cozy light that perfectly captures the feeling of the Craftsman in its heyday.
“It was a really comfortable neighborhood place,” James Norton says. “It felt like an extension of my own home. And Becca [Dilley] and I had this kind of ongoing relationship with it. Sometimes Mike Phillips would see us come in and send out charcuterie just to say hello. It was never expected, and always super nice.”
One of the things that made the restaurant wonderful was that you could pretty much waltz in there any evening without a reservation and find a seat at the bar. “On a couple of occasions, we wouldn’t have any New Year’s plans,” Norton says. “We’d come in at 9 o’clock, grab a seat at the bar, have a cocktail, and just kind of relax. It was really low key, but it felt great.”
But for all its friendliness and relatively humble fare — charcuterie, pickles, house-made pastas, duck leg confit — the Craftsman was also a restaurant that you could bring friends from out of town to, knowing it would knock their socks off. “It was fairly simple, fairly straightforward,” Norton says. “But even though things were pretty soft-spoken on the menu, they were always just right — the flavors were right, the balance was right, and the mood was calm and enjoyable.”
As for me, I’m still looking for a quiet neighborhood spot to get a tasty cocktail, a great meal, and talk about stuff. Maybe the Birchwood will get a liquor license.
Fine dining on East Lake
4300 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55406
Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: No / No
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$38
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Small lot and street