Call it the “burden of expectation.” Restaurants are always subject to carrying this weight, as they attempt to align diner expectation with food-and-experience reality. The biggest danger comes when the hopes for a new restaurant are particularly high, either because the place is helmed by a well-known chef or because it seems especially promising in terms of location, decor, and cuisine. The Lowbrow falls into the latter category, and unfortunately comes up short when trying to deliver on that promise.
But my hopes aren’t dashed quite yet — the cheery enthusiasm of the new South Minneapolis burger-and-beer joint go a long way. Now, it’s time for a few more elements to bring the restaurant the rest of the way, so that it can pop into that coveted circle of neighborhood favorites. Let’s break it down:
Works: Owners Heather Bray and Jodi Ayres have stellar intentions when it comes to The Lowbrow’s food. The place doesn’t seem intent on capitalizing on the name in a gimmicky way, like serving hamburger goulash or gourmet TV dinners. Instead, they’re all about locally farmed, sustainably grown food, and they’re intent on making sure vegetarians and celiacs are equally happy as carnivores.
Needs work: Sometimes, when other people like a place but the food doesn’t seem to back up that opinion, it can just be matter of having ordered the wrong thing. In the case of The Lowbrow, we tried three times, first getting the homemade fish sticks ($11.75), then the “Old Blue” burger ($9.75) with blue cheese and bacon, and finally, a collection of the appetizers, like the deviled eggs ($2.00 each).
Each time, the food was okay, but not great. The fish sticks had good texture with their panko coating, but the seasoning leaned a bit heavily toward an Old Bay Seasoning blend. The burger was fine, although somewhat overcooked, and the snacks were good but not entirely memorable. Commenters: Please, blast us about how fantastic you found the food, because, believe me, I really wanted to find the place delicious and instead felt it was kind of “meh.”
Brunch: Brunch at The Lowbrow is a low-key and relaxing affair. For $21 (before tip), we got chorizo breakfast tacos, two coffees, a small pile of rosemary potatoes, and an Elvis sandwich (grilled sourdough bread with bananas, peanut butter, and bacon — we had the bacon held, which saved us $2). While nearly $10 for two small tacos was steep, the overall value of brunch was good — the Elvis was simple and satisfying, the tacos had some satisfying chorizo kick and a bit of good guac, and the potatoes were simply prepared and properly done. And kudos to The Lowbrow for offering brunch on Saturdays as well as Sundays, a rarity around here.
Works: My dad works for a beer distributorship, so I have a great deal of respect and love for the salt-of-the-earth kind of brews. But even his workplace, once fiercely loyal only to Anheuser Busch, has amped up the craft beer offerings considerably. The reason, I think, is that low-rent beers might be fun sometimes, but trying to drink two or three of them isn’t for everyone. Which is why it’s nice that The Lowbrow isn’t so true to its concept that it doesn’t have beers like Lift Bridge and Bell’s.
Needs work: The restaurant owners emphasize how much they want to stick with locally farmed ingredients, and they do pretty well with offering a good selection of beers on tap that are from the area. But having more local choices in bottles and cans would boost the beer menu and make the place more competitive with similar restaurants like Town Hall Tap. Also, the menu lists the origin of beers, but not of wines. That seems like a missed opportunity to show that they care about where their food and drink originate.
Awesome: The restaurant’s bear logo is scruffy and adorable, conveying a kind of vibe that’s welcoming but edgy. There’s something vaguely retro about it as well, which pairs well with the art inside — a mural that seems like a cute paint-by-numbers northwoods scene, until you notice the little cabin is actually on fire. The space is very open, thanks to the exposed ceiling and ductwork, so it carries a kind of loft-like groove.
Less awesome: Having such an open space is actually a bad thing as well as good. The restaurant is essentially made of concrete, it seems, which the owners have softened with pretty colors, but acoustically, everything just bounces. Adding loud music doesn’t exactly help. On my first visit, the place was packed and my dining companion and I — sitting at a hightop that put us approximately 18 inches from each other — had to shout at each other like we at a concert.
To summarize: The Lowbrow is a sweet, friendly place with a cozy feel. The service is spot-on, with cheery waitresses who seem to actually care about how you like the food. The fact that I found it lacking the first time around is due in some part to my own high initial expectations — but on the second and third visits, the same types of issues seemed persistent. If they could yummy-up the food, turn the music down when the dining room gets crowded, and keep expanding the beer list, it’d be a whole new ballgame.
BEST BET: In a word, brunch — it’s low-key, tasty, and served Saturday and Sunday.
James Norton contributed to this story.
Neighborhood bistro in Kingfield, Minneapolis
4244 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55409
Tues-Thu: 11am-11pm; Fri: 11am-midnight;
Sat: brunch from 10am – 2pm, dinner from 2pm-midnight;
Sunday: brunch from 10am – 2pm, dinner from 2pm – 10pm
OWNERS: Heather Bray and Jodi Ayres
ENTREE RANGE: $6.75-$11.75
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No