PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENDA JOHNSON / HEAVY TABLE
This story originally appeared in the Churn newsletter, one of three published by the Heavy Table on Fridays via Patreon. Back us on Patreon to get the latest in culinary news and reviews every week.
This is a story that on the surface is about the Rathskeller Cafe at the Minnesota State Capitol. As it turns out, this review of the recently reopened dining space is about many other things too: History, perseverance, expectations, pride, regret, and a lot of what-ifs. Let’s take these one at a time.
History. The Rathskeller is in the basement of the State Capitol, designed by Cass Gilbert more than 100 years ago to honor the then-large German immigrant population. The cheerful beer hall and dining space was meant to welcome those immigrants with elaborate artwork and numerous German sayings. But times change, as they do. WWI brought some anti-German sentiments into play, then beer became unpopular and illegal (thanks, Andrew Volstead). The full-service German beer hall and dining room was painted over, hiding any trace of German decor, and it was turned into a cafeteria.
Decades elapsed before architects, an art conservator, and other consultants discovered what was hidden so many years ago and embarked on a project to restore it. The conservator and their assistants used scalpels to remove 22 layers of paint to bring delicate, detailed painting and 29 German mottoes back into view.
Perseverance. That was obviously an artistic process that required significant determination and perseverance to accomplish. But another kind of perseverance is needed to drop by the Rathskeller for lunch. The cafeteria is in the basement at the Capitol, which itself can be difficult to get to. Once you’re there, have fun finding public parking. When you’ve secured that achievement, go to the basement of the Capitol and follow the signs that say Rathskeller. There are several signs that keep you moving leftward, until unexpectedly another sign points right. Yet you’ve passed no noticeable eatery entrance. When we approached two women who appeared to work in the Capitol, they said they weren’t aware of any place to eat in the Capitol itself.
Finally we went to where the left and right signs pointed at each other and turned down a hallway between them. There, off to the side, was the Rathskeller.
What’s more, the Rathskeller is only open during the legislative session. So if you arrive for a building tour in the off-session season, you won’t be dining.
Expectations. We approached the Rathskeller with mixed expectations. Surely the restoration would be beautiful. But as far as the food goes, we didn’t expect much–this is essentially a government cafeteria open for a limited time each year.
Our expectations regarding the restoration were spot on–the space is beautiful and feels other-worldly. Even before lunch service began, building staff congregated there for coffee or working remotely from their office. The food was another story.
Pride. When we entered the cafeteria itself, we found a bright, cheerful space where we were promptly and enthusiastically greeted by a man who appeared to be the manager. He congenially explained the day’s offerings, pointing out the small but fresh-looking salad bar, grab-and-go deli sandwiches and salads prepared that morning, choice of soup or chili, and various grilled sandwiches that could be complemented with fries or tater tots. Near the grill, a young man began to fry burgers, using a tray of ground beef balls, which he carefully flattened onto the sizzling griddle. It smelled and sounded good. Overall, the customer-facing staff gave off a strong sense of being happy and proud of their work, which is certainly a good start.
We opted for a peppered bacon turkey club sandwich ($7) with a salad of Italian roasted vegetables ($4), a burger ($7) with fries ($2), and, because it seemed like the most Minnesotan things on the menu, a cup of chicken wild rice soup ($3.45) and the walleye burger ($9), which the manager proudly assured us was wild-caught from Michigan.
Regret. When it comes to the food, our expectations weren’t entirely wrong; the club sandwich was fine, a bit unexciting (there were no condiments on the sandwich, although there were packets of mayo and mustard available for diners). The turkey was lower-grade deli meat, nothing special. The roasted vegetables were also fine, although they could have used more seasoning. They had quite a bit of crunch that indicated the veggies were fresh, not frozen. Finishing out the trio of fine, the wild rice soup was just that, a solid rendition, nothing earth-shaking or different from a million other iterations across the state.
The burger and fries far exceeded our expectations. The burger was nicely seared and charred on the outside but still pink inside. The fries came straight out of the fryer, crispy on the outside, and properly salted. We saw several others munching on burgers and fries, and we understood why.
But then we tried the walleye burger. The walleye meat appeared to have been ground, then tightly packed into little breaded pucks which were fried. Whether trying to bite into them or pull them apart with fingers, they were incredibly tough. At worse, we’d expected an overbreaded fish filet with not enough seasoning, but we never dreamed of tough little fish slabs that were hard to chew and tasted fishy. You would do better to find out when Culver’s will have walleye sandwiches and buy theirs instead.
What ifs. The walleye left us surprised and disappointed, not least because the manager was so enthusiastic about it. It caused us to rethink everything we tried. Looking around, it appeared to be a fairly well-heeled group of diners, many of whom could likely pay more than the cafeteria prices. It seems like the Rathskeller is missing an opportunity to take things to a higher level. That’s not saying they have to go all in on fine dining. But why not be audacious and reimagine what cafeteria food could be? What about a turkey club with better quality meat, such as turkey roasted in-house? A walleye filet sandwich with housemade tartar sauce? As good as the burger was, why not play with toppings and other ingredients to raise it up a level? Instead of having just brewed coffee, what about an espresso bar?
But then we wondered, does that make sense for an eatery that has such a limited set of open hours? Presumably, tourists in the non-legislative times aren’t interested in eating there (although given the fact that if they wanted to visit the Capitol, but leave to get lunch and then come back, they risk losing their hard-earned parking spot), so maybe being open year-round doesn’t make sense. If they raised the quality, though, could it become a destination spot? Could signage around the Capitol make it easier to find? Could it someday return to its full glory as a full-service restaurant? With–hear me out–valet parking?
And doesn’t that beautifully restored space deserve that kind of renewal?