Best Restaurants

2012 Best Restaurants: Tastemakers

Here's to four bright lights of this year's dining scenes

Photographs by Stephanie Colgan & Katherine Harris
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Nate Beck/The Upstart

natedogs.com


Nate Beck is a hospitalitarian, even without a guaranteed 15 percent gratuity. And he’s not even a famous chef. He’s just a guy with a cart selling hot dogs—great hot dogs, with sassy mustard. He does this because he loves to eat them. Of all the people who populated our sidewalks and parking spots with mobile food this year, Beck is one who stands out.

You could say we chose Natedogs as an icon for the whole mobile food movement, which blossomed this past year. You could say we chose Beck because he is a symbol of the American dream—a man who risked everything to start his own business and who works hard for the future of his five (yes, five) daughters. You could say we chose him because he’s a damn snappy dresser with a wicked condiment belt. You could say all of that, and you’d be right, but you’d be missing the mustard.

In our Minnesota Nice food truck world, there isn’t the scrapping for space and the backhanded marking of territory that we hear rumored in other cities. Supporting his street brethren, Beck’s Twitter feed is alight with retweets of other trucks’ locations, promoting events where he knows his comrades will be. His infectious humor and great personality are not an act to sell more dogs—this is the real guy, whether you’re buying from him or selling next to him.

Where can this attitude possibly lead him? “Whatever I do, I want my children to know that serving others first is always more important than their own success. If I have several carts and a whole line of Natedogs condiments, cool! But if something else comes along, I won’t hesitate to pull up stakes and do something crazy all over again.” That’s the topping on the dog.

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BLUE PLATE RESTAURANT COMPANY/The Community Builders

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The owners of Blue Plate have redefined the mom and pop diner, just as our society has redefined the vision of the typical American family. Instead of the mister flipping pancakes in the back as the missus chats up the regulars, the mister is a large bald Aussie going a million miles an hour, and the missus is a firecracker, hugging the mayor and sitting on media panels. And they aren’t even married. Anymore.

David Burley and Stephanie Shimp married shortly after starting the company and, remarkably, kept it going after they split. Shimp’s brother Luke came aboard, and the three of them set about building an empire. From the original Highland Grill grew seven successful restaurants, with two opening last year. These urban diners/eateries have all the modern trappings—the right ingredients and the perfect balance of sass and comfort. But the key that keeps this company flourishing and will do so for the next 20 years is downright old-fashioned: the owners’ involvement in community.

It’s not about how many charity events you cook for or how many gift cards you dole out. Plenty are great at that. For the Blue Plate gang, it’s more about actually being in the mix. The owners don’t sit in some cushy corporate office, and they don’t eat from their kitchens alone. They are out supporting other restaurant openings and working with other owners to get community kitchens built. They know the names of the people who work for them, like Jim the line cook who just got a mortgage, because they think, “Oh, man, I have a responsibility to these people to keep it all going.” The owners have funded their growth entirely on their own, but they see their employees as their investors. This year is a year of internal cultivation for them. There won’t be any rapid growth that might explode what they’ve built. Their model for success, it seems, needs no redefining.

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Bittercube/The Barmen

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If you want to see where the mixology movement is going, look no further than the boys of Bittercube. Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz are bonded by bitters. They became friends out of mutual admiration for each other’s skills and became partners as they launched the Bittercube line of handcrafted boutique bitters, which have received national acclaim. But they have a bigger design on the world than merely a dropper full of flavor. The other two arms of the biz are events and consulting, which brings us to their latest project with Eat Street Social bar and restaurant.

On what was the seventh day of cocktail training before the new Minneapolis spot opened, Kosevich and Koplowitz put the bartending team through the paces. Drinks were made and remade if they weren’t up to par. Considering the amount of booze being slung, you’d think it was a bash. Instead there was nothing but serious professionalism and respect for the art of the drink. They craft next-level drinks, as composed an experience as anything you might get from the kitchen. Each has layers of tastes, thanks to hand-wrought syrups and flavoring agents such as Minnesota maple syrup, constructed into something that, for all its complexities, delivers beautifully and simply. It’s less about flash and dazzle than it is about a satisfying revelation.

Some think this is just another hipster-than-thou fascination, but consider that the North Star Bartenders’ Guild, of which Kosevich and Koplowitz are founding members, is out to educate any bar slinger (approximately 50 members as of press) with the desire. Pushing forward and educating the younger set means a happier and better bar scene for us all.

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Jim Smart/The Designer

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Stewart Woodman had an idea to have a New York graffiti artist paint one of the dining room walls in his new fine-dining restaurant. At some point, while driving to his cabin, he was gripped with doubt and questioned whether it was the smartest move. His designer never hesitated. He answered the chef’s waver with resolution: “If you want to make a statement, make it. Don’t water it down. Go with your gut.” If you’ve been to Heidi’s 2.0, you know what a commanding presence that wall has.

“These days, with food television and great recipes available online, people can eat great meals at home, so I think it’s important to put together an atmosphere that caters to the customers you want coming in to your restaurant,” says designer Jim Smart. “It should be a place to enjoy not only for the food, but your companions, the conversations, etc. If the walls are painted cream and there are beige drapery and lamps around, you might as well be home.”

Working with creative people who normally call all the shots is Jim Smart’s gift. He is like the babel-fish who can translate a chef’s world into the right design for him or her. This is important, because just as not every chef uses foie gras, not every restaurant should use the same pendant light. Smart’s work on moto-i is nothing like his work at Franklin Street Bakery, and thank goodness for that, because one trades in sake and the other in scones. In places built strictly for an experience, as restaurants are, Smart has a balanced vision from both the eater’s and the chef’s point of view.

Smart’s next two restaurant projects include the coming downtown spot Mona from chef Lisa Hanson, which promises dark Old World charm with edgy modern touches, and the light, healthy, and easy-eating Birdhouse project with the Woodmans, which, we’re sure, will be entirely different.

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