Photo by Caitlin Abrams
You know when the other shoe drops, and you were in denial, holding your hands over your ears, and hoping it would never drop at all? People, it’s dropping. Foreign Legion, the terrific wine bar, pizza spot, and pretzel grissini wonderland in downtown Minneapolis (by Russell and Desta Klein of St. Paul's Frenchy award-magnet Meritage) is closing April 16. It was preceded in death by its sibling in the Soo Line building—Brasserie Zentral, which closed in January.
“There was a time I was sad, but that was long ago. Maybe eighteen months ago, when I knew this day was coming,” Russell Klein told me. “The writing was on the wall. Now we’re relieved, we’re happy; we’re looking forward to going back to focus on Meritage. Next year is Meritage’s 10th anniversary, and we want people to say it’s better than it’s ever been, we have a lot of plans to put in place that we’re excited about.” Like what? “Lots of things, things in the dining room, and we’ll be doing our first Bastille Day celebration, with Alliance Francaise.”
So, a full retreat to the friendlier streets of St. Paul? Indeed, Klein has retained the Foreign Legion name and branding and may at sometime or other bring it back to life—in St. Paul. He has not felt much love from the mean streets of Minneapolis. “It’s incredibly tough to make a go of it in the Minneapolis downtown core,” says Klein. “Minneapolis has the highest food and beverage sales taxes in the country, I guess to pay for all those stadiums; I hope Zygi [Wilf, Vikings owner] is enjoying himself. But the political and governmental regulatory environment is difficult,” he says. “When news of Zentral closing broke, I got a nice text from Chris Coleman [mayor of St. Paul] expressing condolences. I didn’t hear from Betsy Hodges, [mayor of Minneapolis], not from my councilperson, not from the councilperson who represents the district starting across the street, nothing. My only contact from the city of Minneapolis was an email from a license inspector saying: If you’re going to shrink premises you need to file a new permit application and pay a fee. Nothing about the 42 people who were laid off, nothing about the loss of tax base, just nothing. That’s the difference between Minneapolis and St. Paul now. In St. Paul, top to bottom, the government acts like they want you to be there. In Minneapolis, top to bottom, it’s very clear nobody gives a shit. It’s not a coincidence that Revival is opening their second location in St. Paul.”
Further compounding Klein’s decision to close; if he didn’t downsize his restaurant holdings in 2016, he would have had more than 50 employees, which under the Affordable Care Act would have required him to provide health insurance for everyone, at a cost of $300,000. “We weren’t making it before [in Minneapolis], and whatever the pros and cons of ACA, you can’t deny the cost is real. It sucks, because fundamentally Desta and I believe that health care is a right and not a privilege, but as a business owner, I don’t know where the money is supposed to come from.”
For those keeping track at home, Minneapolis’ downtown core, let’s say from 5th St. to 12th St., Hennepin to 2nd Ave. S., has in the last two years or so lost a ton of the chef-driven, food-first independents which were hitherto here. That list includes Solera, Vincent, Masa, Workshop at Union, Brasserie Zentral and now Foreign Legion. Remaining are hotel restaurants, including Marin, FireLake and breaker-of-all-rules steakhouse Manny’s, chains including the Capital Grill, Oceanaire, Fogo de Chao, and Ling & Louie’s. There are fewer independent hold-outs left than can be counted on two hands, including Italian favorite Zelo, Mission American Kitchen, Il Foro, jazz king the Dakota, the Local, Devil’s Advocate, and Barrio, and the nightlife-district stars Seven, Crave, and Union Rooftop. Does the Four Seasons really know what it’s getting into bringing the core downtown a “7,500-square-foot ‘world-class restaurant’”?
“I love it when out-of-towners are going to bring us a ‘world class restaurant,’” said Klein, laughing ruefully. “Like no one ever thought of that before.” We now will cast our minds back to Jean Georges Vongerichten’s and Wolfgang Puck’s notable failures on Hennepin Avenue, like fancy-cooking Napoleons strafed in the snows leading to Moscow. Well, that’s a bummer of a memory. Which we can pile on to this bummer of a moment. It’s in my nature to try to offer something hopeful here, but I’m really scraping for it. There are still ten days for impromptu pizza parties at Foreign Legion, so let’s all go and raise a glass and say: thanks for the memories Foreign Legion, we’ll never forget your pretzels, they were wonderful and we loved them. Thanks for trying, and see you in St. Paul.