The demise of a seemingly thriving restaurant is cause for puzzlement and there was plenty of that to go around Sunday night at Palomino, the, now, ex-restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Many of the night’s diners, disgorged from a Lorie Line show, had no clue they were witnessing a swan song, only that there was an open restaurant with validated parking on a cold and snowy night.
Palomino opened nearly twenty years ago in LaSalle Plaza: its bold interior, art-glass chandeliers, and huge knock-offs of legendary twentieth century painters made it an iconic space with trendy fare. Believe it or not, there was a time when rotisserie cooking and wood ovens were scarce. Palo heralded the second wave of modern downtown dining, as Target Center rendered the Warehouse District inhospitable for the austere but excellent temples of cuisine that were the New French and Faegre’s.
Palomino was a product of Restaurants Unlimited, the Seattle operator that brought us Kincaid’s. RUI, as it is known, has gone through creative peaks and valleys (more valleys) in the last two decades, but in the day was pumping out good restaurants. This was before the locavore era, before the anti-corporate backlash, when the Hennepin Theater District was nascent and Palomino was its watering hole.
That was Palomino’s cross to bear (as well as a huge source of patronage), as the suburbanites who populate HTD’s musicals and corny shows (A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol , anyone?) visit downtown reluctantly. They would stream into Palomino at 5 p.m. with little food knowledge or interest in broadening their horizons. One day a Palo server started explaining to me what basil tasted like and I wondered if I hadn’t woken up in Minot. The bar crowd was livelier and smarter and that’s where I’d decamp to in latter years as Palo would flag then rise again. The happy hour menu was always a steal, the food generally good if often unexceptional, and the vibe lively but not raucous.
As best as anyone can discern, Palomino had dared its landlord to call its bluff on raising rent, thinking in these tough times it would find no better alternative, but Crave, flush with investor cash and the hubris success brings, came through and is making good on what a staffer insisted was Palomino’s idea to create a rooftop terrace. The sour feelings are best indicated by Palomino’s mid-December eviction. What landlord passes up the mass of parking fees and percentage rent at the busiest food/drink weeks of the year?
Palomino says it’s looking at new locations downtown, and my sources say that’s true, but it will be hard-pressed to find a sweeter spot to snare its customer mix. Twenty years ago, RUI’s marketing veep bought me lunch at Faegre’s to ask what Minneapolis diners wanted. My advice: validated parking. It was probably worth six figures in revenue to the joint annually. I later reviewed Palomino favorably and that stupid Caesar salad created a ruckus.
Now we’ll have to go without chop-chop salads, the creamy rigatoni Bolognese, those killer waffle fries with blue cheese, the chicken under a brick, and all varieties of Copper River salmon. (The Dungeness crab dip is available at Kincaid's.) Minneapolis is a much better food town than in 1990, but I dare you to name five places downtown with the mix of good-enough food, a real sense of place, and the kind of downtown vibe Palomino had. By 2010, it wasn’t fashionable, but it was us.