La Belle Vie, the most important restaurant in Minneapolis, is closing. Last day: Oct. 24, one day shy of their 10-year anniversary at the current Minneapolis location. Before that they had been open for seven and a half years in Stillwater, bringing the grand total run of the restaurant to some 17 1/2 years.
In that time, the restaurant, led by chef and owner Tim McKee, won countless local awards for its food, cocktails, and wine, and nurtured a generation of chefs who went out to make their own restaurants, creating a constellation of competition which represents at least a third of the top restaurants in Minneapolis. Even a cursory list of McKee mentees, both at now-closed Solera and at La Belle Vie, would contain Minneapolis’ three most recent winners of the Food & Wine top ten chefs in America (which McKee also won once): Jim Christiansen, of Heyday, and Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone of forthcoming Brut. But the list would also include Sameh Wadi of Saffron and World Street Kitchen, Jack Riebel of Il Foro, Mike DeCamp of Monello, Don Saunders of The Kenwood, Matthew Bickford of Icehouse, Lucas Almendinger of Co-op Creamery, Sean Smalley of Smalley’s Barbeque (which McKee still partly owns), pastry chef Diane Yang of Spoon and Stable, Adam Eaton of Saint Dinette, and many, many more.
La Belle Vie was also enormously influential in crafting Minnesota’s beverage landscape. Longtime La Belle Vie sommelier Bill Summerville, now an independent wine consultant, was responsible through his list at La Belle Vie for some significant part of Minneapolis’ focus on wines from small European vineyards. The restaurant also started the local craft cocktail revolution with longtime maverick bartender Johnny Michaels; just last week La Belle Vie’s current bartending team, led by Adam Gorski, won the city’s top bartending competition, Iron Bartender.
Several of the 40-some employees losing their jobs in this closure have been with McKee at La Belle Vie for the entire 17 1/2-year run.
Why is Minneapolis’ only fine-dining restaurant and one of its most beloved spots closing?
In an interview this morning, McKee pointed to a number of factors. “It’s never a singular why,” he said. “Fine dining is a very, very difficult niche to fill. The demand is lower, and the costs are significantly higher. Our forks are $5 each. Our staff is the most expensive you can get, too. When you’re running a business like this in which the margins are incredibly small, whenever anything happens, you feel it right away.” The road construction outside the restaurant all summer, he noted, didn’t help.
But the restaurant has been teetering ever since the state of Minnesota instituted higher minimum wages without a tipped employee credit. “We had to raise the minimum wage for all our tipped employees—bartenders, servers, wait assistants, food runners. The real failing is that the government recognizes their real wage in regards to taxation,” requiring them to declare the tips that tipped employees receive on their credit-card billings, “yet the government doesn’t recognize it in terms of the minimum wage. On their W-2, you’ve got people earning $25-$40 an hour, but I was required to raise their wages. Do I think people should be able to afford their lives, and make a living wage? Absolutely, in every way. But these laws treat restaurateurs as if we’re monsters maltreating our employees. There’s such a shortage of workers in this town, if we weren’t taking good care of our employees they could walk out the door and get five jobs more agreeable to them tomorrow.”
And if he has been losing money since the new minimum wage, instituted in August, McKee believes the forthcoming package of new laws proposed by the City of Minneapolis, the Working Families Agenda, will make things far worse. This agenda includes punishment for restaurants who cut employee shifts on short notice, when sales aren’t there—as is routine in Minnesota for snow, extreme cold, or other unpleasant weather—or who ask employees to work an unscheduled shift, as is routine for last minute parties. “The Working Families Agenda is horrible, horrible,” says McKee. “I really feel betrayed by [Mayor] Betsy Hodges. She came in saying she was pro small business, and is now pushing an agenda that is so far from small business-friendly that it’s absurd.”
I met with McKee in his office at the restaurant company Parasole, hours before he broke the news to his staff; he looked drawn and thin. “I don’t want to focus on the whys and the hows,” he said, changing the subject. “It’s really hard. I’d like to celebrate the accomplishments of La Belle Vie, that’s what helps me cope. When we opened La Belle Vie, cooks did not go out and open their own restaurants.” As a critic who has covered Minneapolis since starting as City Pages’ restaurant critic in 1997, I can vouch for that; La Belle Vie was one of the first in the city of chef-driven, small-farmer focused restaurants, helping to create the template, alongside other pioneers like Lucia Watson, that scores of later restaurants would follow.
“My original intent with La Belle Vie was not to make the best restaurant, the original intent was to make a little neighborhood restaurant. But people kept saying: This is the best restaurant in Minnesota. When we moved, we decided that if that’s what everyone thinks, let’s dive in. Let’s be it. Along the way, after we started [Spanish tapas bar] Solera, I really saw that we were in a position to change how Minneapolis approached food, and it was really exciting. That’s what I wanted to do, to change the way people in Minneapolis, people in the Twin Cities, experienced food. I wanted to elevate the level of dining in the Twin Cities. When I see articles calling us Best New Food City in the country [Saveur magazine on Minneapolis, in June 2015] I like to think I was part of it.” McKee received national attention for his cooking at La Belle Vie, winning Minnesota’s first James Beard Award or a chef, in 2009.
“But today, my main concern is that my employees are taken care of. I want everyone to know: If you have a chance to hire someone from La Belle Vie, these folks are the best of the best, anybody who would be lucky enough to hire them will be amazed at what a good stroke of luck they have.”
That’s all, folks. All we have now is tears, and questions. Can Minneapolis survive without La Belle Vie? We are going to have to. Where are the next generations of homegrown national-class chefs going to come from? Hopefully somewhere. Where can the fans of McKee’s cooking go to eat his food? Your best bet is to watch for the special events at Smalley’s and at the restaurants, owned by others, he still has a hand in: Sea Change, Libertine, Mozza Mia, and Masu.
“At night I’d be at La Belle Vie,” he told me. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing at night now. The simple math of it is: I know a ton of people are going to let us know how much La Belle Vie meant to them. If all of those people would have come in twice more a year, we’d still be open. It’s so important that if there’s a restaurant or business in your community that you feel is important, you’ve got to make it your mission to support them. Otherwise they will close.”
With that, McKee left to deliver the bad news to his staff.