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Photo by Katherine Harris
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Photo by Katherine Harris
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Photo by Katherine Harris
Kevin Sheehy has a lot of hanging out in Minneapolis under his belt. He used to hang out at the old Loring Café, for instance, the iconic, now-closed Minneapolis spot with limestone brick arches and grottos, the spot that defined artistic life here for a generation with its tumblers of good Alexis Bailly wine and its artists in chunky glasses and estate-sale furs. Some Saturday nights, Sheehy (who grew up in south Minneapolis in its sleepy and safe 1960s, inner tubing from Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Falls and being picked up by his mom in her 1950s rust-bucket Dodge) would play drums at the Loring Café as part of a band that included Mike O’Neill (who saw the Beach Boys at the old Danceland, had lunch once with Charles Lindbergh, and sold vintage clothing to Apollonia and Bob Dylan) and Johnny Michaels (another legendary hanger-outer who would go on to all but single-handedly turn Minneapolis into a national cocktail leader from his perch behind the bar at La Belle Vie). And some Saturdays, Sheehy didn’t play in the band but just went to the old Loring to hang out. “It was funky, it was alive, the Loring—it wasn’t the artichoke ramekin, which seems to be what everyone remembers. It lived, it breathed, with the bad-attitude waitresses and bartenders who I loved. It was authentic, creative, down-and-dirty urban—it was such a cool place.”
To support his hanging out, Sheehy developed a casual and successful import business, Caravan in Uptown, a tiny place wedged between the Dunn Bros. and Bruegger’s Bagels on Lake Street. A place that had textiles and jewelry, art shows and live music, it allowed Sheehy to travel to Asia, South America, North Africa, and Turkey to do the sort of things that free-spirit hanging-out types do, like yoga beside the Nile. But then came the Internet, and the world of importing vanished nearly overnight. “Of course I knew the guy next door, and I asked him, ‘Sanjeev, how is it owning a Dunn Bros.?’ He said, ‘It’s fine.’ So I bought the one in Linden Hills. But after about six months, I was completely bored. Because it’s a franchise, there are a lot of things you can’t do, and it lost its luster for me. I saw this for-rent sign on 50th and Penn, and on impulse I called the number.”
And that’s the story of how the now-legendary Cafe Maude in the Armitage neighborhood was born. Sheehy got the landlord’s attention with thoughts of a second Dunn Bros., but after thinking about it for a long weekend in Chicago, he realized he’d actually like to do something a lot more bohemian and cool—a little Loring-like, as it were. He got his old bandmate Johnny Michaels to design the first cocktail list. He also tapped into Michaels’s network of restaurant up-and-comers. As Sheehy puts it now, “I needed a new career, so I jumped off a cliff and learned to fly on the way down. It really started because I needed a new way to make money. I never really had a job. I had a paper route as a kid, in college I drove a taxi, then I had my own company, and by the time I closed that, I’m not really suitable for a job; I’m too old. My friends all said: ‘Please, Kevin, don’t. You don’t know what you’re doing. The failure rate [for new restaurants] is through the roof.’”
He realized he’d actually like to do something a lot more bohemian and cool—a little more Loring-like, as it were.
And the rest, as they say, is history: the truffle-scented french fries that have come to define date night for a certain well-heeled section of the city, and cocktails that redefined the cocktail scene for the whole of the city, bringing white-tablecloth sophistication to the breakfast nook. (I’ll never forget the time I saw two little kids in jean shorts with a lemonade stand selling their own version of Cafe Maude’s non-alcoholic Rubber Ducky, a blue lemonade with an Easter marshmallow Peep floating in it. If you bring cocktail culture to the little children, even the little children will recognize the greatness therein.) As good as the food and drink at Cafe Maude are, however, the individual elements have always been second place to the overall vibe: avant-garde live music later at night, funky Japanese magazines to share, lighting that makes everyone look 10 years cooler.
Was it inevitable that Sheehy would return to Loring Park, to the scene of the crime, as it were? It seems like destiny. Cafe Maude opened in the last days of August in the former Nick and Eddie space. Walk into the Chinese-red room with well-chosen contemporary local art on the walls and—boom, cool. It’s dark and sexy in just the right ways, the house music clear but not loud through the crystalline sound system, and the new design palette of red and mahogany making the vast space feel intimate and unified. There’s not a whole lot for a Minneapolis critic to say about this new Cafe Maude at Loring’s food: If you’ve been to the old Cafe Maude, it’s more or less the same, with some upmarket additions. The classic Maude glories are up to the same good standard: Tangy mac and cheese made with aged cheddar, fontina, and grana padano is directly cheesy and very creamy; it might be our city’s ultimate version. The burger is as good as ever, nicely seared and prettily balanced with a delicate, eggy bun and your choice of toppings, from avocado to bacon. The steak frites are beyond reproach, one of the most solidly reliable versions in the cities.
“I’m not like that at all. I like everyone—the old ladies, the guys who never put down their BlackBerries. I like cool, I like straight, I like everyone.”
Chef Matt Kempf is trying out a handful of new things here, many North African and Turkish influenced, and some not quite up to par: A North African flatbread topped with chunks of marinated, spiced lamb was soggy and unpleasant the two times I tried it, and the light flavors of a shrimp and lobster terrine were completely overpowered by their accompaniment of spiced and pickled cauliflower and peppery arugula. The roasted bone marrow, however, was utterly craveable, a generous portion served crisp and creamy in vast bones cut the long way and perfectly paired with a fresh oregano gremolata and a puckery relish of red pepper agrodolce. My favorite addition to the menu was an absurdly humble dish of grilled bread served with a scoop of Devonshire cream drizzled with wildflower honey and a dusting of pimento: the sort of sweet, creamy, peppery, casual dish that makes you feel that you’re on vacation somewhere spectacular, where they take their great food for granted.
Speaking of vacation, when I spoke to Sheehy for this article he was in Turkey, where for three weeks in October he was leading various groups of Minnesotans on tours. “We do tours and get in the sights in the mornings, then everybody does whatever they want in the afternoon, and we have a big feast every night. I’m developing a couple more tours: steak, wine, and tango in Argentina, and one based on a yacht on the Nile, with a private chef and yoga on deck as the sun rises. I tell my tour group I’m not looking for high-maintenance people. If having a good time in an amazing place is your thing, if that’s your cup of tea, some time alone, some structure, come along. I had one woman come to an information session at Cafe Maude about the tour; she said, ‘Did I pass the audition?’ I’m not like that at all. I like everyone—the old ladies, the guys who never put down their BlackBerries. I like cool, I like straight, I like everyone.” Which is about as clear a definition as you’ll ever find of what has made Cafe Maude great.
Sheehy has plans to revive some of the old Loring Café’s most missed traditions, the alley parties and perhaps one day even the legendary block party. And what of the old Loring Café, legendary loser of the hottest lease in town? Of course, owner Jason McLean moved to Dinkytown, opening his pasta bar and the Varsity Theater. But right now, believe it or not, McLean is opening something called the Loring Café, replete with golden brick archways and cool sexy grottos, in one of America’s food epicenters, Oakland, California. He has been described in the press there as a “Minneapolis empire builder.” Never underestimate the power of a really good place to hang out—and never underestimate the great value of the hanger-outers.