Truly, it's the end of an era.
Lucia's Restaurant, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement and a much-admired fixture in the Twin Cities dining scene, is closing after a distinguished 32-year run.
"With the loss of the parking lot last year, the changing restaurant environment of Uptown, challenges to the restaurant industry as a whole and the impending Hennepin Avenue construction ahead, the current space has become nonviable for Lucia's," co-owner Jason Jenny said. "Our lease is up for renewal in the next few months and we cannot find common agreement with the landlord. We have therefore made the difficult decision to close the restaurant."
Parking — or the lack thereof — proved to be a particularly thorny issue. In April 2016, the restaurant lost its conveniently located parking lot — an invaluable asset for crowded, busy Uptown — and the effect was catastrophic.
"Sales dropped by 50 percent," Jenny said. "Sales had remained very consistent up to that point. The drop was not instantaneous, but transpired over the next six months."
The lot, which the restaurant leased, is now the site of a six-story condominium project.
Twin Cities diners have witnessed an avalanche of high-profile closings over the past 12 months, including Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar, Piccolo, Brewer's Table, the Strip Club, HauteDish, Birdie, Victory 44, Craftsman and St. Clair Broiler. Marin Restaurant & Bar was replaced by Mercy, Coup d'etat closed last week and will be reopened as a branch of the Pourhouse, Upton 43 abruptly shut down with plans to relocate to an undisclosed North Loop location and Bradstreet Craftshouse closed and will reopen next year at a new hotel at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Lucia's founder Lucia Watson, who continued to act in a consultant's capacity to the restaurant, began her culinary career as a caterer. The Minneapolis native converted a former hardware store into a 36-seat restaurant, opening the doors on Valentine's Day 1985.
Growth was incremental. Two years later, Watson doubled her dining room by expanding into an adjacent storefront. Lucia's Wine Bar — the city's first — debuted next door in 1993, and Lucia's to Go, a casual bakery/cafe, came along in a fourth storefront in 2006.
During her long and critically acclaimed tenure at Lucia's, Watson earned three nominations for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Midwest award. She's also the author of "Cooking Freshwater Fish," a cookbook based upon her long-standing column from In-Fisherman magazine, and co-author, along with Beth Dooley, of "Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland."
Watson sold her eponymous operation to Jenny and his group of investors in December 2014. With Watson no longer at the helm, overseeing every decision, the restaurant (1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., 612-825-1572, lucias.com) was bound to evolve, and it did. But not much.
After longtime chef Ryan Lund departed (he's now cooking at Ninetwentyfive in Wayzata), his eventual replacement, Alan Bergo, maintained and expanded the kitchen's carefully devised network of local purveyors. Bergo also remained committed to Watson's straightforward, seasonal cooking and the menu's changes-weekly format.
"It will always be my dream job," said Bergo. "I'm glad that I could give Lucia's the love that it deserved in the last year of its life. That's what an icon of a restaurant deserves."
Jenny, an oral surgeon, is CEO and majority investor of Stella's Fish Cafe & Prestige Oyster Bar, located a few blocks from Lucia's, and co-owner of McHugh's Public House in Savage. His group of investors includes other University of Minnesota-trained dentists, orthodontists and oral surgeons.
Evidence of Lucia's impending closure popped up a few weeks ago when the bakery/cafe abruptly closed on Sept. 16, "for a little revamp," read a sign on the door. In the restaurant industry, "closed for remodeling" is frequently synonymous with "closed for good."
"We've tried everything — everything — and it's just not going to work," said Jenny. "I really wanted to keep Lucia's perfect little place up and rolling, but unfortunately, some outside influences haven't allowed us to do that. I want to thank all of the loyal and wonderful customers of Lucia's and apologize for the closing."
Lucia's last day will be Oct. 14.
"That little restaurant had a really great run," said Watson. "Those guys — Alan in particular — worked really hard to keep it Lucia's. But all things come to end, right? I hope that everyone who has a happy memory of Lucia's will go there and eat in the next two weeks."
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib