Work-from-home lunches had their moment about two years ago.
After so many leftovers and tuna sandwiches, office workers returning to the business districts in their respective Twin Cities may be thrilled to find old favorite skyway spots and restaurants that were fortunate enough to weather the pandemic, while others may be itching to try something fresh. Over the past two years, an entirely new dining landscape has emerged, and many proprietors are bullish on downtown districts that have seen their share of hardships since 2020.
"I'm a believer," said Kam Talebi, owner and CEO of Kaskaid Hospitality, which operates Brit's Pub, Crave, Union and the Butcher's Tale, all in downtown Minneapolis. "We've had great progress over the last two years and I think we'll continue to see progress. It's a great city and I will continue to invest."
Nighttime traffic, in particular, has returned — not quite to pre-pandemic levels, but with a healthy vibrancy thanks to professional sports and theater.
"We can see a great wind at our back," said David Fhima, chef and owner of the restaurant Fhima's Minneapolis, who recently opened two bakery-cafes in a Minneapolis office building. "I think we've turned a corner in terms of people being afraid to come back downtown."
But many business owners will admit that things are not like they were before. Corporate dining — those expense-account dinners and catered events — have not revived. And daytime-only businesses have it harder.
Lunch, perhaps the Holy Grail of downtown dining for any restaurateur pre-COVID, is improving only incrementally. Even with more workers coming in, restaurant owners are noticing new patterns as hybrid work arrangements become more mainstream. Where Fridays used to be one of the busiest days, now the skyway halls are empty as people opt to work from home at the beginning and end of the week. With restaurants facing widespread staffing difficulties, it just doesn't pay for some of them to operate during daytime hours.
If Abdirahman Kahin didn't have a 10-year lease with an understanding landlord in downtown Minneapolis' Baker Center, his Afro Deli skyway outpost might not have stuck around.
"A lot of businesses in our area, a lot of restaurants have closed," Kahin said. "We're still hanging in there. We haven't given up yet."
He was seeing steady improvements from the time he reopened the restaurant, in May 2021, until the end of last year. When the omicron wave hit, everything stopped — again. Kahin now worries that those skyway customers might be gone for good. "I think people are already figuring out how to work from home," he said.
So, he's shifting focus to find them in their neighborhoods. Afro Deli just opened a new location in Cedar-Riverside, about a block from the first Afro Deli he ever opened. "We had a lot of requests to come back, and a lot of people live there," he said. "It was a welcome-home party."
And he's slated to open another Afro Deli in a residential development coming to Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street in 2024.
Afro Deli in downtown St. Paul, meanwhile, is thriving, thanks to partnerships with Minnesota Central Kitchen and Second Harvest Heartland. The restaurant has devoted one of its two kitchens to making meals — more than a million of them — for people in need. That kept the restaurant open when many others took extended breaks or closed altogether, and allowed it to be one of the few downtown St. Paul restaurants consistently open for lunch.
Other food businesses have found opportunities in the post-pandemic landscape to expand.
Fhima took a chance on launching his Mother Dough Bakery both on the ground and skyway levels of Capella Tower.
"In good times, property values are up. In bad times, people are more aggressive and they want to make an enticing deal. We found the right deals at the right time," he explained.
Cardigan Donuts, which operated in the City Center skyway almost uninterrupted throughout the pandemic, just opened a second location nearby in the IDS Center.
"I think the foot traffic that we're seeing is actually ahead of where a lot of people expected," said Cardigan co-owner and general manager Justin Bedford. "I'm actually quite an optimist on downtown and the eventual recovery."
But it's still only at about 40% of what it used to be, Bedford said.
Despite a slow restart, restaurant operators know that more openings mean more reasons to come back to work downtown.
"It's what comes first," said Fhima, "the chicken or the egg?"
Digging into downtown
Here's how to eat before, during and after a downtown workday in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including new spots that opened while you were out, and the standbys we're happy to see — and taste — again.
Cardigan Donuts: Home to the moistest Old Fashioned around, this skyway bakery has opened a second spot in the IDS Center that also serves ice cream doughnut sandwiches. 80 S. 8th St., Mpls., cardigandonuts.com
Gray Fox Coffee: Another mid-pandemic expansion, the playful cafe with richly detailed latte art, opened a second downtown location in the AT&T Tower. 901 Marquette Av. S., Mpls., grayfoxcoffee.com
Farmers Kitchen + Bar: With a 7:30 a.m. opening time, grab pre-work coffee drinks and pastries with garden-fresh inspiration at this restaurant owned by the Minnesota Farmers Union. 750 S. 2nd St., Mpls., farmerskitchenandbar.com
Wood + Paddle Eatery: New hotel dining at the Royal Sonesta, with chef Niki Heber in the kitchen, offers Minnesota-themed dishes, three meals a day. 31 S. 7th St., Mpls., woodandpaddlemn.com
Boludo: Facundo Javier Defraia's unique diamond-shaped pizza and expert empanadas moved into a cavernous spot near U.S. Bank Stadium. 530 S. 4th St., Mpls., boludo.com
Hark! Cafe: This cafe (and cocktail bar) serves the plant-based and gluten-free set, with fresh-baked bagels, toaster pastries and ice cream sandwiches. 430 1st Av. N., Mpls., harkcafe.com
Mother Dough Bakery: David Fhima's ancestral sourdough starter is the basis for the bread used in sandwiches at this bakery and cafe, found on two floors of Capella Tower. The ground-level location also offers a happy hour, staying open until 6 p.m. 225 S. 6th St., Mpls., fhimasmpls.com/mother-dough-bakery
Spice & Tonic Indian Cuisine & Bar: A restaurant industry veteran, owner Joginder Cheema has been serving up traditional Indian spices in Minneapolis and St. Paul since 1993. His latest spot opened last year in Downtown East. 903 Washington Av. S., Mpls., spiceandtonic.net
801 Chophouse: This steakhouse chain, first launched in Des Moines, took over the sprawling Barnes & Noble on Nicollet Mall. In addition to full steak dinners, there's a nicely priced happy hour at the handsome bar. 801 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 801chophouse.com/minneapolis
The Butcher's Tale: New in the space that was the famed Butcher & the Boar, this emporium for meat and brown liquor just opened a retractable-walled atrium beer garden — and a new beer garden menu — that's a popular midweek work stop. 1121 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., butcherstale.com
EaTo: Short for "East Town," EaTo brings Rome downtown with pizza, low-proof cocktails and al fresco dining. 305 Washington Av. S., Mpls., eatompls.com
Mara: Gavin Kaysen's ode to the Mediterranean is the new hot ticket in town at the Four Seasons. Can't get a reservation? The gorgeous lounge is held for walk-ins. 245 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., mararestaurantandbar.com
WHILE YOU WERE OUT
More recent openings in downtown Minneapolis include Nicollet Mall restaurant and rooftop lounge Ties (tieslounge.com), with a menu by Joey Meatballs; California-inspired cuisine in the IDS Center at Noa (noaminneapolis.com); an expansion of Hell's Kitchen to the quick-serve Hell's Cafeteria (hellscafeteriamn.com); the Four Seasons' grab-and-go Socca Cafe (soccacafe.com) and poolside Riva Terrace (fourseasons.com/minneapolis); Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson's James Beard-winning Owamni (owamni.com) along the Mississippi River; and the Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale tribute at the Minneapolis Club (mplsclub.org/charlies).
HAPPY TO BE BACK
We can't wait to revisit some of our favorite downtown Minneapolis restaurants, including skyway stalwarts Brothers Deli and Andrea Pizza, breakfast-lunch-bakery Hen House Cafe, happy hour hot spots Giulia and Devil's Advocate, the turf rooftop at Brit's Pub, ramen central at Zen Box Izakaya, and, for dinner with class, Fhima's Minneapolis and Murray's. Food trucks have not fully returned, but we'll be lining up for them when they do.
Hepcat Coffee: This weekday-only cafe in the Osborn370 building features breakfast sandwiches, soups and pastries. 370 N. Wabasha St., St. Paul
Lost Fox: A new Lowertown coffee shop (taking over the former Elephant Bar) has coffee, pastries and sandwiches daily. (It just started serving dinner, too.) 213 E. 4th St., St. Paul, lostfoxlowertown.com
Creators Cup Coffee House: Tacos, burritos, breakfast sandwiches, locally roasted coffee and Sebastian Joe's ice cream are on the menu at the in-house cafe at the Creators Space. 218 E. 7th St., St. Paul, creatorsspace.com/coffee-house
The Loon Cafe: The venerable Minneapolis bar opened a downtown St. Paul location nearly four decades after the original, with a chili-heavy menu. 426 St. Peter St., St. Paul, looncafestpaul.com
Momento Restaurant + Bar: New to the former Pazzaluna space, this lunch-and-dinner spot continues the wood-fired pizza tradition. 360 St. Peter St., St. Paul, momento-stp.com
KJ's Hideaway: A live music venue that opened mid-pandemic, the downstairs Hamm Building spot also serves appetizers, panini and craft cocktails. 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul, kjshideaway.com
Wild Bill's Sports Saloon: Absorbing foot traffic from the nearby Xcel Energy Center is the latest outpost of this Western-themed bar. 175 W. 7th St., St. Paul, wildbillssportssaloon.com
WHILE YOU WERE OUT
More openings that have enlivened downtown St. Paul and the surrounding neighborhoods include Hope Breakfast Bar (hopebreakfast.com) for over-the-top pancakes and other creative breakfast fare, and the newly reopened and revamped Gray Duck Tavern (grayducktavern.com). Or get your fill at Bullvino's Brazilian steakhouse (bullvinos.com), next to CHS Field, which also offers a bar menu. Coming soon to Mears Park is Justin Sutherland's steakhouse Noyes & Cutler (noyescutler.com).
HAPPY TO BE BACK
Favorites worth a revisit in the area are breakfast and lunch vibes at the Buttered Tin, quick bites from Afro Deli and Pino's Pizzeria, fun times and music at Amsterdam Bar & Hall, the classics Meritage and St. Paul Grill, Italian emporium Cosetta's, Lowertown's Saint Dinette (with a new chef) and Big River Pizza, and, of course, the abundant St. Paul Farmers Market.