"I can't believe we get to look out at that gorgeous building all day," said Kim Bartmann as she gazed outside the giant windows of her new restaurant, Star Bar & Bistro, which opens this week.
Across 7th Street, the Baker Building is a stoic relic of a long-ago era in downtown Minneapolis, a time when buildings were grand finery, statements to Midwestern ingenuity and big-city opulence.
Today, those aren't always the sentiments that come to mind when most people think of downtown Minneapolis.
But Star Bar & Bistro, a new day-to-night restaurant and swanky bar inside the Hotel Indigo, is poised to be a part of the city's next chapter — and it goes a little against the grain. Which might just be Bartmann's sweet spot.
Her Placemaker Hospitality Group began when she was on her way to brunch with a friend and soon-to-be business partner. They decided to open a coffee shop in Uptown, and Cafe Wyrd was born months later, right at the cusp of the early '90s coffee culture boom and at a time when Uptown was a place for creative types to gather.
Fast forward decades later, after many more restaurants (Wyrd begot the French Bohemian Cafe Barbette that still operates at the same address) and a fair share of controversies later, Bartmann is again bubbling with creativity and the ambition to do something that few have done before.
"This used to be a Burger King," Bartmann said, walking through Star Bar's sun-dappled dining room while a worker was welding behind the bar, sparks flying. The fast-food restaurant closed more than 20 years ago. This edge of the Northstar Building stood vacant, and largely forgotten, despite being next to a hotel and surrounded by businesses.
Plus, downtown Minneapolis hasn't been known for its street culture, with most people using the skyways. Chef Serge Kogan aims to lure everyone down from those lofted mazes with familiar dishes done with a little verve.
"I've built a bit of a reputation as the restaurant launch specialist," Kogan said last week while preparing a menu tasting for staff. His little-bit-of-everything experience is on display inside Star Bar's kitchen, where he was branding a thick pork chop with a blackened star before plating it over mustard greens bought from a local Hmong farmer.
The menu at Star Bar & Bistro will be new world French, drawing influences from global locations where French colonialism has led to new renderings of classic dishes. That means there will be Moroccan spice, Creole pizazz, Vietnamese refinement and more. Kogan lives on St. Paul's East Side and loves shopping the neighborhood's Asian markets and farmers markets.
Like other Bartmann restaurants, the commitment to working with local farmers and producers will carry through whenever possible. The volume of serving room service, plus power lunches and happy hours, will be a bit of a challenge, but one that the team is eager to tackle.
The dining room draws a generous amount of daytime light and sports a front meeting area with thick blinds that can be pulled to access AV equipment, in hopes of drawing the local off-site office crowd. In addition to all the seats inside, there will be a few dog-friendly patio seats available outside.
Gold fixtures accent the glass-shelved bar, and the bar stools pop in a peacock teal with rattan backs. Above it all, blush-colored glass light fixtures that look like bubbles blown from Hubba Bubba gum lend a romantic hue over the room.
This is the all-day cafe that will open first, on June 8. It will serve folks from the hotel and anyone needing breakfast or a light meal, such as a grilled romaine Caesar salad with an egg-in-a-basket standing in for the usual croutons.
Walking back through the room and around the corner one finds Star Bar, which will open later this summer. There's a cozy, low-ceilinged room that has a speakeasy vibe with black-and-white wallpaper of 1930s movie stars. The main attraction is the soaring bar ceiling (currently covered by scaffolding) that holds a blue disk with star constellations that will light up over the circular bar below. It's among the elements found as construction peeled back years of the building's history.
This is Bartmann's second restaurant opening of the year. Pinoli opened this spring in the heart of Uptown, right across from Cafe Barbette, where her restaurant business — which has grown to include seven other establishments — began.
Preparing to open Star Bar, Bartmann talked about bringing more vibrancy and activity to this corner of Minneapolis, as well as what downtown has been and what it could be again.
After years of strife and just barely surviving — and wondering what would become of the businesses and the people who populate it — Bartmann and her staff seem energized by their pent-up creativity, ready to make a star-shaped mark on a new era.
"We've gone from just being safe and surviving," she said, and now it's time to thrive.
Star Bar & Bistro, 618 2nd Av. S., Mpls., starbarbistrompls.com. Starting June 8, the Bistro will be open weekdays from 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; and from 5 p.m.-close; weekends 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-close.