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Bringing ideas to the table: Three hot restaurants that break the mold

Here in the land of 10,000 recipes for wild rice soup, the fine-dining public is easily bored. So a new restaurant stands a better chance of standing out if it comes with a new idea as well as a tempting menu and a happening location.

In fields like tech and design, fresh ideas tend to come from spunky young upstarts--but launching a brand-new, date-night-ready restaurant can be a particularly daunting undertaking. Spunky young upstarts rarely have access to the requisite capital for big ovens, massive walk-in coolers, and heaping helpings of liability coverage. So today's fine-dining innovations are coming from crazy dreamers who also have deep pockets and long r�sum�s. Happily the Twin Cities is a natural habitat for these rare creatures.

Here are three trendsetting Twin Cities eateries whose concepts are deliciously hip and delightfully homey. What could be more Minneapolis-Saint Paul?

The All-Ages Show

Cutting-edge foodie trends become blah bandwagons in no time. Remember when locally sourced, sustainably produced, and organically grown were genuine points of difference? Now these credentials are compulsory--and you'll see them on almost every non-fast food menu in town. So, for the diner who's craving true novelty, Parasole Restaurant Holdings (the people who brought you Chino Latino, Manny's Steakhouse, Muffuletta, and Burger Jones, to name a few) have created a cheeky, no-concept concept. The Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group menu is a study in the gastronomic non sequitur: chicken curry masala, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, a hippie salad with hemp vinaigrette, and, on the weekends, house-made pop-tarts.

The decor, from the entry hall lined by walls full of cafeteria trays to the sexy rooftop bar with its Frank Gehry furniture, looks as though it was built by beautiful people for beautiful people. But their intentions were broader, according to Parasole's Kip Clayton. The minds behind the concept envisioned "the neighborhood's twenty-somethings who have their first apartments after college, as well as people who've lived there for 20 years."

"A restaurant rises and falls on whether you can get people in at all hours of the day," says Clayton. "So thirty- and forty- and fifty-somethings will bring their kids there for breakfast on the weekends or come for an early dinner."

And then the late shift arrives. "Because of the architecture and everything that goes with it, it's a place to see and be seen," says Clayton. "It's almost like a set change that happens at nine o'clock at night. That's exciting to me."

Cleverly Disguised as a Hipster Watering Hole

Once upon a time, people who were too old for the C.C. Club and too young for a five o'clock supper at Pearson's found an agreeable blend of sustenance and sparkle at then-novel establishments known as wine bars. The wine bar idea, which gained traction in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, was as much about wine-friendly dining as it was about viticulture geekery and ostentatious enophilia.   

A modern-day counterpart can be found at the Barrio Tequila Bar locations in downtown Minneapolis and Lowertown St. Paul. Even if you're not the slightest bit interested in agave nectar--even if you're completely sober--you'll find lots to love at the tables beyond the bar.

The team behind Barrio set out to build "an affordable bar-restaurant with great margaritas and fresh tacos, at a price that doesn't break the bank," according to partner Ryan Burnet. He's being modest. Barrio's menu is filled with delicious twists on south-of-the-border flavors like tangerine-serrano shrimp and tequila-cured salmon.

So it's only natural that the next Barrio, slated to open at 50th and France in November, will put an even greater emphasis on the food. "We're going to expand the menu," Burnet says. "We're going to keep it very approachable for the city of Edina and have more emphasis on the kitchen, starting with the name." Cocina del Barrio, which Burnet translates as, "kitchen of the neighborhood," will feature an actual dining room, as well as a bar. "We wanted to do that so we could have a sister restaurant to Barrio that we could grow with," Burnet explains.

Around the World in St. Louis Park

In his previous life, Jim Ringo managed the malt business for Cargill. "I traveled a lot and I'd come back with these great dining stories from places like Budapest and Seoul, Tokyo and Cape Town," he says.  These stories were catnip to his neighbors in the western suburbs, who would complain that their neighborhood fare was boring. "Restaurants in the suburbs don't change their menus very often," he observes.

So Ringo the former Cargill exec dreamed up Ringo the restaurant to give his neighbors something interesting to eat. But there's a reason why suburban restaurants tend to err on the side of boredom. "I call it the Problem of Four," he explains. "In any group of four, there's always that one person who has a very limited approach to things they will eat. That person winds up driving the other three."

Jim Ringo's solution was to offer two menus: an everyday menu for lovers of standard Midwestern comfort food, and a destination menu for more adventurous diners. The latter menu changes every month, drawing its inspiration from Ringo's days as a globetrotting malt manager. September's destination is Argentina. October's is Bavaria.

This month, the destination is Thailand. "We're doing a Thai corn dog," Ringo says. "I'm not ignorant, I know the Thais don't have a corn dog. But they do have street food on a stick. And, with the State Fair, so do we."

Developing the Thai corn dog has been no easy task. "It's an eight-stage process," Ringo explains. "The insides are as Thai as you can get�a mousseline of finely ground shrimp and chicken with Thai basil, shallots, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. Then it's hand-formed, battered, and deep-fried. "

The unadventurous diner in Ringo's imagined group of four probably won't touch a Thai corn dog with a ten-foot stick. But he or she should do fine with the walleye; it's Ringo's best-selling entr�e.

Ellen Shaffer is a Saint Paul-based marketing and features writer. This is her first article for The Line.

Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group: 3001 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis; 612-877-7263
Barrio Tequila Bar Minneapolis: 925 Nicollet Avenue; 612-333-9953
Barrio Tequila Bar Saint Paul: 235 East Sixth Street; 651-222-3250
Ringo: 5331 Sixteenth Street, St. Louis Park; 952-303-5574

Photos, top to bottom:

A server offers her support at the Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group.

The Uptown Cafeteria's rooftop Sky Bar, with furniture by Frank Gehry

Ryan Burnet, a partner in Barrio Tequila Bar, in the restaurant's Minneapolis venue.

A Barrio soft-shelled-crab taco, paired with a Macho Camacho margarita

Ringo, where comfort food meets the wide, wide world

Thai stick: Ringo's Southeast Asian corn dog

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