Unable to score a reservation for a table at the new Creekside Supper Club and Lounge in south Minneapolis, I slipped in early evening and sat at the bar. I looked around. None of the usual suspects were anywhere in sight! Odd. I leaned on the fun vinyl cushion on the guest side of the bar – that comfy, cheap kind of thing I’ve only seen on old dives and never in new places – and watched the house filling up – Ronettes playing over the PA system and popover baskets hitting every table.
Instead of the usual suspects, I identified a guy with Robert Wagner hair and sharp creased leather that looked like it came straight out of the costume closet of Hart to Hart (1979-1984). I saw a retirement party for the teachers, with Mylar balloons bumping against the low painted ceiling. I saw a gentleman, sporting a Harris Tweed trilby hat with a spray of shiny feathers peeking out from the headband, sniffing eagerly through the crowd like a salmon happily battling down the house stream.
Expect! The restaurant only opened at Christmas. And these were: the regulars– like the regulars of the song Replacements. You see them in every restaurant that’s been open for 30 years. I was mystified. How do you get the regulars, the real regulars, to come out in such numbers everywhere else? Restaurant owners somehow love and hate the crowds of new restaurant regulars – they bring in big bucks, but they disappear like spring crocuses, never to be seen again. Restaurateurs like true regulars – it’s life and stamina, but it’s something you usually earn over your lifetime. You can’t create old regulars out of thin air, can you?
Friends, join me on a journey to understand Creekside, a feat worthy of an entry in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!—right next to the baby who looks like an 80-year-old. This is our very first brand new but extremely old restaurant.
Everything about these black-paneled or painted rooms tells you that you’re somewhere old and worn. The stag’s head above the bar? Dusty. The walleye mounted above the fireplace that once held a record has that fragile, faded look of real age. The collectible brandy bottles that really have no value but are fun to collect? Check. The hodgepodge of inspiring framed embroidery and not-so-rare beer signs? Check. What about old fashioned glasses? They weigh half a pound each and are dishwasher safe until the sun goes out.
The food? This is not a kitchen where the food is anything but the scratch kitchen favorites of 30 years ago. The popovers, warm and crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside, arrive at your table in the blink of an eye in an overflowing basket to share. The free glass plate dinner salad is adorned with grated orange cheese and forgettable croutons, but it has an option for homemade blue cheese dressing. An appetizer is a basket of onion rings, which tells you exactly where Creekside falls on the casual dining spectrum, and they’re wonderful: hand-cut, crispy, and sweet. The most eye-catching appetizer is the so-called relish platter: a rotating platform with three small cocktail buckets – one filled with trout dip, one containing cheese curds and slices of hot sausage, and a third with carrot sticks and the like.
i hate the phrase comfort food– the comfort of one person’s meatloaf is the hateful enemy of another’s meatloaf. But what do you call a menu of foods with such deep regional resonance that almost every restaurateur here knows exactly how it’s supposed to be? The fried walleye is crispy, huge and pure. The fish fry basket has an option for perch fillets—perch! Perch is what you catch when fishing on a lake lined with pine and aspen. Your grandpa can clean 10 of them in the time it takes you to destroy one, and grandma claims she loves little perch nuggets, saying it’s a good idea to make nets so small . I’ve never seen perch on a menu in LA or New York; I would be surprised if most people on the coast know what it is. Then there’s the buttercake: it just looks like a grocery-filled strawberry shortcake shell, but it tastes fresh, real, and glorious. The prime rib, served on a steel plate in a wooden frame, is pink like strawberries, tender enough to cut with a steak knife that has already lived a long and difficult life, and is accompanied by a half – dozen potatoes of your choice. based side dishes that are made – in today’s economy! – from real potatoes, not gooey catering buckets. As I looked at this prime rib, just past the soft vinyl bar top, the instant appeal of this place hit me: People no longer have to drive out of town for prime rib! Mystery solved!
“We sell so much prime rib,” Eli Wollenzien told me. Wollenzien is a restaurateur who started his career as a 14-year-old dishwasher at a Wisconsin supper club, The Copper Kettle. Wollenzien (rhymes with magazine) went to cooking school, became known for deftly opening Crave restaurants nationwide, then opened a few spots with business partner Deacon Eells, including the two Coalitions and Red Sauce Rebellion. He also recently purchased Buster’s on the 28th. However, in true Minnesota style, when the brother-in-law of Wollenzien’s wife’s best friend lamented some lingering business issues, including with Pepito’s former space on Chicago Avenue , Wollenzien stepped in to help. That’s how Wollenzien ended up opening Creekside with owners Eddie Landenberger and Ward Johnson.
The three started talking about supper club, rummaging through family attics and basements, and asking friends if they had anything cool to bring. It’s Wollenzien’s stepfather’s stag’s head and the contractor’s mother’s mounted walleye, and the bottles of Jim Beam are from a friend’s basement. A real, bankrupt Wisconsin supper club provided chairs through auction, at $4 a pop. The team began putting together a supper club with the apparent ease that any of us could organize a potluck. Then came designer Anna Lundberg to assemble the excavated pieces into a whole. It was his fun idea to put wood murals near the bathroom. That’s how you get a brand new place, even though all your senses – taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch – tell you it’s been there for a million years.
They hired a real chef, Grant Halsne, formerly of the very good Lake and Irving restaurant. Bartender and Earl Giles founder Jesse Held crafted a pre-Cocktail Revolution Wisconsin supper club bar menu, featuring two kinds of old-school dishes: one sweetened and made with Sprite from the gun soda, the other sour and made with acid from the gun soda. Held created a brandy-slush mix for a kind of slurpee machine – it’s delicious, summery and tangy, but next time I try it I’ll ask for tequila, because one of the bartenders told me says that’s what the regulars do. There’s a whole list of ice cream drinks that aren’t updated ice cream drinks or craft ice cream cocktails; it’s just old fashioned ice cream, like you’re wearing a mink stole and don’t think too much of President Eisenhower while driving your Cadillac.
“It’s classy for a farmer – it’s the supper club thing. Everyone knows it.”
Sat at the bar another night tasting more from the menu – skip the overly salty onion soup, have the excellent burger and don’t forget to ask the guy on the next stool why the bartenders call him Rat Tail – I have to think about the culture. I’ve been on a Joseph Campbell kick lately, reading about this old theorist’s insights into myth and archetype and how something inside of us reacts differently to things we already know. The mad king-father of Oedipus Rexfor example, instantly makes us riveted by the mad king-father of macbeth Where Succession. The myths and archetypes of Wisconsin and Minnesota’s supper clubs are rarely researched or written about—scholars are usually elsewhere and on other payrolls.
“It’s classy for a farmer – it’s the supper club thing. Everyone knows that,” Wollenzien explained to me, and I wondered: Do we? I had never heard that before. But maybe we know it but didn’t know we knew it, and we’re drawn like a salmon or a warbler home, to meet our fellow man.
4820 Chicago Avenue, Mpls., 612-354-3675, creeksidemn.com