On the art of trying new restaurants

Many years ago I embarked on a new practice of restaurant exploration that I called my “trying new things” routine. At least once a month, I would go to a restaurant or delicatessen that I did not know, that was not part of a chain, a place I had never been to and that was not directly recommended.

As you walk through one of the various shopping corridors of the Twin Cities, new and unexplored restaurants are all around you, sometimes hidden in malls or old brick buildings. Maybe a brand new vinyl sign will appear in Boba Tea Square around the corner. It might be an East African deli or barbecue spot or one of the growing numbers of Cajun seafood restaurants popping up everywhere.

My “trying new things” routine didn’t last very long. It was too easy to go back to familiar haunts, my old favorite cafes and restaurants, and I forgot about it for years.

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The meticulous checklist approach

This failure is why I find my inspiration in The Heavy Table, the long-running food and restaurant website (now backed by Patreon). Along with posting food reviews, chef talks, and opening and closing lists, they’ve done what must be the biggest “try new things” endeavor in Twin Cities history. It was called the “checklist” program, where a team of food critics systematically ate and reviewed all of the non-chain restaurants on East Lake Street, University, and Central Avenues.

All three checklists were mind boggling undertakings that took months to complete. For example, even trying to eat at all the restaurants on University Avenue reflects the kind of obsession one associates with Captain Ahab. A team of four, publisher James Norton, writer and photographer Becca Dilley, writer MC Cronin, and the enigmatic illustrator known as WACSO, have made trying new restaurants a science.

To say the least, I was deeply impressed with the efforts. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Twin Cities, Lake Street, Central Avenue, and University Avenue are the most diverse and restaurant-rich streets in the metro area. Each stretches for miles. They each publish dozens of restaurants reflecting a kaleidoscope of culture, history, innovation and immigration that results in ever-evolving culinary mixes.

The most amazing thing about all of the checklist projects is that the bunch has gone everywhere, from the chicest white tablecloth joints to the backs of the least advertised grocery store lunch counters you’ll ever see.

The digital divide of restaurants

But that was then. Nowadays, the COVID pandemic has changed the number of people who interact with restaurants. Today, even the most word-of-mouth family restaurants are well served thanks to a fluid digital presence.

This has been at the center of St. Paul’s Restaurant Resilience Program, an innovative partnership between the city and NCXT (pronounced “next”), a Minneapolis-based digital consulting company.

“The program started at the onset of COVID,” said Jonathan Banks, who heads NCXT, which was working with the city on technical assistance. “When COVID hit, conversations turned into [asking], “Who in the city will need the most technical assistance?” We ended up settling in restaurants. They were going to be affected and couldn’t do any kind of business if they didn’t have digital capabilities. “

For the past year and a half, Banks and his team have offered an ever-evolving set of advisory tactics for restaurants in town. On the restaurant’s resilience menu was everything from website help and streamlining online delivery to COVID protocols to writing (they have a group of marketing volunteers from Land Company. O’Lakes nearby).

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Over the past few years, relying on lists from the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, they have consulted dozens of restaurants across St. Paul’s, which has made it easier for them to connect with their residence. The list includes places that range from Hamburguesas el Gordo to the venerable Swede Hollow Café.

For example, with the help of NCXT, Snack Chat, which now occupies a cafe space in the huge Griggs-Midway building, now has an incredible website that makes it easy to order lunch.

NCXT

Jonathan Banks

“They were in phase 2 of the program and actually adopted new technology,” Banks explained. “They’ve moved on to a vendor called Bento Box that automates marketing for restaurants, so people can order online through that platform.”

One of the biggest challenges for restaurants facing the pandemic has been the transition to delivery service, as the vast majority of businesses move online and offsite.

“Internal delivery is difficult to set up if you haven’t done so historically [and] if you’re not a pizza place or a noodle restaurant, you might not have that ability, ”Banks told me.

Banks said the fact that Minneapolis and St. Paul both cap charges for app-based delivery services at 15% was extremely helpful.

“It made it a lot more predictable for customers and the restaurant what their charges would be,” Banks said. “We just needed to have a technical conversation about where that link is on your website, the different pricing between delivery and in-person meal,” [and] how to encourage people to… make… a take out order next time instead of delivery.

Back on rue du lac

A group of people immune to marketing: The Heavy Table Checklist Team. They will visit your restaurant whether you like it or not. Turns out they’re still there, with Lake Street Council funding doing an “update” along East Lake Street on their meticulous checklist project.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to eat with the team as they tried the new restaurants at Midtown Global Market – still the best dining in the Twin Cites – as well as a few other places. miscellaneous that Norton had spotted.

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I found the team gathered in the corner of the Oasis Café, a new Mediterranean Deli which occupies the former Holy Land Deli site. The four tasters stood in a circle around a corner table covered with plates: falafel, giant gyroscope, hummus, fries and samosas.

Following the process was fascinating. Everyone took a little bit of everything and reacted.

“I love hummus and you can really taste lemon,” someone muttered.

“It tastes good, I guess,” I replied.

The whole time Norton was jotting down notes, keeping track of everyone’s comments. The Heavy Table report spoke enthusiastically about hummus – “a surprisingly layered and complex thing, with real hits of tahini and olive oil giving it a rich fullness” – and the meat gyro – “not tough, nor too salty, and especially good when enjoyed with the accompanying sauce (which closely resembled Russian vinaigrette). ”

We were out of there in less than fifteen minutes, and for the next few hours we visited every unexplored restaurant we could find.

Review the cuisine at Snack Chat.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Review the cuisine of Taqueria el Primo 2.

Venezuelan bar Arepa was a real crash, vaulted into “the rarefied realm of ‘really enjoying food'”. The new barbecue joint, Soul to Soul Smokehouse, was good enough that I could save the leftovers: amazing banana pudding and a “beautifully MURED with herbs” half-smoked chicken. We sampled food at a spotlessly clean late night taco called Taqueria El Primo 2, where I tried birria tacos for the first time. And finally a food truck called Loncheria Los Amigos where everything, apparently, was too salty.

(Most restaurants have great websites, by the way, a sign of the post-COVID era.)

Not everyone is that meticulous, and I don’t wish that kind of tenacity on anyone. But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to try a new restaurant every once in a while, a place you might have barely noticed in a mall or some neglected corner. Whether or not they have a good website, it can be very rewarding to step out of your comfort zone and see more of the city around you.

It reminds me that I had been planning to go to the Ethiopian restaurant two blocks from my house since I moved to the neighborhood. Maybe now is the week to try it out.

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