Unable to score a reservation for a table at the new Creekside Supper Club and Lounge in south Minneapolis, I crept in early one evening and sat at the bar. I looked around. None of the usual suspects were anywhere to be seen! Odd. I leaned on the funny vinyl pad on the customer edge of the bar—that sort of low-cost, comfy thing I’ve only ever seen at old dives and never anywhere new—and I watched the house fill up—Ronettes playing on the sound 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 sprang straight from the costume closet of Hart to Hart (1979–1984). I saw a retirement party for teachers, complete with Mylar balloons bumping against the low painted drop ceiling. I saw a gentleman, sporting a Harris Tweed trilby hat with a jaunty spray of bright feathers popping from the hatband, nosing eagerly through the crowd like a salmon delighted to fight up the home stream.
Wait! The restaurant only opened at Christmastime. And these were: the regulars—like the regulars in the Replacements song. You see them at every restaurant that’s been open 30 years running. I was mystified. How do you get the regulars, the real regulars, to come out in such numbers to anywhere new? Restaurateurs sort of love and hate the new-restaurant-regulars crowd—they bring a lot of cash, but they disappear like spring crocuses, never to be seen again. Restaurateurs love the real regulars—they’re life and endurance, but they’re something you generally earn over a lifetime. You can’t just make old regulars out of thin air, can you?
Friends, join me on a journey to understanding Creekside, a feat worthy of an entry in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!—just next to the baby who looks like an 80-year-old man. It’s our first-ever brand-new yet extremely old restaurant.
Everything in these wood-paneled or dark-painted rooms tells you you’re someplace old and well worn. The stag head above the bar? Dusty. The mounted walleye above the fireplace that once held a record has that brittle faded look of real age. The collectible brandy bottles that really aren’t all that valuable but damn they’re fun to collect? Check. The hodgepodge of framed inspirational embroideries and not-so-rare beer signs? Check. And the old-fashioned old-fashioned glasses? They weigh a half a pound apiece and will go through a dishwasher safely until the sun burns out.
The food? This is not a kitchen where the food is anything more than scratch cooking of the favorites of 30 years back. The popovers, hot and crisp outside and eggy and tender within, arrive at your table in a flash in a brimming basket to share. The complimentary glass-plate dinner salad is adorned with grated orange cheese and forgettable croutons, but it has an option for homemade blue cheese dressing. One appetizer is a basket of onion rings, which tells you exactly where Creekside stands on the casual-eats spectrum, and they’re wonderful: hand-cut, glassy-crisp, sweet. The most eye-catching appetizer is the so-named relish tray: a spinning rig with three small cocktail buckets—one filled with trout dip, one holding textbook cheese curds and hot sausage slices, and a third with carrot sticks and such.
I loathe the phrase comfort food—one person’s comfort of meatloaf is another’s hateful meatloaf foe. But what do you call a menu of foods with such deep regional resonance that most every restaurant-goer around here knows exactly how they’re supposed to be? The fried walleye is crisp, enormous, and pure. The fish fry basket has an option for perch fillets—perch! Perch are what you catch when you’re fishing on a lake with pine and aspen shores. Your grandpa can clean 10 in the time it takes you to wreck one, and Grandma pretends she just loves little perch nuggets, saying what a good idea it is to make some fillets so small. I’ve never seen perch on a menu in Los Angeles or New York; I’d be surprised if most lifelong coast dwellers even know what it is. Then there’s the butter cake: It looks like simply a filled grocery store strawberry-shortcake shell, but it tastes fresh and real and glorious. The prime rib, served on a steel sizzle plate set in a wooden frame, is rosy as strawberries, tender enough to be cut with a steak knife that already lived a long and difficult life, and comes with your choice of half a dozen potato-based side dishes that are made—in today’s economy!—from real potatoes, not food-service goo buckets. As I peered down at that 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 the city 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 on to cooking school, became known for adroitly opening Crave restaurants nationally, and then opened a few spots with business partner Deacon Eells, notably the two Coalitions and Red Sauce Rebellion. He also recently purchased Buster’s on 28th. However, in true Minnesota style, when Wollenzien’s wife’s best friend’s brother-in-law lamented some ongoing business problems, namely with the old Pepito’s space on Chicago Avenue, Wollenzien jumped in to help. That’s how Wollenzien ended up opening Creekside with owners Eddie Landenberger and Ward Johnson.
The three began talking supper club, rummaging family attics and basements, and asking friends if they had anything cool to contribute. That’s Wollenzien’s father-in-law’s stag head and the contractor’s mother’s mounted walleye, and the Jim Beam bottles are from a friend’s basement. An actual out-of-business Wisconsin supper club contributed chairs through auction, at $4 a pop. The team began putting together a supper club with the seeming ease with which any of us might host a potluck. Then in came designer Anna Lundberg to stitch together the rummaged pieces into a whole. It was her fun idea to put woodland murals by the bathroom. That’s how you get a spot that is brand new even though every sense you have—taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch—tells you it’s been here for a zillion years.
They hired a real chef, Grant Halsne, formerly of the very good restaurant Lake and Irving. Bartender and Earl Giles founder Jesse Held put together a pre-cocktail-revolution Wisconsin supper club bar menu, with two sorts of old-fashioneds: one sweet and made with Sprite from the soda gun, the other sour and made with sour from the soda gun. Held created a brandy-slush mix for a sort of Slurpee machine—it’s delightful, summery, and tart, though next time I try it I’ll ask for tequila, as one of the bartenders told me that’s what the regulars are doing. There’s a whole list of ice cream drinks that are not updated ice cream drinks or craft-cocktail ice cream drinks; they’re just old-school ice cream drinks, like you’re wearing a mink stole and not thinking too much about President Eisenhower as you drive your Cadillac.
“It’s fancy for a farmer—that’s the supper club thing. Everyone knows it.”
Sitting at the bar another night, sampling more of the menu—skip the too-salty French onion soup, get the excellent burger, and don’t forget to ask the guy on the next stool why bartenders call him Rat Tail—I got to thinking about culture. I’ve been on a Joseph Campbell kick lately, reading that old theorist’s insights about myth and archetype and how something inside us responds differently to things we already know. The mad father-king of Oedipus Rex, for instance, makes us instantly riveted by the mad father-king of Macbeth or Succession. The myths and archetypes of Wisconsin and Minnesota supper clubs are rarely studied or written about—academics generally being elsewhere and on other payrolls.
“It’s fancy for a farmer—that’s the supper club thing. Everyone knows it,” 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, and we’re drawn like a salmon or a warbler home, to meet our like.
4820 Chicago Ave., Mpls., 612-354-3675, creeksidemn.com