Minneapolis’s landmark Forum Cafeteria is back! It’s a magnificent eyeful and worth the trip downtown.
Right after I graduated college, I had a temp job on the north end of downtown Minneapolis that often had me scurrying through one of the crummy little buildings that replaced the old Metropolitan Building—that grand Romanesque skyscraper with an elaborate interior of ironwork that was torn down in what architectural historian Larry Millett called “perhaps the most inexcusable act of civic vandalism in the history of Minneapolis.” ¶ As I scurried, I’d always feel a sad shiver: The grandest achievements of a society can be wrecked in a blink. Now that I’m older, I understand the teardown of the old grand office tower in other terms as well: The building wasn’t just gone, the whole world of resources, skills, and aesthetics that produced it were gone, too. It was irreplaceable not just in ways I understood, but also in ways I could never fully grasp. The ironworkers who knew how to make those railings were gone. The world in which iron was practically free was gone. That moment in time when ornament was considered necessary and not something to be examined as a cost center was gone, too—to say nothing of the people who knew how to build glass floors and carve red sandstone. One definition of maturity might be that it’s the point when you begin to understand the enormity and the ramifications of everything you don’t know. Is this too sad a sentiment for a restaurant review? Likely yes, but it’s some of the emotion that comes as one sits in the new Forum in downtown Minneapolis, a glorious, splendid space with a striking bit of history that we did not, miraculously, lose.
That history: In 1929, when Minneapolis was enjoying Jazz Age glitz and wealth, a glittering mirrored art deco restaurant with little Viking flourishes was built. It was called the Forum Cafeteria. (This was back when the word cafeteria wasn’t institutional, but instead evoked something futuristic and wonderful: In the 1920s and 1930s, the world also held caketerias, groceterias, and furnitureterias.) Then, of course, came the crash and the Depression. But through it all, Minnesotans with a few nickels for pie or a burger could go somewhere fabulous and breathtaking to eat it. Until 2005 when the last restaurant in the old Forum, the white-tablecloth Goodfellow’s, closed. This spring, restaurateur Jim Ringo opened both the Forum and a St. Louis Park restaurant, Ringo, at the same time.
Each has a dizzying array of foods: At the Forum, this mix begins with a basic chophouse menu, picks up regional specialties from around the country (Louisiana gumbo on dirty rice, an Iowa fried-pork sandwich, Carolina mustard-sauced ribs), and culminates with a monthly, regionally focused menu of selections from, say, Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Ketchikan, Alaska. I’ve been to both of Jim Ringo’s new restaurants. I believe that Ringo, with its diner-length menu of 50-odd options presented on three separate double-sided printouts, and it’s sudden loss of the head chef, is not yet ready for review. But the Forum is, and I honestly like it very much.
I’ll admit I like it mainly because of the utterly unique original art deco vision, with its odd palette of a super-saturated green that’s not turquoise but not sage, and calls to mind vintage cars and lit swimming pools. I love the motifs of pine trees, canoes, and Viking sailing vessels. All of it touches my heart because it somehow comes together to present this innocent, odd world of a future-past, a world of rhubarb crisps, streamlined toasters, hygiene, and glamour.
The food, by chef Christian Ticaro, is a little hard to get a handle on because the options are so numerous. The classic American country-club items, however, are beyond reproach. The Minnesota wild-rice soup is just about perfect: fresh, vegetal, rich with chicken and cream, real, and whole. The chicken potpie has a pastry lid as light as clouds, and an interior as warm and comforting as can be. The silky, sensuous lobster macaroni-and-cheese is larded with fat chunks of real Atlantic lobster. The thick rib eye is dusted simply with smoked salt, and served with creamy mounds of mashed potatoes and rustic chunks of roast vegetables. Ticarro told me his secret: He runs a classical old-French brigade-style kitchen, roasting chicken bones for stock and building the stock through different levels, now with whole vegetables, now strained through a chinois, now with mirepoix, now strained again. I believe it. You can taste it plainly. Ticarro, who grew up working in local restaurants, also tells me his father, who trained at the original Cordon Bleu in Paris and spent his career in Twin Cities country clubs and restaurants, shows up at 5 a.m. every day to start his stocks and mentor the young cooks on how to do it. Again, I believe it. You can taste it.
Still, as much as I really did like what I liked at the Forum, I also had an overwhelming desire to take a red pencil to the menu: Creole pasta? Walleye on a stick? Grilled shrimp salad with mandarin oranges? What’s with this hodgepodge of gimmicky foods from no particular cuisine directed at no particular audience? And speaking of hodgepodge directed at no particular audience, one night I had to prevent my husband from running screaming from the restaurant because of the music—an intolerably loud, conversation-obliterating run through Boyz II Men, the Eagles, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, and other aged easy-listening hits. It was like being in Versailles and being forced to endure the music from the tour bus at top volume. We took it up with the management who told us they’d be fired if they touched the iPod; it was the owner’s, and it was a source of contention. They begged us to e-mail Jim Ringo or fill out a comment card.
Instead, I called him up. “We had period music, from the ’30s and ’40s, but then we got feedback from the younger demographic and went to hip-hop and things that would appeal to a younger demographic,” Ringo explained to me. “But we may be going back to more classical jazz.” Ringo also told me he is committed to having his very long menus, because, as he puts it, they enhance his guests’ experiences. I told him I thought his ambition was exceeding his reach and that people would be far happier with fewer items, well executed. As I hung up, I realized I had slipped out of objective-reporter mode. I love this historic Forum. It seems as important an art deco edifice as any in America, as grand as the Rainbow Room in New York, as irreplaceable as anything we have. I’d hate for Minneapolis to lose it again. So brother, won’t you go, and spare a few moments to fill out a comment card? Your city needs you.
The Forum is catnip for art hounds, history buffs, and architecture students, and the classic American food is good.
Ideal Meal: Chicken wild-rice soup, chicken potpie, Minneapolis’s best lobster mac-and-cheese, or a grilled steak. Hours: Monday–Friday 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Saturday 5 p.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Prices: A typical lunch entrée is $12; dinner entrées are mostly around $20. Address: 40 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, 612-354-2017, forumrestaurantmn.ringorestaurants.com