Dinner is the Show
How a Twin Cities visionary changed the way we think about dining out
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In the new offices of Shea Design, in the former Shinders bookstore at Eighth Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, employees can access the roof via a private stop on the otherwise public elevator. When David Shea, the firm’s founder and namesake, gives tours, this feature seems to amuse him. Riding up to the building’s rooftop restaurant, Union, his blue eyes gleam and a smile is revealed below his mustache. Union, which opened last November, is the firm’s highest-profile project to date, defined by its enormous glass dome—an urban diner’s greenhouse. The dome can be retracted, so when the weather is pleasant, diners can enjoy the relatively fresh air three stories up. As far as Shea knows, there isn’t another restaurant like it in the country.
Shea often dines at Union a couple days a week, and as he digs into one of his favorite salads, he might take a moment to check up on a few of the other restaurants his firm has designed: the crowd-pleasing Crave, just across the street, or Solera, the Spanish cocina another block south. Were the Union rooftop a few stories higher, Shea might be able to see all the way down to 12th and Hennepin, where his firm created last year’s culinary hit, Butcher & the Boar. A few blocks farther are the historic digs the Shea team helped prepare for the state’s most lauded restaurant, La Belle Vie, and, beyond that, Rye Deli. Were Shea to turn north, he’d spy two more prominent clients, Fogo de Chão and Rosa Mexicano, and, across the river, a couple of his firm’s most eye-catching designs, those of Masu and Brasa.
In some ways, these restaurants couldn’t be more different: one serves club-sized cuts of meat, another is a sushi joint, and yet another turns blue cheese into foam. But what makes them unique is also what they have in common: a distinct aesthetic that reflects the style of the cuisine. That one firm has produced such a diverse body of work is nothing short of remarkable.
On this windy spring day, a block south of Shea’s offices, the street-side windows of Le Méridien Chambers are covered with paper, concealing the dismal state of the space within. The hotel’s one-time restaurant has been completely gutted and stripped to its steel bones, insulation exposed, wires dangling from the ceiling. The tables and chairs are absent. The familiar rubber sculpture of an old man’s face is also long gone, as is the bull’s head in the formaldehyde tank. There’s nothing left but dry wall, ductwork, and concrete. Aside from a bit of periwinkle plaster—the last trace of former tenant D’Amico Kitchen—there’s little to suggest what the space was or what it might become. It could just as well be a Wal-Mart.
Chambers opened in 2006, and since then two high-profile restaurants have come and gone. The first, run by global chef-lebrity Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opened to much fanfare but closed in less than three years. The second, D’Amico Kitchen, a flagship of one of Minnesota’s best-known restaurant families, shuttered in January. Both concepts launched with enviable name recognition and culinary respect, yet they failed to stick.
When a new entrepreneur leased the space, he hired Shea to help. If anyone could break the space’s curse, it might be Shea—the architect who never finished college, yet managed to fill his portfolio with half the restaurants in the city’s premiere dining district.