Dinner is the Show
How a Twin Cities visionary changed the way we think about dining out
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Although shea moved to the Twin Cities more than four decades ago, words like ahcatecture and ideer still betray his Bostonian beginnings. After a couple years of schooling out East, he came to Minneapolis to study at the University of Minnesota. He quit after just one quarter. Instead, he taught himself from books and worked as an architectural apprentice to earn his license to practice.
Shea began his career working for well-known Minnesota architect Ed Baker, which led to a remarkable opportunity: helping the renowned Philip Johnson design the IDS Center in Minneapolis. “It was fascinating as a young person to be able to work with him, to understand his vision,” Shea recalls. In 1978, after working with Baker for nine years, he struck out on his own.
Some of his early restaurant projects were renovations of historic buildings, including the Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis and Fitger’s in Duluth. Shea’s memories of renovating the Inn—“Transients would come in and tear plywood off the walls.…we had a couple of fires”—are hard to imagine now, given the renovation’s seamless elegance. But in creating retail and restaurant environments, Shea found he most enjoyed designing for people’s everyday routines. Or, as he puts it, “connecting with consumers in a very primal way.”
In the late 1990s, Shea expanded his firm and shifted his business strategy. A few years later, the new approach was put to the test when the company’s first Hennepin Avenue project made its debut: Solera, the most-anticipated restaurant opening of 2003, and one that would mark a shift in the local dining scene’s tenor. Restaurateurs Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, then co-owners of La Belle Vie, took their impeccable food and, with Shea’s assistance, made it more fun.
To create Solera’s physical design, Shea’s team riffed on the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The result was bright and spirited, and featured funky shapes—colorful, sculptural whorls that were like nothing else in the Twin Cities, yet seemed to express the concept effortlessly. McKee’s plates of sharable tapas spurred the restaurant’s lively, social atmosphere. Solera’s communal table was the first not to freak out reticent Minnesota diners, and the restaurant was the first of its kind locally to enlist both a sommelier and a deejay. It was as if the Cities’ most-lauded chefs had ripped the white cloths off the tables and taken to wearing them as togas.
Critical buzz dubbed the concept “celestial” and “easily the most fascinating” the city had seen in some time. Solera proved that dinner could be playful yet sophisticated—Disney for adults. Even better: it was packed.
Go to any of the hottest new restaurants these days, and you’ll likely be tucking into a meal of carefully sourced, meticulously prepared, artfully presented fare, and unwinding with a similarly artisan cocktail. But in contrast to a decade or two ago, you’re not wearing a tie or a sport coat; you’re in jeans (albeit nice ones). And instead of sitting at a romantic two-top, you’re perched on a barstool. Also: it’s not your anniversary—it’s a Tuesday.
In the Twin Cities, as across the country, dining out has become an ever more prevalent form of social gathering. With global cuisine thriving and once-haute cuisine going mainstream—foie gras served from food trucks and sous vide cooking in bars—eating out has become an act of discovery. Diners no longer want simply to be fed, they want to be entertained. As movie-ticket sales slump and orchestras lock out musicians, dinner is the show.
Shea-designed restaurants are in synch with this dinner-tainment trend, though it’s hard to say if the firm is creating the wave or riding it. Either way, in 10 years Shea’s firm has grown to 35 employees, and restaurant and hospitality clients now comprise nearly 40 percent of its business.