Pick your poison indeed—this year has been a smorgasbord of nightmares: the capricious and bony finger of unemployment, the plague of foreclosures, the pestilence of bankruptcies. Make it stop! Kind of makes you yearn for a stiff drink in a dark place, right?
If you concur, I can’t recommend any place for that drink more than the new Bradstreet Craftshouse, the cutting-edge cocktail bar on the ground floor of the Graves 601 Hotel, across from the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Why? Not just because the cocktails are delicious, original, and inspiring—which they are—but also because the place makes me feel hopeful.
And no, that’s not just the gin talking. Bradstreet boosts my Minneapolis boosterism because it makes me remember that the city is still small enough for one person to significantly remake a part of our civic life with little more than a hunch, a passionate conversation with the spouse, a couple of phone calls, and a not inconceivable amount of capital. In these times of fretting about whether the American Dream is dead in the face of zombie banks and paralyzing health-care costs, Bradstreet is not just a new place to drink. It’s sweet relief.
That one person with a dream is Ben Graves, a 35-year-old St. Cloud native, Minneapolis resident, father of three young kids, and part of the family that owns the Graves hotel. Graves told me he got the idea for Bradstreet Craftshouse when he and his wife were involved in that most Minnesotan of all activities, touring the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth. On the tour, they fell in love with the décor in the breakfast room, the smoking parlor, and a boys’ bedroom. They were particularly taken with how a loose grasscloth wall covering interacted with a gilt background. On the tour, they learned that the designer in question, John Scott Bradstreet, was an important local figure in the arts during late-19th and early-20th century. The seeds for our new bar were planted.
“I started doing more research on Bradstreet and found he was Minneapolis’s first real tastemaker,” Graves says. “He was an expert on Japanese art and is credited with introducing Japanese influences to the Arts and Crafts Movement. He hung out with Oscar Wilde. He was instrumental in starting up the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He died in Minneapolis’s first fatal car crash, in 1914, and his death made newspapers all over the world. I think it was the London Herald that said he’d go down in history as Minneapolis’s favorite person.” Because the London Herald never saw Prince or Bob Dylan coming, I suppose.
Graves took his newfound fascination with Bradstreet, whose work can also be seen in a period room at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and combined it with his belief that absentee-famous-chef restaurants, at least when it comes to high-end hotels, are dead, over, and done. “If you’re going to a unique hotel, it’s because you want a unique experience,” Graves told me. “I think the value of brands used to be that you could ensure a certain level of excellent experience, but today, with the Internet, blogs, and so on, there are a lot of ways to ensure that the place you’re going is good. A restaurant or bar is the face of your hotel. The Chambers is beautiful, but as far as the Jean-Georges restaurant, there’s no heart and soul there. And people noticed pretty quickly. That becomes the local impression of the hotel.”
To this unusual combination of bearishness on absentee famous chefs and fascination with a historic designer, Graves added a newfound appreciation for exquisite cocktails, which he had picked up on frequent business trips to New York City (where his family is developing two new Graves hotels: one on Bryant Park, home of the famous fashion shows, and another in Williamsburg, home of the sort of beyond-cutting-edge New York hipsters who do things like knit replica M1 Abrams tanks).
If you haven’t been to New York in the last few years, you should know that chef-driven cocktails have been all the rage there. Bars like Milk & Honey, the Pegu Club, and Death & Co. specialize in cocktails made with wild or obscure ingredients, and some even promote an extreme ideal, making bitters from scratch, and re-engineering ice so that it’s colder, denser, and less prone to diluting cocktails. To head the charge on exquisite local cocktails, Graves hired two of the leading forces in the movement, namely Toby Maloney and Jason Cott of Alchemy Consulting, the people behind Chicago’s Violet Hour and veterans of the Pegu Club. Then he charged the kitchen at Cosmos with coming up with a small-plate menu of shareable snacks to complement the cocktails, and started sketching ideas inspired by Bradstreet so that local artists could fabricate light fixtures, bar screens, and so on.
Which is how Minneapolis got a thoroughly unique, utterly enjoyable new bar, a bar that is exactly what a bar should be: a respite, a salve for bad days, and a place to celebrate good ones. Of course, the cocktails are a big part of this. I haven’t had a bad one there yet, but I have been particularly impressed with the Minneapolis Flip, a rich, dessert-like, egg-nog drink made with (among many other things) St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. Then there’s the Fairview Manhattan, a sublime, spicy drink made, improbably, with single-malt scotch and Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur. Each cocktail takes the bartender five to 10 minutes to make, and involves all sorts of painstaking steps, like dotting rose-water on top of a cucumber-gin potion, or setting flame to orange oil freshly sprung from the peels. If you’ve got a friend with a birthday or a job crisis, I can’t recommend taking them here enough, and in case you’re doing so with one eye on the economy, please know that most of the cocktails here are actually cheaper than those at our other cutting-edge cocktail spots; most every Bradstreet cocktail is $10, while lots of other fancy martinis in town these days run $15 or up.
If you judge Bradstreet’s food by the standards of local bars, it’s very good. If you judge it by the standards of local restaurants, though, it’s uneven and needing help. On the good side, I was impressed by simple offerings, like good Spanish Serrano ham and a marinated section of bison hangar steak. And I was fall-over impressed by Khanh Tran’s desserts, like her must-try combination of a flourless chocolate cake, which is as lush as the filling of a chocolate truffle and served with a dusky, potent tasting black-sesame ice cream, and her playful, light, and charming float—made with moscato wine gelatin, lime soda, fresh raspberries, and lemon gelato.
On the bad side, the next time I hear someone ordering the “pasta nachos,” I am going to throw myself on the server and wrestle the pad from his hands to prevent this calamity from ever being served. Pasta nachos? I don’t know why. Wide pasta noodles, boiled, then baked crisp, then cooked so that they are coated edge-to-edge with melted cheese, served with a little dish of chopped tomatoes and pitted green olives. I already told you: I don’t know why. It was as if someone had purposefully designed a dish as an inside joke mocking chef-driven frippery. The lamb ribs were phenomenally greasy. The calamari “la plancha” was underseasoned and rubbery. In fact, all the chef-driven savory items left me wondering if anywhere along the way anyone had tasted them.
Still, I’d order the sliders again in a heartbeat. These tiny little one-bite burgers (made from your choice of beef or lamb) were everything bar food should be: interesting, comforting, inexpensive, fun. The restaurant plans to offer them in future iterations, with fries, to which I say: Hallelujah!
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the Bradstreet Craftshouse serves six sorts of ice, the most impressive of which is a sphere nearly the size of a baseball that crouches in a lowball glass and makes sure your drink stays as cold as the heart of a zombie banker.
Yes, it was nice to forget the world for a while, wasn’t it? That’s the function of a great bar, which the Bradstreet Crafthouse definitely is—just when we need it most.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.
Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays.