It’s going to be another big night at The Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar.
The cooler is stocked. The reservation book is full. And the overnight cleaning crew just eradicated the last trace of yesterday’s service. On this chilly morning, 50 North Second Avenue looks much as it must have a century ago, when the brick-and-timber warehouse was new to Minneapolis’s North Loop. The streets are deserted and the sky is dark except for the florescent lights streaming from the building’s kitchen—a beacon for the hottest thing going in the neighborhood.
The former Northwestern Hide and Fur Building wasn’t attracting much attention until Eric Dayton, son of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, purchased it in 2008. Its most recent occupant was an industrial wire-cutting business called Marvel Rack, so architect James Dayton (yes, he’s a relative) faced no small task in converting the space into a modern restaurant, bar, and retail shop, while preserving its historic character.
When Eric and his brother, Andrew, conceived of their contemporary Scandinavian restaurant and subterranean speakeasy, they imagined an intimate neighborhood hangout. But as soon as the kitchen served its first plate of Swedish meatballs, patrons flocked from near and far, packing the place night after night. How were a couple of hospitality greenhorns able to pull off such a feat?
The Bachelor Farmer’s baker and pastry chef are the first to arrive, as always. Their first stop: the storage room. The restaurant makes almost everything from scratch using premium ingredients—even growing some produce on the building’s roof, which is buried in snow. The pastry chef bypasses a tub labeled “Top Secret Pickle Project” and half a hog carcass to collect dozens of Larry Schultz eggs, pounds of Hope butter, and gallons of Organic Valley cream. She has less than six hours to create a dessert that will earn a spot on tonight’s menu.
Back up in the kitchen, the two feed bread starter, melt chocolate, heat milk for fresh cheese, and roll dough into long sheets of flatbread. It’s too early for conversation, so they work in near silence, save for the hum of the ovens, vents, and refrigeration units.
Chef Paul Berglund enters looking rather like a lanky graduate student with his narrow glasses and day’s worth of beard growth. Rather than rely on Eric’s experience with line cooking at Goodfellows restaurant back in high school, the Dayton brothers called upon Paul, an alumnus of Oliveto, a highly respected restaurant in Oakland, California, to lead The Bachelor Farmer’s kitchen. Paul starts his day with a clipboard in hand, reading through the to-do list: ducks, lentil base, paté; render pork fat. His first task is to fillet last night’s shipment of rockfish—beautiful specimens, with red-and-white skins, clear eyes, and resilient flesh.
Eric and Andrew arrive. Although they’re both already clutching Dunn Brothers cups, Andrew starts the coffee maker. Their preppy outfits look as if they might have come from the same closet. The brothers’ similar taste in clothes has become something of a running joke. If they accidentally dress alike, Andrew says, “We do rock-paper-scissors to see who has to go home and change.”
As if the brothers didn’t have enough to do between overseeing the bar and restaurant, they followed in their forefathers’ retail footsteps and opened a men’s shop in the building’s storefront. It’s called Askov Finlayson, a name that should sound familiar to anyone who’s driven I-35 between the Twin Cities and Duluth and paid attention to the exit signs.
The restaurant and the store often share clients: fans of farm-to-table cuisine seem to appreciate the classic clothing and accessories. One night, the Daytons sold two handcrafted leather iPad cases when a Bachelor Farmer guest showed the one she’d just purchased to her dining companion, who promptly went down and did the same.
While they wait for customers, Eric and Andrew meet with the retail manager to plan their itinerary for the menswear shows in New York and time an order of British umbrellas. The shop is minimally furnished with leather chairs and an area rug pulled from Andrew’s emptying apartment. Eric, too, has sacrificed home décor for the business, having lent the restaurant several of his photographs by local-boy-made-good Alec Soth. “My apartment looks like it’s been robbed,” Eric explains. “There are bare hooks where art used to be.” The brothers spend far more time at work than home these days, so at least here they can enjoy their possessions.
Askov Finlayson’s merchandise tends toward timeless pieces: dress shirts, slacks, Danish wool sweaters, sailcloth duffel bags. The common denominator, Andrew explains, is quality, partial justification for the $125 price tag on the store’s most casual item: sweatpants with their brand name, “Warriors of Radness,” spelled out down the leg in rainbow-colored cursive script.
In the office upstairs, the general manager sits at his computer and scans the evening’s reservation list, which already shows 150 diners on the books. He’s going to need every last table in the dining room, including the corner booth that went out of commission last night due to an icy draft, so he heads downstairs armed with a caulk gun.
At Andrew’s computer, the brothers update the Marvel Bar’s Facebook page. Today’s post describes a new drink called the Strong-water, which the Marvel Bar’s head bartender, Pip Hanson, recently invented. Bourbon, cognac, thyme liqueur, and lemon zest are mixed together and then highly diluted. It’s a surprisingly pleasurable technique: the water smooths out any harshness and highlights the spirits’ subtleties. Pip developed a reputation for precise, innovative bartending at his previous position at Café Maude, where the brothers recruited him after he poured the best Manhattans they’d ever sipped.
Naïveté more than confidence may have spurred the Daytons to tackle their ambitious project, but what the brothers lack in entrepreneurial experience, they seem to make up for in diligent management. (Presumably they have picked up a few tips from their father’s overseeing of the entire state of Minnesota.)
The brothers plan to add brunch service to the restaurant as well as private events, but they have prioritized fine-tuning their current operation versus expanding—don’t expect to see The Bachelor Farmer franchises out in Bloomington and Maple Grove. Building wealth would seem less of a motivator to the Daytons than creating a restaurant experience that proud locals show off to out-of-towners. Considering the Dayton family’s legacy in retail and political leadership, thinking small would be uncharacteristic. And who better to understand the collective consciousness of Minnesotans than the Daytons? They practically invented our aspirations of what it means to be one.
The kitchen staff gathers in the dining room for their daily meeting. Paul instructs one of his cooks on how to prepare an appetizer made with small fish called sand dabs. “You’re going to need capers, white wine, olive oil, and mullet roe,” he says in confident rapid-fire, like Brad Pitt trading baseball players in Moneyball.
“You need a shaver for that,” he adds, talking the cook through the steps. “Microplane. Same one you’re using for the Bibb.”
“Large flake?” the cook asks, furiously scribbling in a notebook.
“I don’t want a microplane-microplane,” Paul clarifies, in language only cooks can understand. “But a microplane is preferable to really large flakes.”
Paul and his sous chef have just finished testing a new shrimp appetizer and roast-chicken entrée. It’s now the moment of truth for the pastry chef’s dessert: a flourless chocolate cake with salted-caramel semifreddo, lingonberry pâtes de fruit jellies, and a dollop of cream. Paul takes a bite and says he loves the flavor combination, but he’s concerned about the pâtes de fruit sticking to the plate. The two discuss a few options before deciding to simply plop the gummies into the cream.
After they’ve finished, Paul sets forth on one of the kitchen’s lowliest tasks: dicing an array of onions with mechanical precision. The former naval officer isn’t exactly Food Network material—he’s too calm, too disciplined.
A deliveryman wheels a 300-pound block of sculptor’s ice into the Marvel Bar. When even the world’s purest ice cubes can’t give the Marvel bartenders the drink-cooling control they desire, they chip their own ice from large blocks. Two bartenders help the deliveryman heft the thing onto the counter and immediately start attacking it. One scores the block into eighths with what looks like a large putty knife, while the other splits it with a hammer and chisel. The first bartender breaks the block down further by aggressively stabbing it with a metal pick, like he’s a human sewing-machine needle. The smaller blocks are neatly stacked in the freezer within a matter of minutes. “It reminds me of a cave man taking down a mammoth,” Pip remarks.
After a staff meal—a substantial spread that includes the roast-chicken tester, two types of potatoes, popovers, salad, and a hearty split-pea soup—the front-of-the-house staff gathers upstairs for their pre-shift meeting, which takes place in one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. The walls are covered with a funky collage of crocheted afghans, which lends the otherwise modern space a warm familiarity.
First on the agenda: the sous chef explains the new dishes. After subjecting the servers to a beer-list pop quiz, the general manager issues a warning: “Do not cap the stack.” More than one blank look results. “When stacking similar dishes for the dishwashing crew,” he explains, “you should never add a different dish to the top of the pile”—not only is it inefficient, but the whole thing could topple.
Andrew previews some exclusive new Alec Soth merchandise for the store, including coloring books from Soth’s publishing company that may be the first in the genre to feature Bronko Nagurski and the Coen brothers. The general manager then pours the staff samples of a hard-to-find new wine he’s acquired. “I buy wine like they buy Soth,” he says of the Daytons. “Take it all so nobody else can get it.”
Seated in the Norsten Bar, next to the dining room, the assistant general manager undergoes her daily ritual of reviewing the comment books that the servers drop off with the check. She initials each remark, incorporating the feedback in her mental databank. “Coming from a bachelor farmer, we love this place.” “Uffdah! Very good.” “It’s not Manhattan, but it’s surprisingly hip, delicious, and cool.” Minnesotans always seem to find the need to make coastal comparisons, don’t they?
The books contain poems, a fake mustache, a lipstick kiss, and, inexplicably, what appears to be someone’s senior-class photograph. One of the servers has received multiple marriage proposals from anonymous guests. Books that have recently received “edgier” messages—“I f—ing love you guys,” for example—circulate in the bar. Only a few book pages with “inappropriate” sketches (a group of the Dayton brothers’ friends are prime suspects) had to be removed.
Guests with 5:30 p.m. reservations are already peeking through the windows and the assistant general manager doesn’t want them to wait in the cold. “We’re opening the doors,” she announces to the kitchen. A cook makes shots of espresso for the entire line. “Double? Or triple?” she asks.
A server cuts butter pats for the restaurant’s complimentary appetizer of flatbread and radishes and ferries the first plates to the dining room. Restocking the butter pats is among the hundreds of details that front-of-the-house staff has to track. Dozens more tips are posted on a list called “Service 101” near the servers’ order terminal. No. 1 is a no-brainer: “Acknowledge all guests with eye contact and a smile immediately.” But others are more obscure, like “12. Level the art.” Several deal with appropriate guest interaction: “18. Do not react to the amount of the tip; 30. Do not ask a question while a guest’s mouth is full; 31. Do not enter a guest’s conversation unless clearly invited.”
The sous chef stands at the pass, a counter that divides the kitchen from the dining room, lining up tickets and calling out orders to the various cooks. She’s essentially playing air-traffic controller so each table’s orders will be ready at the same time. “Fire Camembert, no shallots,” she hollers. Two old tickets are taped to the wall with messages scrawled on top, “10-top in 23 minutes,” and, “9-top in 20 minutes”: house records in putting together big orders, the kitchen equivalent of scalps.
Paul runs his kitchen like the Daytons run their business: hire people you trust and let them do their thing. He lets his staff handle tonight’s dinner service as he scores the fat on dozens of duck breasts and makes other preparations for the upcoming days. From the back of the kitchen, he can watch the orders flow and anticipate any problems—demonstrating strong “field awareness,” as they say in team sports.
Much like The Bachelor Farmer’s dining room, the accompanying Norsten Bar has a mellow vibe despite being nearly full. No matter the guest’s dress—lumberjack plaid and sequins inhabit adjacent barstools—they seem to appreciate the food and beverage. A man approaches the bartender and gruffly asks her what’s in one of the drinks. She shows him the bottles: aquavit, gin, orange bitters, and Cocchi Americano, an aperitif wine. “Is that your favorite cocktail?” she asks. “It’s delicious,” he says. “In fact, I should probably tip you.” He pulls a stack of folded bills from his pocket and tosses $5 on the counter.
The kitchen is running full tilt. Eggshells pile up. A stove burner flares. The cooks fill the pass with plates and servers rush to distribute them. Meanwhile, in the relative serenity of the basement cooler, Paul deconstructs the pig carcass with a hacksaw.
In the dining room, guests appear rapt in conversation, enjoying the evening and blissfully unaware of all these activities. The lights are low, the music is soft, and wine glasses cover nearly every table. Diners may never make a conscious note of all the tiny details that made their meal great versus simply good—the house-butchered pork, the hand-chipped ice, the plating of the pâte de fruit, the minute difference between a “microplane-microplane” and a “large flake.” When they next recall this meal, all they will remember is that they ate well and enjoyed themselves.
In fact, The Bachelor Farmer’s secret to success may be that its food isn’t necessarily the star: the cooking is novel enough to discuss, but not at the expense of other topics. It’s the restaurant’s vibe—its contemporary spin on nostalgic comforts and Volvo-like sense of understated luxury—that accounts for its enduring appeal. Sure, a few guests may have been hoping to rub shoulders with politicians and scions, but mostly they are drawn in by the way the place reflects their own sophisticated populist sensibilities. And besides, who doesn’t love the idea of hopping from shop to restaurant to bar without the hassle of re-parking the car?
Eric and Andrew finally sit down to eat dinner in the Norsten Bar. Paul comes in to say goodbye, sporting a new Band-aid on his finger—he pricked himself with the giant syringe he was using to pump brine into cuts of pork. Trying to brine himself, it seems.
Eric stops in the kitchen and says goodnight. Andrew will leave a few minutes later and both will be back tomorrow morning by 10 a.m. to open Askov Finlayson. The cooks clean up as the servers start to cash out, counting their tips and dispensing a few appreciative bills to the hostesses and food runner.
12:05 a.m. Sunday
A guest is upset that his party can’t get into the packed Marvel Bar and a couple staffers gracefully smooth his ruffled feathers. Restaurant diners are given priority access, but walk-ups must take their place in the queue—no VIPs, no favorites. Supposedly, even Governor Dayton doesn’t get to cut the line, but that scenario has yet to arise.
The Marvel Bar’s last patrons head out the door and someone flips on the lights. A bartender pours a round of beers and passes out a loaf of homemade banana bread. (The only food the bar serves is Cheetos, and often the bar staff doesn’t stop to eat during their shift.) After nearly 12 hours spent thinking about booze, two devoted bartenders discuss the merits of 110-proof gin as they clean up.
The last of the crew bundles up—one bartender pulls on an Askov Finlayson sweater—and spills out into the cold, dark night. The kitchen emits the same florescent light it did 20 hours earlier, a reminder that in roughly four hours, the cycle will start all over again.
Rachel Hutton, a Minneapolis freelance writer, is a former City Pages restaurant critic and co-editor of Before the Mortgage, a collection of essays by twentysomethings.