Why Are Suburban Restaurants So Flavorless?

Call it the land of strip malls and soccer fields: when it comes to where we live, the Twin Cities is more like the Many Suburbs. Good luck finding cutting-edge restaurants out there, though. (I spent two years reviewing suburban eateries for this magazine—trust me!)

Incubators for creativity tend to be concentrated in dense urban areas. “You would never put the Guthrie or the Walker in Plymouth,” says Michael Larson, owner of Eat Shop Bar & Kitchen in said western suburb. Since opening Eat Shop last fall, Larson has found that his clientele’s tastes are a little more conservative than he anticipated. Take, for example, Eat Shop’s duck confit salad topped with a poached egg. “I’ve had no less than 20 people call for a manager to come to the table so they could show me that their poached egg was runny!” Larson says. He’s also had to tone down the Fini sharp cheddar in Eat Shop’s macaroni and cheese. “I never thought I would have to hear a guest complain that my mac ’n cheese has too much flavor,” he says with a laugh.

So how the heck did a bunch of free-spirited cooks serving artful, upscale food in a rowdy, bar-like style—a.k.a. the hyper-ambitious, nationally lauded Travail Kitchen & Amusements—end up in downtown Robbinsdale? “It’s certainly a question I get asked every damn time people sit down,” says chef/co-owner Mike Brown. With more talent than financing, the up-and-coming restaurateurs found an affordable spot in a working-class neighborhood that fits Travail’s concept of fancy food for non-fancy people.

Other restaurateurs say they’ve been heartened by Travail’s success in convincing suburbanites to sample foie gras-and-Pop Rock lollipops. “They’ve kind of peeled back the onion,” says Tim Niver, co-owner of Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul. “People are finally trying new things.” Though Niver says he’s  never considered opening a restaurant close to his Eagan home. “The suburbs are tricky for things that are uncommon,” he explains.

Part of the problem is demographics. In the Twin Cities, there are only a small percentage of people willing to push the culinary envelope. In the suburbs, that same percentage would quickly lead to an “out of business” sign.

So does the DeRusha family need to move to Minneapolis? Or will Travail’s success inspire an ambitious restaurateur to try something new in Maple Grove?

Jason Derusha is a reporter/anchor at WCCO-TV. Have a dining mystery you want Jason to solve? E-mail him at DeRushaEats@gmail.com