How surprised was I to hear that the Walker Art Museum was not renewing Wolfgang Puck’s contract to provide restaurant and catering services, and would be replacing 20.21 with a D’Amico restaurant? Pretty darn surprised. I feel like I’ve been the only critic to ever say that place was less than fabulous.
But perhaps I was the only person to say it in print? Anyway, here’s the down-low on the new restaurant that’s coming: It’s called Gather, it’s modern American, with a healthy focus, from the D’Amico restaurant company (of D’Amico Kitchen at the Chambers, Lurcat, Campiello, Masa, and the two dozen D’Amico and Sons). The chef will be Josh Brown, who has worked for D’Amico for ten years, cooking at the restaurant Masa, but also in the catering side of the company. The D’Amicos plan to operate Gather as a lunch and Thursday-night dinner spot, and will expand the outdoor grill. The menu will be calorie-conscious, healthy, locally-sourced when possible, and will offer dishes like a warm wild-salmon salad on beets with mustard sauce, or a harissa roast lamb sandwich with roast vegetables, or pork ramen with poached eggs, scallions, and spinach. So, that’s the what of what’s happening. What’s the why?
Because Minneapolis will destroy you—if you’re a world famous chef. I must say, I find it terrifically amusing that Minneapolis has now roundly rejected three superstar coastal chefs: We sent Marcus Samuelsson and the Minneapolis Aquavit packing, then rejected Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in the Chambers Hotel (also replaced by a D’Amico restaurant) and now have ditched Wolfgang Puck. Minneapolis, we’re like the Russian steppes, where powerful armies come to die! Or maybe not. I still think Jean Georges and Aquavit in New York and the Beverly Hills Spago are great, stratospheric, phenomenal–but these underpowered local versions really stunk up the joint. And now they’re all gone! Who’s brave enough to come here now? Daniel? Ducasse? You are all fair-warned, Minneapolis is not sheep!
Okay, you want a more sophisticated take on this story? I can provide that too. There look to be two real reasons for the switch: One, curator Olga Viso had a vision for a more fluid, community-driven, real-world dining experience at the Walker—not a name-brand restaurant stapled onto a name-brand restaurant. “The dining scene has changed” in the five years since 20.21 opened, Viso told me. “Our visitors are looking for a more casual dining experience, and locally sourced foods. [The D’Amico’s] proposal focused on serving our visitors to the Walker much more broadly.” Broadly in terms of catering to different sized groups, different budgets, and being flexible in the catering to serve both casual and formal get togethers. The new restaurant, Gather, will primarily serve lunch, will be only open one night a week, on Thursdays, mirroring the only night the Walker itself is open, and on those Thursdays they hope to bring in visiting chefs from other restaurants—perhaps Doug Flicker from Piccolo will take a month of Thursdays, and perhaps Isaac Becker from Eatery 112 will too. Those names were suggested by Larry D’Amico, but I’ll add some thoughts of my own: Perhaps even out-state chefs like Scott Graden from the New Scenic Café, or George Wilkes from the Angry Trout Café, or chefs without restaurants, like the crew from Clancey’s butcher shop, or the Chef Shack’s Carrie Summers, or even food celebrities like Lynn Rosetto Casper, Rhagavan Iyer, or Andrew Zimmern? I think this could be spectacular fun, and it makes sense for the Walker as a way to bring new groups into the Walker on a regular basis.
In our brief conversation, Viso told me that a more fluid relationship with all sorts of communities is part of her vision for the Walker, and that’s why, among other things, they’re bringing back Music and Movies in the Park (partnering with The Current); it will be in its regular location for the first three Mondays in August, and on the fourth Monday in August it will be in the green space adjacent to the Walker, where Rock the Garden is. That green space also will hold Open Field, an outdoor “community mash-up” where there will be a series of planned events, like Thursday Drawing Club, and also space for you, you citizens you, to come and do what you like. Viso told me that one morning last year guerilla yogis showed up with 200 students for guerilla yoga!
So on the one hand, there’s the vision, community-driven, fluid, community serving thing. And on the other hand, there’s the money: As of today, D’Amico has a huge catering arm and a well networked staff of 15 salespeople who are busy placing corporate events, parties, and weddings every minute of every working day! They also have 1,200 or so employees who can cater any size event. By linking up with D’Amico the Walker stands to get a sizable increase in their event business. By having the restaurant closed six days a week, that prime main dining room with the beautiful view is suddenly available for private parties every night but Thursday–so if you want a wedding for 80, on a Saturday night, in a gorgeous space with covered, heated parking, and you want the chef to be anyone you can think of who says yes, well, life just got a lot more interesting.
To this critic, this move looks like a win-win-win. The Walker gets more money, diners get a more usable Walker Art Center, local chefs and foodies get a flexible venue the likes of which we’ve never had, and local brides get another option for dream weddings. Heck, this may even be a win for fine dining spots like La Belle Vie and Piccolo, as the fine dining herd is thinned a little. Speaking of fine dining, Larry D’Amico, who of course was part of white-tablecloth D’Amico Cucina for decades, takes a rather gimlet-eyed view of it all: “I always have this feeling that there’s only about 500 or 600 fine-dining diners in this town,” he told me. “And we share them with other restaurants. In New York there might be fifty or sixty thousand people who have flown in for dinner, but here it’s just the same 500 or 600 people moving around.”
This much is sure: They won’t be moving in and out of 20.21 much longer. 20.21 will close in mid-March, a light renovation will be supervised by the Walker’s design curator, and Gather will open in April or early May.
So what do you think? Yay or nay? And who would you put on a long-list of chefs you’d pay money to dine with on a Thursday night?