Heirloom closed this past Tuesday night (7/31/18).
Heirloom was a special place: It was creative farm-to-table cooking. It was warm service and good wine. It was a testament to familiar, simple ingredients used in innovative and delicious ways. We loved the tartare in every one of its iterations, we loved items like the carrot pasta that remain rare on Twin Cities menus. We loved the starry-eyed optimism of a place that could be both familiar, and groundbreaking, in a quaint and quiet neighborhood.
It reminded us a bit of Heartland, actually, which opened in the same neighborhood many years ago.
The restaurant joins Ward 6, the Muddy Pig and Fabulous Fern’s – also special St. Paul places (if for different reasons; they were especially friendly to those who work in the industry) – as recent additions to the local restaurant cemetery.
We’re not here to write doom-and-gloom pieces every time a restaurant closes its doors. Everyone knows that the restaurant industry is a volatile one – especially the chefs who work behind the line, and who put everything on the line to open their own. Any number of factors can contribute to a good, even great, restaurant not making the cut.
But we, the diners, also have a responsibility. And we have to look ourselves in the mirror when something great bites the dust.
We all gotta eat
I was eating macaroni and cheese (with jalapeños – they’ll add anything, just ask) at the Bulldog last night at 1am. A group of friends and I were looking around at different restaurants in the neighborhood, wondering what we would have done had there not been anywhere open to eat – those new(ish) to St. Paul might not know that we wouldn’t have had any options up until a few years ago. It would have been Mickey’s Dining Car. Or a fast food drive-through. And that was it.
(We do love Mickey’s. But that’s another story.)
And we should celebrate the forward progress of the capital city’s dining scene. And that of the Twin Cities’ as a whole. And local foodists crowding like zombies toward anything and everything new and exciting that opens with a chef-turned-local-celebrity at the helm isn’t inherently wrong or bad – it’s good to get excited. Lord knows the world needs something to be excited about.
(Case in point: Remember the skyscraper-scaling raccoon from earlier this summer?)
But that cute restaurant you like for brunch sometimes? It’s struggling to pay its suppliers and stress is keeping the owner up at night. The place you went for your first date with your now-husband or wife? It’s already gone, and there’s probably another Crave restaurant moving in within the next few months. And, while you were wondering why you’ve been waiting for an hour-and-a-half to get into [whatever new restaurant], the dreams of another chef were disappearing into the closet with their whites.
It’s more than just food-no-more: It’s telling waitstaff that they won’t be getting a paycheck anymore. It’s letting friends and family know that your dream is dead, and, probably, that you won’t be able to pay them back the money that they lent you to get the restaurant off the ground in the timeline you promised. It’s sending the impassioned artisan back to the grind of the line at somebody else’s place. It’s turning the lights off one last time on the one thing you’ve always wanted to do.
But somebody’s gotta cook
Because, as much as Food Network would like to convince you otherwise, being a chef is not, has not, and will never be, a glamorous job. It comes with very few perks – and it comes with even fewer choices and options for any sort of upward mobility. The only real pot of gold at the end of this physically-and-mentally-draining rainbow is, you guessed it, opening your own restaurant. There’s not much else. Maybe, if you open enough restaurants, you can become something called a “consultant” and eat free meals at the bar of a place you don’t have any real stake in.
(And good luck with that – restaurant consulting as a full-time position is not in the cards for very many chefs.)
As Anthony Bourdain wrote in his 2010 memoir Medium Raw,
“You could, of course, opt for the “private chef” route upon graduating. But know that for people in the industry, the words “private” and “chef” just don’t go together. To real chefs, such a concept doesn’t even exist. A private “chef” is domestic help, period. A glorified butler. Somewhere slightly below “food stylist” and above “consultant” on the food chain. It’s where the goofs who wasted a lot of money on a culinary education only to find out they couldn’t hack it in the real world end up.”
That rainbow leading to a pot of gold, then, is more of a yellow brick road leading to the sham of a wizard behind a curtain promising you that everything you need to be successful you already have within yourself – not in the declining interest of diners waiting for their spot at the latest, newest trendy and trend-based restaurant for Instagram photos. Not in high rents, and certainly not in the flaky investors who’s dollars have become the only, literally only, real way to get a restaurant off the ground. Not in the miles of red tape from the city, or in the latest construction project that squeezes your business out of a neighborhood you once called your own.
And, all the while, restaurant fatigue will continue behind the scenes, the shortage of quality chefs will leave restaurants barren and understaffed, and restaurants will open, and close, and open, and close, until it doesn’t matter at all anymore who laid the groundwork for dining in the Twin Cities, or why that matters.
Restaurants of future celebration
We could list for you everything that gets us excited – we could follow Rick Nelson’s recommendations for where to eat this summer and think not one second more about the places we’ve laid to rest. We could cheer the fact that there are actually good places to eat in Duluth now (At Sara’s Table, Martha’s Daughter et al), and Stillwater (Pearl and the Thief is one of the most exciting restaurants to open recently), that world-class chefs like Daniel del Prado (he’s killing the game – his second restaurant is slated to open in the fall), Ann Kim (she is unstoppable), and Jamie Malone (Grand Cafe is the best restaurant in Minneapolis) are getting much-deserved attention and respect, that the Travail team is able to continue with their anarchical and fantastic approach to food, that the Kim Bartmann empire continues to expand in ways that would make the Romans jealous, and so much more.
But those articles already exist: We are a gleefully enthusiastic bunch of diners in the Twin Cities. Perhaps our cold weather has given us a glowing appreciation for anything good news – or maybe it’s just an appreciation for the fact that we do have an incredible dining scene here; again, there is no need to bow our heads in shame and flagellate ourselves every time a local gem, one that we sort of forgot about in the flurry of news about the next big thing, closes its doors.
But it’s not enough to say “…oh well,” and move on, either. It’s not enough to say that we don’t have enough butts for metro restaurant seats, or that we’re unable to support these places. And it’s certainly, certainly not enough to say that these places must have done something wrong – that it was poor business acumen or simply an ill-fated venture on the part of our hardworking chefs who toiled away in obscurity for years just for a chance to finally run a place of their own, with their own line, their own rules, while fostering their own cooks headed towards a similar fate.
What we will say, and perhaps it’s best to leave it here, is that unless we start to understand why we’re eating in, and thus supporting, the places that we are; unless we start to think more about the where and the who as much as we do the endless Yelp reviews, Top 10 lists (of which we’re admittedly guilty of publishing more than a few), the big names backed by bigger money, and the coming-soon hype that feels increasingly manufactured, the Twin Cities will never have the dining scene it truly deserves.
R.I.P. to Heirloom, and to all the others that passed before it.
Read next: A Tribute to Anthony Bourdain