When we first got to Minnesota in 2007 the two restaurants that came up most often when we asked for recommendations for places to eat were La Belle Vie and 112 Eatery. 112 Eatery was still relatively new (they opened in January 2005), La Belle Vie was already an institution. Eight years later, 112 Eatery is seemingly still going strong but La Belle Vie will be closing at the end of the month. I do not bring this up to suggest that 112 Eatery is the better restaurant per se; but there may be some evidence here of the survival of the fittest in the original Darwinian sense.
As everyone who follows the American high-end restaurant scene knows, there’s been a marked shift in the last decade or so in what diners, especially those who’ve come of age as diners in the last decade or so, want from so-called “fine dining”. The format recognized most obviously in service and ambience modeled on European aristocratic houses from a century ago is not just out of vogue, it is in its death throes. It is, of course, worth noting that this model has itself undergone formal transformation over time and specifically in the US, such that a seemingly obvious “fine dining” restaurant here might seem like a complete compromise when compared with exemplars of the genre in France (for illustration of this see this New Yorker article on the transformations of Eleven Madison Park in New York). If “fine dining” once meant a replication (from the restaurant’s point of view) or an aspirational tour (from the bourgeois diner’s point of view) of an aristocratic experience, it is well on its way to being fused with a culture of authenticity that nods towards a very different end of the class ladder (eating all but inside kitchens, at “chef’s tables” and kitchen counters, right in the site of labour; in dining rooms exposed wood and brick and ducts rather than chandeliers); and also towards very different parts of the atlas (in the David Chang era it’s hard to imagine an up and coming chef who does not know how to make dashi).
In other words, the culture’s expectations of what “fine” means or qualifies in the context of fine dining have changed: the food is still going to be fine in terms of ingredients and techniques  but rather than being pampered at the table you’ll have your new global cosmopolitanism flattered instead; rather than elaborate service you get access to the chef as auteur. Or you might say people are now willing to pay equally large sums of money to be uncomfortable in different ways. But in a small market like the Twin Cities there just isn’t enough of that money to support both a restaurant like La Belle Vie that offers the old formal service model of fine dining and all the new(er) places that offer different points in the continuum of the experience of the new model of fine dining (from Spoon and Stable at one end, say, to something like Bachelor Farmer at the other) while serving food that is not formally (so very) different . La Belle Vie’s calling card continued to be its claim to be something different, something truly sophisticated, but the case may just be that, unlike culture, they stood still . From any point of view, it is an end of an era in the Twin Cities.
Anyway, on to 112 Eatery which is an exemplar of the quite informal end of the continuum of the new model of fine dining: small plates, a casual atmosphere, a menu that points to all parts of the globe, a wine list that tops out at $200 but also cooking that evidences a classical background and grasp of technique. We’ve been eating here since we arrived in 2007—though we hadn’t been in the last two years or so since I started this blog—and the menu hasn’t changed much in that period. Where a lot of places in town emphasize constantly changing, seasonal menus there’s something to be said for the fact that at 112 Eatery your favourite dishes will always be there and that you won’t have a window of only a few weeks or months to try something else that caught your eye. Accordingly, on this occasion we stuck mostly with things we’ve always eaten. Details on what we ate are in the captions of the slideshow below (those who’ve eaten there know just how dark the restaurant is, so please marvel at the fact that my non-dslr camera managed to take any photographs at all).
All of this plus three inexpensive glasses of wine came to $165 with tax and tip. Service was pleasant and informed. We were sharing everything and they unbidden thoughtfully split into two everything that might make for messier sharing. Bread and butter did arrive somewhat late—well after we’d eaten the first couple of dishes—and after a fairly steady clip with the first five plates the next two took much longer to show up. Still we enjoyed it enough on the whole to want to come back again in less than two years time.
1. That’s the promise anyway; it is, of course, the case that not all old-school fine dining restaurants provide the finest of service, ingredients and techniques either.
2. And based on our one meal at La Belle Vie, and the experience of a few others we know, I’m also tempted to say that diners have discovered over the last few years that they can get food that’s just as good or better from newer places without having to put up with the theater/simulacrum of fine dining at La Belle Vie—theater that at our meal collapsed at the slightest probing (our server couldn’t describe the cheese, for example); but I do recognize that our estimation of the place is a huge outlier.
3. Note, for example, that the many local stars begat by the kitchen at La Belle Vie have gone on to restaurants in the new vein: Heyday, Saint Dinette etc.