Appetites: Chef Isaac Becker's influence set new course for Twin Cities dining

Chef Isaac Becker
Chef Isaac Becker
Courtesy of 112 Eatery, file

Naming the year's best of everything is as natural as snow in December. "Minnesota Monthly" magazine recently named Isaac Becker its "Restaurateur of the Year," based on his launch of 2013's hottest eatery, Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar.

"Minnesota Monthly" magazine editor Rachel Hutton, a regular contributor here on MPR News' Appetites, speaks with Tom Crann of All Things Considered about Becker's imprint on the Twin Cities dining scene.

TOM CRANN: How did Isaac Becker earn such a lofty title, Restaurateur of the Year?

RACHEL HUTTON: As our annual restaurant issue began approaching, I looked back on the restaurants I'd reviewed in the past year to see which had been most impressive. Burch quickly rose to the top. The restaurant, which is located in the former home of Burch Pharmacy at Franklin and Hennepin in south Minneapolis, had made a strong impression both for the fabulous meals and dining experience it offers, as well as the uniqueness of its concept.

CRANN: Burch is quite different from the typical steakhouse, then?

HUTTON: The steakhouse archetype usually involves a wood-lined dining room furnished with plump, oversize booths, evoking a retro, clubby vibe. The steakhouse attitude is typically equal parts hedonism and machismo: Manny's, for example, offers a steak literally called the "Bludgeon of Beef." Burch, by contrast, is more like the wine bar of steakhouses, in that offers most cuts in small and large portions, and in three grades: grass-fed, choice, and prime.

It's very flexible: you can still go over-the-top, but not to the exclusion of modest appetites and checkbooks-and non beef-eaters, in fact. There are delicious lobster pizzas and dumplings, for example.

CRANN: And Burch isn't Becker's only success. I understand he's three for three, so far?

HUTTON: Yes, looking back on Becker's track record I realized that he and his wife and business partner, Nancy St. Pierre, have had quite a run in the past decade: 112 Eatery, which opened in 2005, and Bar La Grassa, which opened in 2009, have been just as successful as Burch. In fact, 112 represented a significant tipping point in the character of the Twin Cities dining scene.

CRANN: How so?

HUTTON: In the early 2000s, the most well-regarded restaurants were the most formal -- Aquavit, Goodfellow's and such. Then around 2003, the most important restaurants were big, splashy, almost theatrical places, such as Solera, Cosmos. 112 Eatery was a big departure in that the space was tiny and intimate, more like a neighborhood bar. The menu felt more personal, looking inward -- not copying trends on the coast -- with a way of pairing high-brow with low-brow, the way a chef would eat after hours.

CRANN: And how did this affect the local dining scene?

HUTTON: Our senior editor, Quinton Skinner, profiled Becker with that very question in mind. Becker told him that he felt that 112's pricing structure, offering more affordable dishes and half-size portions, made high-quality dining more accessible to the masses.

I think the dining public certainly noticed that contribution-but what I don't think diners realized, or at least I hadn't realized, was the psychological impact that 112 had on other restaurateurs. Eric Dayton, co-owner of The Bachelor Farmer, told Quinton that 112's success gave chefs and owners more confidence to take risks. Becker didn't follow a formula; he did something quirkier, more unique, and diners responded favorably -- that was very liberating for other restaurant owners.

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