With new eateries continually offering authentic ethnic and creative fusion cuisine in the Twin Cities, making a case for revisiting the heritage restaurants in our midst can be difficult. Haven’t these family-founded old timers served the same food in the same locations for decades? But wait a minute. Maybe it’s not just about the food.
At a time when the only constant is change, finding comfort in the ethnic food, décor, and neighborhood of a time-honored heritage restaurant can be a nice, well, change. Here we take a look at four heritage restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, their origin stories, their participation in their neighborhoods, and why their loyal patrons — and new generations of diners — keep coming back. (Spoiler alert: It is about the food.)
Mancini’s Char House and Lounge
531 West Seventh Street, Saint Paul
In 1948, Nick Mancini, a recent World War II veteran, and his father mortgaged the family home to open a small tavern called Mancini’s. Nick’s mother made the fresh Italian food. After visiting restaurants in New York and Chicago, Nick transformed the tavern into a steakhouse that specialized in Italian grilling techniques. Later, the family added a lounge and more dining rooms, including one with an open grill so customers could watch their steaks being prepared.
Then and now
Mancini’s tavern was a few blocks from the Upper Levee along the Mississippi River, an area once known as “Little Italy,” as it was a thriving neighborhood of Italian immigrants. Many of Mancini’s customers left when the Levee flooded in the 1950s. Still, the business expanded via word of mouth. The restaurant now occupies an entire block on West Seventh Street. “People describe our place as real comfortable, almost like they’re at home,” says Pat Mancini, one of Nick’s sons and the current owner. “I constantly hear, ‘Don’t change a thing.’”
Large, cushy red-vinyl booths, brass décor, and brick arches make Mancini’s lounge a retro hot spot. “The 20-somethings like to hang out here and drink martinis,” Mancini says. Tuesday is karaoke night in the lounge, and Wednesday through Saturday customers enjoy live music, including Rat Pack favorites played by local bands. “On the dance floor you see 60- and 70-year-olds dancing along with 20-somethings,” Mancini says.
Since the Levee days, Mancini’s has helped with church fundraisers. In the last eight years, as part of the community group Serving Our Troops, Mancini’s has fed more than 80,000 servicemen and women stationed in Iraq and Kuwait. Since 1985, Manicini’s has also honored St. Paul athletes with its Sports Hall of Fame. Each year, five inductees, who have contributed to the community through such activities as mentoring youth, are honored with a banquet and their names appear on a plaque in the restaurant.
The New York Strip, of course, with a glass of Mancini’s Levee Red, which is produced by Cannon River Winery especially for Mancini’s.
215 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
After working their way up the Mississippi River from Louisiana, looking for a place to call home, Ukrainian refugees Wasyl and Anna Kramarczuk decided, in 1954, that Northeast Minneapolis was also a good place for their butcher shop/sausage company. The Kramarczuks specialized in kielbasa, polish sausage, and Ukrainian sausage. In 1967, they moved their sausage kitchen a block north to its current location, and added a restaurant and bakery.
Then and now
“Back in the old days, Northeast Minneapolis was a little bit more run down, and a lot of our business was dependent on people of Eastern European heritage who wanted to speak their language here and wanted products they were familiar with,” says Nick Kramarczuk, general manager and Wasyl and Anna’s grandson.
“We’re very grateful for our large following of Eastern European immigrants, and the second and third generations that followed and helped build our business. But today, definitely, a lot of our customers are of a newer generation.”
A culinary adventure
Whether dining in the restaurant with its dark wood and amber accents, or ordering to-go in the remodeled store, Kramarczuk’s current customer base “is younger and mostly not of Eastern European heritage,” Kramarczuk says. It’s the food, he explains: “We take a lot of pride in our food, which gives people a little taste of Eastern Europe, whether it’s by the smells — a lot of people comment on the smells of garlic and sauerkraut and smoked meat — or the feeling you get when you’re walking into an establishment that’s been around for a while and has a bit of history.”
Anna and Wasyl were devoted to their church. Kramarczuk’s continues to help out churches and nonprofits with sausages or other donations for events. “We try to support local businesses, churches, and other members of our community,” Kramarczuk says. “It’s our duty, because we’ve been here a long time and we’ve benefitted from the community, which has supported us.”
Kramarczuk says, “There isn’t one big seller.” Along with sausage, Kramaraczuk’s is known for its kolachis, pierogies, cabbage rolls, varenyky and soups, all of which Kramarczuk says is “real comfort food during Minnesota winters.”
211 West 7th Street, Saint Paul
In 1911, just a few blocks from “Little Italy” in the Upper Levee neighborhood of St. Paul, Italian immigrant Michael Cossetta opened a tiny fruit and grocery station. In 1984, his family started making pizza, expanded the Italian grocery, and moved the business to West Seventh Street. Last year, the Cossetta family grew the business again, big time, with an expansion that includes the addition of a pastry shop, sit-down restaurant, and rooftop taverna.
Then and now
The grocery station started to grow when the Cossettas began making entrees. Today, the family bakes the bread and runs a butcher shop to cut and grind meat, slice up steaks, and make sausages. Because United Hospital, downtown St. Paul, and the Xcel Energy Center grew up near Cossetta, the restaurant is constantly serving “new batches of people that experience Cossetta’s, then become lifelong customers,” says Ray Vanyo, store manager.
New, yet the same
Despite the expansion and renovation, the décor blends with Cossetta’s familiar style. And the food hasn’t changed. “We try to stay consistent,” Vanyo says. “Somebody who came here 10 years ago is going to find the same food items they enjoyed 10 years ago — with a few new offerings. We want people to know they can still get what expect when they come back.”
In the old days, Cossetta’s hosted Italian festivals in nearby Irvine Park, and helped organize community parades. Now the restaurant offers meals to the Dorothy Day Center and the Salvation Army. Gone from the neighborhood are many World War II and Korean War-era customers. “Younger people, once they move to St. Paul, are looking for a place to eat,” Vanyo says. “Cossetta’s is one Italian place that they’re drawn to.”
Pizza and mostaccioli, because they’re “simple and easy to eat on the go,” says Vanyo.
Boca Chica Restaurant y Cantina
11 Cesar Chavez Street, St. Paul
In 1964, Guillermo and Gloria Frias welcomed 28 customers at a time to their tiny Mexican restaurant on St. Paul’s West Side. Before Guillermo came to Minnesota and met Gloria, a native of St. Paul, he emigrated from Mexico City, and worked in Texas as a tailor by day and in restaurants by night. When Guillermo found the West Side space, he decided to name the restaurant Boca Chica (“little mouth of the river”) after a small town on the Gulf of Mexico where he’d spent time. The Friases eventually expanded their little cantina, on the same site, to a 220-seat restaurant. Boca Chica still serves the central Mexican dishes that made the place popular, and has expanded its menu with entrees from other regions of Mexico, says Alfredo Frias, general manager/owner, and Guillermo and Gloria’s son.
Then and now
Boca Chica is now preparing for its 50th anniversary in 2014, and still serves Latino and non-Latino families. The authentic Mexican food draws a mainstream crowd, “because my mother and father had great taste,” says Frias. “And when we add a new dish, it’s usually a good success.” Spanish teachers often bring their students to Boca Chica to experience Mexican cuisine, while speaking in Spanish. Painted walls murals by Rigel from Merida Yucatan cover the walls in all three dining rooms with colorful portrayals of Mexico’s history and people.
Because the family and many of their employees are from the West Side, their roots run deep. The restaurant is involved in neighborhood civic programs and, under a now-defunct neighborhood economic development program, used to offer assistance to new businesses. Boca Chica has long been involved in planning the annual Cinco de Mayo Fiesta, providing food and beverages near one of the main event stages. For the past three years, the restaurant has sponsored three scholarships for Humboldt High School students.
Boca Chica’s menu has grown from tacos and burritos to such house specialties as traditional Mexican stews, enchiladas and carne asada (steaks prepared Mexican style). Bar patrons can order high-end margaritas with cactus-juice liqueur containing pure agave tequila, triple sec, and herbs.
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.