Quietly tucked into the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis, across from Kenwood School and next to Birchbark Books, is The Kenwood Restaurant. While only open since 2012, it blends seamlessly into its surroundings both from the street and inside, as it was a restaurant created to fit the needs of the community.
Chef and owner Don Saunders, of Vincent fame, took a new approach when conceiving the restaurant. “We needed to be a lot of things to a lot of people, which is the opposite of what a business plan should be,” he says with a laugh. Often, he says, restaurants focus on what kind of people they want to walk through the doors. “Whereas here, yes I want parents and their kids to come for breakfast, and I also want a couple celebrating their 10th anniversary to come here for dinner and I also want a Medtronic meeting of 10 people to happen at noon,” he says. “And somehow, we nailed that.”
In the six years it’s been open, not much has changed. “And that’s a good thing,” Saunders says. It’s had a slow and steady growth developed by word-of-mouth, which has created a loyal band of regulars. That, in turn, has led to a menu of customer favorites.
“That’s something I’ve learned while running this place,” he says. “A signature dish, or a staple on your menu, should be driven by the customers demanding it.” And for a restaurant like The Kenwood, which has breakfast, brunch, snacks, dinner, dessert and kids menus, that means Saunders gets to exercise his menu-writing. That includes seasonal staples as well, he says, like the wild morel pappardelle. “It’s something that, come fall and winter, our regulars expect it to be back on the menu, and that’s really fun,” he says.
Those handful of items that stay right where they are (like the huevos rancheros and pancakes), provide a base for Saunders to explore. “It gives me creative freedom throughout the year to do whatever we want,” he says. “It’s rare we have a dish that’s a dud because it’s ‘too out there.’ People are adventurous.”
But Saunders is also humble about his menu: “I am by no means a trendsetter,” he says. “I’m the first to admit that I’m doing classic French, Italian and European cooking.” But he gives his subtle nods to trends. The beer menu is now 80 percent brewed in Minnesota, and the wine list will shift toward rosé in the spring.
And the trend of brunch is something Saunders got ahead of back in 2012. Drive by on any Sunday and you’ll see a line out the door in rain, sleet or snow.
“When I first started [in the restaurant industry] it seemed like if you were a chef and you wanted to open a restaurant your attitude might be, go to the most populated or touristy areas … and people will come,” he recalls. But finding pocket neighborhoods “and people calling a restaurant ‘home’ because of where they live, is a trend that I think happened throughout the United States, and happened here at The Kenwood,” he says.
This homey atmosphere extends from the food to choices in decor. When Saunders was thinking about the look of the restaurant, he called on designer Jim Smart and his company Smart and Associates. “My idea was, I like the British feel and I also told him I wanted it to look like it’s been here a while – even though we’re new,” Saunders says. “I wanted it to look like a mish-mash of all the houses in the neighborhood.”
Which Smart ran with: “I’d say the inspiration for the design came directly from the neighborhood,” Smart says. “I live in the neighborhood and The Kenwood looks like my home and many of our friends’ as well.”
Saunders remembers the first meeting after he explained the direction he wanted to go: “[Smart] told me, ‘OK I’m going to tell you the most expensive thing we’re going to do but the most important thing we’re going to do, and you can’t say no,’” Saunders says with a laugh. It was, of course, that the single pane windows needed to become divided light windows, “to make it look like a butcher shop in England,” Saunders says.
The tartan wallpaper adds an obvious touch of the Brits, and the gallery wall seals it all together. “Me, my wife Jackie, and Jim [now close friends] went to Stillwater and the three of us went to every antique shop and just picked out a bunch of paintings,” Saunders says.
Smart has been stopped in the street by strangers who tell him they love the place, and “I always make sure to tell them that all the recipes are mine too,” he says. “Then I burst out laughing.”