“Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold.”
Who are these guys? Our pets? The latest reality TV stars? The top boy names for babies in 2014? No, no and no. They are restaurants, two long-time favorites and two newcomers to the dining scene. And like the silver and gold of the familiar saying, they have all have earned our deep affection.
Two are here on our home turf in Minnesota: Vincent, in downtown Minneapolis, and Victor’s on Water Street in the west metro suburb of Excelsior. The other two are a wee bit further, across the ocean in fact, in the heart of Dublin, Ireland: ely wine bar and Stanley’s Restaurant.
The newbies, Victor’s and Stanley’s, both opened in late 2014. We dined at each shortly after they opened, both still so young that the air was charged with excitement amongst staff at being part of a new endeavor they believe in passionately.
The oldies, ely and Vincent, are also about the same age. Vincent turns 14 this year, while ely will be 16, longevity that is no small feat in the restaurant business. Both have earned considerable praise, as well. Vincent consistently scores high marks from Zagat and has a list of accolades on its website too long to recount here. Similarly, ely has been ranked one of the top wine bars in Ireland for several years by the Sunday Business Post and was awarded Best Wine Experience by Food and Wine Magazine in 2014. Yet, even with their successes, both Vincent and ely have a humility about their work and a gratitude for patrons that is endearing.
Having dined at each of the four establishments recently, we began to think about what they have in common that makes us love them so dearly. After all, not everyone we meet becomes a friend, right? So what is it, in the restaurant world, that makes you want to go beyond mere acquaintance to a place you seek out again and again, like a trusted friend? Here’s our take…
delicious and creative cuisine, artfully prepared and thoughtfully presented, with an emphasis on fresh, organic and local ingredients
Victor’s hits the nail on the head with a quote on their website from American writer, environmentalist and farmer, Wendell Berry, “Eating is an agricultural act.” Great food begins with a great farmer somewhere. You can literally taste the difference in every bite when as much care is given to selecting the ingredients as it is to preparing them. Ely demonstrates this commitment perhaps most of all, having a family farm a few hours from Dublin in County Clare where they raise the organic beef and pork they serve.
Knowing what to do with the ingredients once you have them also comes easily to the chefs at each place. Amongst many highlights:
- at ely, a pan-roasted Atlantic halibut, seared to perfection on the outside, scrumptious and tender on the inside, and a smoked beef bourguignonne from dry-aged filet that was almost like candy;
- at Victor’s, a beef carpaccio with delicate beech mushrooms, marinated parmesan and arugula, and an exquisite potato gnocchi with poached chicken, charred kale and truffle vinaigrette;
- grass-fed, dry-aged Irish ribeye at Stanley’s topped with their signature butter, and a gnocchi with rosemary and butternut squash that tasted like Thanksgiving;
- at Vincent, roasted anjou pear salad with serrano ham and honeyed goat cheese, and a pan-seared scallop with an addictively delectable orange sauce.
photo credits: Sara Chapman Heegaard and Lucy Mathews Heegaard
a beautiful selection of wine on a thoughtfully a curated list, served by staff who know the wines well
At ely, there are 400 artisan wines available, making their list look more like a book. Carefully selected from regions around the world, their wines come from both little known and well known grape growing areas, offering diners an opportunity for a tasting education. Ely also has a commitment to keeping their wines affordable and has minimized their own markup to do so, which we greatly admire.
At Vincent, the wine list includes selections from the region near chef and owner Vincent Francoual’s hometown of Puy L’Eveque, France, giving the wines a personal connection to the cuisine. Again, the selections are so numerous that we typically order the chef’s tasting menu and request wines paired specifically for each course, leaving all the decisions in the hands of the chef and staff and never being disappointed.
At Victor’s we took the excellent advice of the sommelier and ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands that no other restaurant in town has yet. Delightfully, even though we’ve sipped a lot of Pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands, this particular vintner was completely new to us.
At both Stanley’s and ely, we ordered wines by the glass and placed the specific choices in the hands of our servers. Offering a few details on our taste preferences to get them started, we then sat back and enjoyed having them create pairings for us with each course. An enormously fun, impromptu tasting game ensued at both dinners.
a charming setting that conveys the unique personality of the place
Tucked downstairs in a Georgian-era building in the heart of Dublin, ely takes its name from Ely Place, a street just a few blocks long where it makes its home. Brick walls and archways give the space a cozy, quaint, old-world feel. Always bustling when we’ve visited, the buzz of conversation and laughter from the surrounding tables makes the place feel downright festive.
Victor’s newly remodeled interior is contemporary, yet warm and inviting. Large windows look out onto the charming main street of Excelsior, a Norman Rockwell-esque scene. Paying homage to a colorful story from the town’s history, the restaurant named itself after Victor Bacon, the owner of Bacon Drugstore, long time occupant of the building and purportedly the place where Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones got the idea for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in 1964. (an irresistible tale, if you’re interested)
Stanley’s street level wine bar is sleek and light, while the upstairs dining room is an intimate throw back to an earlier era with a gramophone in the bay window, ample candlelight, and Billie Holiday music on the playlist. Portraits on the dining room walls look like 18th century paintings until you realize they are actually images of Clint Eastwood, Bill Murray, David Bowie and others in military regalia— an impishly fun touch. I spent all evening feeling like Clint Eastwood was staring at me, and it turns out he was. The restaurant is named for its chef, Stephen McArdle, who is nicknamed Stanley in a nod to a favorite restaurant of his in New Orleans.
Vincent, named for its chef/owner Vincent Francoual, announces itself on the sign above its door simply and humbly as “Vincent, A Restaurant.” An elegant and somewhat formal setting, with fancy table cloths and a gorgeous view through tall glass windows of the main pedestrian mall in downtown Minneapolis, there is a refreshing absence of pretension, stuffy attitudes, and imposing dress codes here. In fact, in the more informal bar area beside the main dining room, you will find one of the best burgers in town, stuffed with an outlandishly amazing combination of braised shortribs and smoked gouda.
phenomenal service that is personal and warm and goes above and beyond the call of duty, without being intrusive on the dining experience
You know how the best of friends simply “get you,” instinctively knowing what you need and when you need it, when to speak up, when to push back on your assumptions that may be wrong, when to cheer for your choices, when to just listen, and when to leave you alone? Well, the best restaurants are a lot like this. These four favorites of ours achieve this artful balance of service beautifully.
When we arrived at ely during our most recent Dublin trip, we were treated like long lost family, seated at the table we’d had on a previous visit (completely impressed that they remembered which one) and given the same server who we’d appreciated so much before (we love you, Kevin). At Vincent, where we tend to celebrate milestones like getting older, Vincent himself always stops by to say hello. At both Victor’s and Stanley’s, every customer who walked in the door was greeted with an earnest enthusiasm that we know bodes well for the future of both restaurants.
So, with Valentine’s day approaching, what better time could we possibly find to toast to friends, old and new. As we pause to reflect on what makes them so special to us, we raise our glasses in gratitude for friends near and far. After all, what would we ever do without them? Cheers and Sláinte!
ely wine bar | 22 Ely Place, Dublin 2, Ireland. +353 (0)1 T: (01) 676 8986 (note: ely also has another location, ely wine bar and brasserie, that we’ve not yet tried but aspire to. When ely has ranked 2nd in the best wine bar list, the one and only wine bar ranked higher was their very own sibling, the ely wine bar and brasserie. Not a bad way to finish “second.”)
Stanley’s Restaurant | 7 Saint Andrew’s Street, Dublin 2, Ireland. +353 (0)1 485 3273
Victor’s on Water Street | 205 Water Street, Excelsior, Minnesota, USA. +1 952 474 8879
Vincent, A Restaurant | 1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. +1 612 630 1189