Knitting old and new

Southwest restaurateurs creatively redefine and reuse space

A mix of families with strollers and adults of all ages are dining where fire trucks once screamed. Café 28, an organic-food-serving, vegetarian-friendly restaurant is housed in a former firehouse that once helped safeguard Linden Hills.

Built in 1914, it still has the old metal firepole near the entrance, connecting the first and second floors, down which firefighters shimmied before hurtling off to battle blazes.

Other restaurateurs around town have transformed similarly novel spaces into chic destinations while preserving stately, aged buildings. How they knit old with new varies as much as the restaurants themselves, ranging from the irreverent to elegant, playful to respectful.

At Café 28, the original woodwork is intact, making the sturdy building feel something like a school rather than a rehabbed firehouse.

Linden Hills resident Linda Haug, who co-owns the quaint Café 28 with husband Todd, loves the space, even though it brings ongoing challenges, like aging, troublesome pipes. “It’s a great building, especially when you see how many places are being torn down and rebuilt back up,” she said.

An upscale take

Not far from the renovated firehouse sits a rehabilitated cop shop – the fashionable Five Restaurant and Street Lounge, 2917 Bryant Ave. S. (previously the 5th Police Precinct Station), opened last year by internationally recognized Chef Stewart Woodman.

Woodman served as head chef at the popular Levain in South Minneapolis and established himself as sous chef in such prominent New York restaurants as Essex House and Le Benardin. He was recently featured in “Food and Wine” magazine.

With the help of BKV Architects, Woodman gave the 1920 building a dramatic facelift. Five has a dual concept – a bar’s on the first floor with a formal dining room and a more casual bistro upstairs. The bar is dim, with moody pink fluorescent lights, deep purple walls, wavy bar counter and padded booths. Complementing the minimalist approach are yellow pendant lamps and silver track lights.

Patches of exposed brick are shown in square and rectangular cutouts, as stylized windows into its past. Metallic walls bump up against lime green walls near the entrance and a grandiose staircase with a glass-lined railing sweeps up to the dining rooms.

Walls wrapping around the steps are painted in bands of purple, magenta and taupe. Noodle-shaped, frosted-glass lamps cast a bright white glow. The formal dining room has bronze-varnished hardwood floors. It features simple shapes, oversized booths and a gauzy curtain.

Bar-goer Sandra Ivkovic lives six blocks away and owns the nearby Bryant-Lake Barber shop. She comes to Five every Wednesday for the atmosphere, food and company. Her favorite entrees are the grilled lamb and pan fried tilapia entrees. “You can taste every ingredient. It’s really good,” she said, adding, “It’s an amazing building, just beautiful.”

A 1950s throwback

Bicycle riders pull up to the vintage 1950s air pump to fill their tires at Tangletown’s Liberty Frozen Custard, a former Standard Oil station and automotive repair shop at 5401 Nicollet Ave. S.

It’s a landmark, original post-World War II-era pre-fabricated Lustron building. Similar to the nearby steel Lustron homes down the street, it was once located near the airport. The famed Lustron buildings can be disassembled and pieced back together, part by part. (All told, they contain about 30,000 pieces).

Owners Steve and Vicky Uhr enlisted the help of KKE Architects when they got ready to renovate their property. Together, they uncovered the original ’50s Lustron shell, obscured by a brick veneer and mansard roof (added in the 1970s.)

The Uhrs scrubbed the interior’s porcelain enamel plates, which were still intact but darkened from exposure to years of grease and grime. But the exterior plates were so damaged they had to be taken down and restored before being mounted again.

Led by Michelle Piontek and Rob Grundstrom of KKE, the restoration project has been recognized by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission.

Grundstrom used to live nearby in one of the metal Lustron homes, an experience that came in handy during the planning for a 500-square-foot addition to Liberty’s 1,350-square-feet.

“The challenge was to retrofit a building that was obviously not designed as a restaurant,” he said.

The Uhrs opened Liberty in 2004. Their menu, which the Uhrs voted on as a family, features malts, milkshakes, and special creations called Glaciers, as well as hot dogs, brats, pizza and even frozen treats for dogs.

The city’s lone custard stand has become a destination spot for families with young children, as well as teens and adults.

Patrons sit at replica Formica tables with chrome chairs. The interior is sparkling white, accented by the ’50s aqua-colored plates, with various shades of marine blue and red to be found here and there. Shiny silver pipelines run across the ceiling and vintage vending machines, arcade games, an old car ride, stainless steel napkin dispensers and yellowed ads add to the retro atmosphere.

On a busy, warm day, the outdoor tables are filled, the garage doors are open and customers are queued at the walkup windows outside. “It’s a place where people tend to gravitate to when there’s so much monotony out there,” said Grundstrom, proudly.

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].