‘Civilized leisure’

Café Maude aims to bring the community together

Armatage neighborhood residents may fondly recall the down-home diner at W. 5411 Penn Ave. S. with vinyl booths, glass Heinz 57 bottles set on the table, and the smell of just-baked bread.

In recent months, though, the dwindled crowd at Connors’ Deli more closely resembled the lonely patrons in Edward Hoppers’ Nighthawks painting than that of, say, New York’s bustling Carnegie Deli. Apparently, a traditional family deli just can’t stay afloat in this part of town these days, with several nearby coffee shops and bistros offering wine and beer as well as appealing food menus. With the recent opening of Café Maude in the space Connor’s used to occupy, neighborhood residents now have the chance to enjoy a vibrant nightlife as well as Mediterranean and American cuisine — and they don’t have to go all the way Downtown to find it.

In opening Café Maude, Armatage-born Kevin Sheehy decided to push the envelope and offer an escape from the daily grind. Where else at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night can Southwest Minneapolitans bounce their heads along to DJ Howard Hamilton III spinning what he bills as “global sounds from beyond”—which brings to mind everything from Etta James to East Indian jazz — while mingling with neighbors and sipping a tall, cool Bell’s Oberon?

“The neighbors are starving. The nation is starving. There isn’t a place to sit down and talk and share some food or a drink in miles. Look around. Here, people can celebrate music and what makes you happy, like food and drinks. The stuff that’s important,” Sheehy said.

Café Maude seems to have it all. Sheehy’s coffee background (he owns two Dunn Bros shops) gives morning people plenty of fuel to help customers navigate through the workday. Sheehy said customers surprised by the morning shift’s casual, coffee shop vibe asked for more options, and soon, Café Maude will feature full-service breakfast and lunch with wait staff until 2 p.m., with omelets, eggs, soups, sandwiches, and salads.

Head chef/consultant Jason Ross, who opened Downtown’s Solera and teaches at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Mendota Heights, guides chefs Aaron Slavicek, formerly of La Belle Vie, and Sam Miller, coming in from Chambers Kitchen, as they keep the kitchen’s wood-burning grill rocking throughout the evening with a unique “loosely Mediterranean” menu, as Sheehy puts it.

Developed in part by Ross and inspired by Sheehy’s travels around the world as a part-time textile importer and tour guide, the menu includes Tuscan rice and parmesan croquettes, Greek salad with zucchini fritters, wood grilled hamburgers with toppings such as grilled wild mushrooms, flatbread with 24-hour tomatoes, gourmet cheeses and much more.

Prepare to enter a sophisticated groove zone upon walking in at night, when jazzy red mood lighting comes on, a modern bar suited for any Euro club pours a menagerie of wine, beer and other spirits and non-alcoholic drinks, while local musicians perform onstage, ranging from jazz duos (most Fridays) to DJs playing international music (most Saturdays).

What sets Café Maude apart from other trendy restaurants in Minneapolis is Sheehy’s values behind “Civilized Leisure,” the restaurant’s motto printed on the menu.

“What does this country and this neighborhood need more of right now than civilization and leisure?” Sheehy asked while the wait staff prepared for its 5 p.m. dinner reopening on a recent evening. “This is a chance for people to sit down and enjoy all the elements worthy of a nice place. Not just the grub, everything. Ambience, food, music, and great service.”

Sheehy sees Café Maude, named in honor of Armatage’s namesake community leader, as not just a typical restaurant, but rather as a way for him to make a statement. Not surprising, considering his penchant for straying from a conversation about Café Maude’s cuisine to explain his beliefs in the need for true democracy and the plight of the middle class in our society.

“We’re not snobs about it. With other restaurants around town, I see cliques forming, cattiness, ego. I’m here to squash the ego,” he said. “Café Maude is about middle class values. This spoke to me as embodying the principle of neighborhood — as uniting all kinds of people. Old people, young, people, coolies, squares, blue hair, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is welcome.”

Sheehy said most of the clientele is from the neighborhood, and he tells people while making his table-to-table rounds, “thank you for coming. Please let us know anything we can do to help you and serve the neighborhood.” One of those things is to provide a place for people to go at night; Café Maude stays open until the wee hours in this otherwise unassuming residential neighborhood — Sheehy said it’s the first full bar in the history of Minneapolis’ 13th Ward.

“Serving the neighborhood” might sound cheap or cliché coming from a restaurateur, but in Sheehy’s case it is a genuine ideal that holds water. He said Café Maude has already donated time and money to an orphanage in Tanzania and in September will be hosting Maude Days, a neighborhood festival and fundraiser.

So if it’s taste bud-awakening food one is seeking, or any of a number of coffee selections, tea, beer, wine, or cocktails — or simply a classy, community values-minded hangout, Café Maude doesn’t look to be going anywhere soon. Perhaps Sheehy would label it a refuge where the middle class of the world can put their work down for an hour or two and find communion. Others may see it as a French and Italian-influenced restaurant with great art on the wall, savory, reasonably priced meals, plenty of drink options and a slightly upscale, intelligent ambience. It all depends on your view of the world and how hungry you’re feeling.

Contributing writer David Streier lives in the Kenny neighborhood.