Life (and lots of music) on the Mississippi

Jeff Arundel
Jeff Arundel outside two of his restaurants, the Aster and Jefe. He also owns the Hideaway Burger Bar and the River Room. Photo by Jim Walsh

Jeff Arundel’s restaurant empire on the banks of the Mississippi River sits a few miles from the Tangletown neighborhood he grew up in, but it’s safe to say that growing up near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet influenced the owner of the Aster Cafe, Jefe, the Hideaway Burger Bar and the River Room — all of which carry an ancient feel straight out of Harry Potter or Game Of Thrones.

“There’s a connection,” said Arundel, sitting in the Aster last week. “My mom and dad settled in Tangletown, and we grew up there. I have three brothers and a sister. My mom and dad went to Washburn in the ’40s, and then all five of us kids went to Washburn. My parents picked that Tudor house, and Americans would travel to England and copy that English medieval thing in the 1900s. There’s a bloodline thing there that got built into that neighborhood.

“I just always felt intuitively connected to that style. Like, there’s Arundel Castle in England in the town of Arundel, and it’s a beautiful old medieval castle, and there’s something about that from that part of our bloodline that just got stamped into my DNA. This stuff is all British, other than Jefe is intended to be Spanish, but they’re connected, too. It’s very ancient. It’s all vintage parts, because there’s something about that that’s more authentic.”

These spring days, the outdoor patios of the Aster and Jefe spill over with Twin Citians coming out of hibernation and in need of an often-breathtaking river view. Business is brisk, as new condos and apartment buildings are cropping up all around the riverfront, and their residents are hungry and thirsty.

“Thirty years ago, nobody would’ve been down here,” said Arundel. “We avoided coming down here. Let’s go down to the river? What? Why? You want to get killed?”

Arundel first stumbled into owning the Aster 10 years ago, and since then he’s transformed the catacomb-like complex into a live music hub, with the Aster booking all stripes of music, the Hideaway hosting singer/songwriters, and the River Room — arguably the most elegant listening room in town — hosting special events, including the release party for Arundel’s latest CD, “Now We Go” (with his backing band The Hammsmen) on June 7.

Arundel’s music, like his workplaces, has a decidedly time-warping feel to it, spiked as it is with echoes of ’60s and ’70s singer/songwriters, and Arundel’s personal favorite, Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler. The ballads and production are quietly beautiful, and this listener can’t help but make connections back to Tangletown.

“Definitely that neighborhood is so provocative to somebody who knows that neighborhood,” said Arundel, wistfully. “When you grow up in Tangletown, it’s a February night, it’s 28 degrees, playing hockey in [the] backyard, but it’s a little isolated, smell of a wood fire, you’re skating but you’re in a forest, and you go down to the creek, and you go through every alley on your bike, and you spend nights up on the Washburn water tower …”

“Now We Go” is similarly romantic and nostalgic, coming from the perspective of a lover, father and friend who hankers for more. Recorded at his home studio in Downtown Minneapolis, the record kicks off with the jaunty “Hideaway” (an ode, perhaps, to his new Hideaway joint, where photos of the Arundel clan hang on the wall), followed by the title song, penned with Jeff’s songwriter son Steele (owner of Landscape Love), a terrific mini-anthem that captures that elusive feeling of running wild and free by the creek, falls, lakes.

“I’m the youngest brother,” said Jeff. “My brothers are seven, eight, and 10 years older than me. I have my two boys, and they each have two boys. But I’m way more closer to my cousins than my brothers, and somehow this phrase ‘Now we go,’ which means ‘We’re gonna do this’ or ‘Let’s do this,’ and we use it so much I just thought, it’s got to be memorialized somehow. So Steele and I said, ‘We’ve got to write this song.’

“It’s not a big anthem, it was intended to be a subtler version of that, because that phrase has ended up being something that’s meant a lot to our family. Steele grew up on it: ‘Now we go.’ ‘Let’s do it.’ ‘Let’s roll.’”

In addition to the CD release party, Arundel has a summer tour planned with his high school friend/songwriter and guitar wizard Billy McLaughlin, and a Northern Minnesota trek with fellow ace singer/songwriter/guitarist Molly Maher. One of the hardest-working and most creative dudes you’ll meet, Arundel is busy these days running his four restaurants and entertains no illusions about hitting the charts or getting airplay on hipster radio.

“[Musician/collaborator] Jeff Victor and I had a joke: ‘It’s a hit. Not in this decade, but it’s a hit,’” he laughed. “I’m beyond that point of caring if it meant I achieved something; it gives me such good energy, and I feel like I’ve gotten better at it. I’m setting a table which no one wants to come to, but I make time for it because I need to.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].