There has been a demand, among fans of a certain Louisiana-style pop-up restaurant working out of the kitchen at Zeitgeist Arts Cafe, to bring out the beignets.

Consider it done.

Robert Lee, the southern-raised creative behind Gumbo Boi, is serving a one-day-only brunch as part of the upcoming offerings for Eat Downtown — the Greater Downtown Council’s take on restaurant week — and the French powder sugar covered donuts are on the menu alongside crepes, shrimp and grits, and po’boys.

“It seemed like a fun time,” Lee said of testing these recipes on his customers, who will also have access to the restaurant’s mimosas and the music of Blake Thomas — just like in the before-times.

It’s the first go-round for Gumbo Boi and Eat Downtown, a twice-yearly push to get food fans into downtown restaurants with the help of a prix fixe menu.

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Server Leah Gustafson brings a refill to a table at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Server Leah Gustafson brings a refill to a table at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Eat Downtown runs from April 19-30, and there are 19 restaurants participating. Orders can be eaten in-house or taken to-go (a new option), and this year, restaurants do not have to adhere to a specific price or a certain amount of courses.

Among the relative newbies are LuLu’s Pizza, which has three pizza specials — including its Bahn Mi-zza — and Tacos Tacos Tacos, which is offering four al pastor street tacos, charros and either agua de horchata or agua de jamaica.

Gumbo Boi is open Monday, Thursday and Friday, and the bonus brunch is April 25. Though he has been operating since October, Lee said he is still hearing from people who are just learning about his business. Eat Downtown, he said, is a good chance to drive traffic through the door.

“It’s a good opportunity to be exposed on a list with very established places to eat,” he said.

Marty Nelson works on a pair of salads in the kitchen of the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon.(Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Marty Nelson works on a pair of salads in the kitchen of the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon.(Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The year in review

According to the National Restaurant Association, 110,000 restaurants temporarily or permanently closed in 2020, and industry sales were down $240 billion from expected levels. This has resonated locally — and in some cases led to reimagining spaces.

Among the local losses: Grandma’s Sports Garden, a longtime go-to for pub food and Long Island Iced Tea, its game-day vibes and dance floor. Tony Bronson, Grandma’s Restaurant Co.’s director of business development, said during a recent webinar hosted by the Greater Downtown Council that they had believed Canal Park to be recession-proof.

The past year brought another lesson.

“Even if we are recession-proof, we are not pandemic-proof,” he said.

In early March, Grandma’s Restaurant Company announced that the wide-open, high ceiling space will be available for rent for special events such as weddings, parties and reunions.

Other Grandma’s properties, like Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant, Little Angie’s Cantina, and Grandma’s Saloon Canal Park, are open and participating in Eat Downtown.

When Zeitgeist Arts Cafe closed in August 2020 after trying take-out and outdoor dining, Tony Cuneo, the executive director of the downtown theater-restaurant-film space, said they were taking a break to “re-imagine a restaurant that will reopen better and stronger than before.”

In the meantime, local entrepreneurs took advantage of the offer of an empty commercial kitchen to test their chops on the food biz.

Enter Gumbo Boi and HotBox Duluth, the former firing up Louisiana flavors like jambalaya and muffuletta, and the later offering retro cravings ranging from loaded tater tots to hot dogs to macaroni and cheese seasoned with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

The plan for Zeitgeist Arts Cafe, according to business director Sara Rolfson, is to survey customers about how to best use the space with an eye toward reopening this summer. The bar has been open Fridays 4-7 p.m. during pickup hours for Gumbo Boi.

Five months into Lee’s deep-dive into Louisiana cuisine for an audience, he said he considered his strengths and what he wants to do next: more food.

“I’m seeking a place to keep doing what I’m doing, but on a larger scale,” Lee said. “(Gumbo Boi) has had a good response. I think people would be into it.”

Server Leah Gustafson picks up soup to bring out to a table at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon, April 16, 2021. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Server Leah Gustafson picks up soup to bring out to a table at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon, April 16, 2021. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

And other takeaways from 2020

The pandemic period has brought the opening of new spaces, too, mostly restaurateurs looking to provide niche flavors: Superior’s Jamrock Cultural Restaurant has West Indian food, and Dolce Vita Restaurant is offering steak and pasta; Tacos Tacos Tacos, which popped up recently in Downtown Duluth, is offering authentic street tacos served from a take-out window.

Doc Witherspoon’s Soul Food Shack, by Stephan Witherspoon, is scheduled to open soon, while his brother Solomon Witherspoon’s Spoon’s Bar & Grill, in Lincoln Park, has a range of flavors including recently a fusion: not’cho egg rolls.

Jason Vincent, who owns The Boat Club and the Vanilla Bean restaurants in Duluth and Two Harbors, calls 2020 “the year of adaptation and reinvention.” And 2021, he said during the webinar, “is the year of resilience.”

Vincent said he envisions carrying on with pandemic adaptations such as easy to-go service and family meal kits. Among the upcoming options: a Mother’s Day picnic-to-go menu for four with a mini cheese tray, blueberry dill salad, sugar snap peas pasta, chicken salad croissants and strawberry shortcake.

Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar has found success with socially distanced tables, which it never would have attempted without the threat of the pandemic, according to Derek Snyder, co-owner.

“We’re enjoying the amount of tables we have in the restaurant,” he said. “We found a way to cut corners on things that don’t affect quality. We’re not screaming for the almighty dollar; it’s more about being safe — and making a dollar.”

The most recent step in Minnesota’s Stay Safe Plan is that restaurants operate at 75% capacity.

Marty Nelson cuts up a tomato for a pair of salads in the kitchen of the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon, April 16, 2021. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Marty Nelson cuts up a tomato for a pair of salads in the kitchen of the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth on Friday afternoon, April 16, 2021. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The future

Moods are bright, according to an informal poll among restaurant owners, who say the summer of 2021 is going to bring good things for their businesses.

“I think people are going to be hungry to have (these) experiences again,” Rolfson said during the webinar.

Vincent said The Boat Club has events booked into 2022. And Lake Avenue has been very, very busy, Snyder said, and so have other restaurants.

On Friday afternoon, Snyder had a meeting planned to talk about the reopening of the Lakewalk Galley — the second life for the landlocked Nels J., located near the beach in Canal Park.

Formerly Crabby Bills, the concession-style stop was purchased by Lake Avenue's keepers in 2018, its menu elevated to synch with its sibling restaurant. This year, it also has a liquor license, Snyder said.

But …

There is a hitch, though, for restaurants looking to burst back into the scene this summer. Employees. A common theme among owners has become: “We’re hiring.”

The Boat Club, Grandma's Restaurants, Lake Avenue, Gumbo Boi, once it expands.

When the pandemic hit, Snyder said, some restaurant workers chased down other opportunities, whether it was jobs in a different field or additional schooling.

“There’s a bit of a work-force problem now,” Snyder said.

For more information

What: Eat Downtown, Duluth's restaurant week

When: April 19-30

Where: 19 restaurants in Downtown Duluth

Online: Menus available at downtownduluth.com.

This story was updated April 20 at 12:45 p.m. to clarify the hours the Zeitgeist bar is open, and to remove a reference to Zeitgeist's french fries, which are being served only at brunch. It was originally published April 19 at 7:30 a.m.