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When Zeitgeist reopens, it will have James Beard-acknowledged chef, new tipping policy — and fan-favorite fries

Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar, which closed in August 2020, reopens with a limited schedule Friday, Nov. 19.

File: Zeitgeist_web.jpg
Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar in Duluth reopens Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. 2018 file / Duluth News Tribune

The first time Nick Weinhandl tried burbot, or eelpout, it was simply breaded and fried with salt and lemon and he will tell you that his head exploded — and that he wondered “How is that not a thing? How is this not more popular?”

Until then Weinhandl had known it as a garbage fish, something to toss out of the fishhouse. But here he was experiencing something firm and sweet and, he said, if you’ve never had it you need to try it.

“It’s hauntingly similar to a cod, but it’s also lobster-esque in a way,” Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar’s new general manager/executive chef said. “It’s very firm, very sweet and shockingly delicious.”

And it is an example of something that he would like to pull out of Lake Superior and put on the menu at the new iteration of the restaurant at 222 E. Superior St. Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar reopens Friday after more than a year, with new leadership, a new take on tipping and a new menu. The famous cone o’ pomme frites with a side of herb aioli, though?

The people have spoken — that remains.

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In May, Zeitgeist surveyed community members about what to do with the restaurant: likes, dislikes, ideas. The fresh-cut fries were a fan-favorite. Weinhandl couldn’t argue with that.

“It makes sense to bring that back,” he said. “I, too, like french fries.”

***

Zeitgeist Arts Cafe opened in October 2009 — the old dark dive bar, Red Lion, upgraded to a bright, modern restaurant space with big windows and second-floor, loft-like seating.

It was among the businesses that briefly closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19, and then it was among the businesses that reopened with curbside takeout and outdoor seating.

Zeitgeist then paused again in late summer 2020 because of financial and pandemic safety concerns. At the time, Zeitgeists’ executive director, Tony Cuneo, said the space’s keepers would take time to reimagine the restaurant.

Cue the burbot.

Last week, the nonprofit sent a news release: Starting Friday, Nov. 19, the restaurant will be open 4-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. The kitchen closes at 9 p.m.

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Weinhandl has room for paying homage to Zeitgeist’s past. He isn’t going to wrap a date in bacon — he’s wrapped too many things in bacon to ever consider doing it again (likewise, you can blame a relatively high-profile Brainerd-based wedding for the lack of crab cakes on the menu.) But he will make pork belly with date puree and puffed grain for a similar taste in a new way.

His food philosophy: “Stay as close to home as we can.”

RELATED:

Weinhandl wants fish from Lake Superior, birch syrup from a remote off-the-grid source, and vegetables from his neighbors on the North Shore.
“Why not look to our friends from Wisconsin for cool cheeses that are as competitive as the great cheeses of Europe,” he said.

He said he wants to follow the seasons, but also pickle and preserve so he can give customers a dash of summer flavors, like tomatoes, “on a cold, dreary day when the wind is howling. Invite them in for a warm sensation,” he said.

***

He is also thinking about more than what’s on the plate. Weinhandl is considering food insecurity, composting and training people for careers in the food industry. His new in-house partner is similarly minded.

“As a nonprofit, it’s no longer about profit margins,” said Kyle Salveson, Zeitgeist’s new front-of-house manager. “It’s about what we can do for our community.”

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One of the off-menu changes, aside from a deep clean and paint, is a new tipping policy. There will be a 20% hospitality charge added to checks — described in a news release as “an elevated and fair living wage for all team members, a professionalized pay scale and a sustainable business model.”

Salveson, who has family roots in Duluth, recently moved here from Bozeman, Montana. He has spent half of his life in the restaurant business and he described tipping as an “archaic system.”

This isn’t new for this region, but it still isn’t common. The Delta Diner in Delta, Wisconsin, implemented it in 2015 and has seemingly stuck with it.

When Northern Waters had a restaurant in Duluth's Mount Royal Shopping Center, the price of the food was raised so servers could make more money. It was a move to help create financial equity between the waitstaff and cooks.

Northern Waters eventually went back to tipping.

new Zeitgeist management.jpg
Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar reopens Nov. 19, 2021, under the new leadership of general manager and executive chef Nick Weinhandl, left, and front-of-house manager Kyle Salveson. Contributed / Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar

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Weinhandl trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and started working at Fargo’s high-profile downtown Hotel Donaldson, or HoDo, in 2010 — first as a line cook, then as sous chef. He was promoted to co-chef with Ryan Nitschke and together they earned a AAA four-diamond rating.

In 2014, both were nominated alongside 19 other semifinalists for the James Beard “Best Chef: Midwest” award.

“We were knucklehead kids doing their thing,” Wienhandl said.

He recalled celebrating by running laps through the restaurant and dishing high-fives. It was a coincidence that he planned to put in his notice that day — Weinhandl had plans to move to the North Shore, he said.

Since leaving North Dakota, he has worked at Grand Superior Lodge, Larsmont, Lake Avenue Cafe and McQuade’s Pub and Grill in Two Harbors. He was a self-described “Scott Graden Fan Boy” when he was hired as a line cook at the New Scenic.

His six-month plan to work at the restaurant turned into five years.

Now he is married, has a toddler and another baby on the way.

“Ten years ago I was promoted to co-chef and 10 years later I’ve been taking on this new project,” he said. “I’m a bit more mature, a little wiser. I look back and I think if a drunken line cook could take over and help a team do well, this much more intentional and right-minded version of myself should be able to.”

Christa Lawler is a features reporter at the News Tribune. She can be reached at clawler@duluthnews.com .

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