Thank you Lucia Watson—We will always love you

luciaswinebar-570x382BY ED FELIEN

Don Olson, a notorious Southside radical and anarchist, and a dear friend, once commiserated with me when I was exhausted running Modern Times Café in 1982. His family used to run a restaurant. He said about his parents, “They always worked the B Shift. You had to BE there when it opened. BE there when it closed and BE there in between.”
The restaurant business is a tough business. There’s tremendous satisfaction in feeding people, but there’s also a tremendous responsibility to make sure the food is healthy and well prepared. You have to know your suppliers. You have to take care in the storage and make sure the conditions are sanitary where you prepare the food. Just keeping the refrigerators running and clean sometimes seems like a full-time job.
Lucia Watson did all that and much, much more, and she did it seemingly effortlessly.
I will never forget the first time I saw Lucia, almost 30 years ago. She was standing by the bar in the restaurant in a long black dress, looking languid and distracted, a little like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Around her the wait people swirled and danced. The food was delicious and impeccably presented. The flowers next to her on the bar were magnificent. Every detail was perfect. And she was the calm eye in the center of the storm.
I remember a dinner at Lucia’s, a Farm to Table benefit event to celebrate the farmers who supplied her food. The staff all wore special Lucia’s T-shirts saying, “We know our farmers better than we know our doctors.” We were seated at a table with some farmers, and one of them began a political discussion that was a bit too reactionary to ignore. I engaged him lightly. The discussion grew moderately serious, then, suddenly there was an activity that required all of us to leave our chairs and table. When we returned to our table I saw my debating partner had been seated somewhere else. I’ll never know how that happened, but it was not too hard to see the fine hand of Lucia Watson waving her magic wand and rearranging the seating to insure that everyone had a pleasant dining experience.
A great artist makes it look easy.
Her legacy is secure. Sapor Cafe and Bar and Wise Acre Eatery are two restaurants run by Lucia’s alumni. I remember more than 20 years ago, our favorite waitperson was a young woman named Tracy Singleton. She left in 1995 to begin Birchwood Café. Her choice to eliminate wait staff seems to me ironic in that her principal training at Lucia’s was as a waitperson. Tracy is on the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council that promotes local farming. Lucia Watson was for many years the president and guiding force in Youth Farm, a program that taught Minneapolis kids how to grow, harvest and sell produce grown in city lots. After harvest, she’d take a crew into her restaurant and work with them to cook the food.
She’s published important Minnesota cookbooks. “Cooking Freshwater Fish” deals lovingly with the lowly crappie and offers a compelling walleye stew. And “Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland” goes beyond the stereotypical Scandinavian hotdish to the recipes of the Ojibwe and Dakota, to Germans, Italians and Hmong.
Lucia WatsonShe served on the board of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy when Mark Richtie was the principal staff person more than 10 years ago. IATP works for fair trade.
We’ve never been asked to leave Lucia’s, though I can think of two occasions when that might have been appropriate. One evening we were lingering over dessert and a last glass of wine and Lucia began a staff meeting in another part of the dining room. She said, “Don’t pay any attention to those two over at the table. They’re OK.” That made us feel validated.
Halloween is our anniversary, and we always went to Lucia’s to celebrate. The Halloween Blizzard of 1991 was no exception. We were, once again, lingering over dessert and wine when I noticed the maître d’ juggling salt shakers by the front door. I think he was Tracy Singleton’s brother. It was then I noticed there were no other customers in the restaurant, and there were a couple feet of snow piling up outside. We left as quickly as we could.
I asked Lucia if she wanted to say anything. She wrote: “I guess I can only [say that I] thank Uptown (and the Association as well) for all the support they have given me over the years, or that I leave the restaurant in good hands, and moving forward Lucia’s will continue to move into the future.”

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