In June, Excelsior welcomed Coalition Restaurant to its growing downtown. The restaurant’s vibe is an inviting blend of chic and relaxed: While the interior is glamorously styled with spacious leather booths, oversized chandeliers and a marble-style bar top, the menu is approachable, drawing inspiration from classic American fare and locally sourced ingredients.
“We want to make the food, the ambiance and the price point approachable, but also more on the sophisticated side,” explains co-owner and executive chef Eli Wollenzien.
The restaurant is the result of a collaboration between Wollenzien and general manager Deacon Eells. Hailing from River Falls, Wisc., the pair grew up together before parting ways after graduating from high school. Both Wollenzien and Eells ended up in the Twin Cities and, before partnering up to launch Coalition, worked extensively in corporate restaurant environments.
The two began planning for Coalition in early 2013, after Wollenzien approached Eells with the proposition of launching a solo venture. Wollenzien had previously worked for Crave restaurants and Blue Plate Group, both corporate entities with several restaurant locations. After eight years of working for larger companies, it was high time for a change, he says.
“At that point, it felt like it was time to get away from that world and all the dilemmas that come with that way of working with food,” says Wollenzien.
Eells had been managing the Woodbury Café prior to partnering up with Wollenzien. He, too, was eager to try his hand at a smaller, more community-based venture.
When Wollenzien suggested the partnership, he already had a space in mind. In August 2013, Wollenzien met with the owners of the building that now houses Coalition, a 120-year-old gem in the heart of downtown Excelsior. He had been turned on to the location, formerly home to Biella Restaurant, by designer Kara Karpenske of Kamarron Design, whom he had met during his stint at Crave. Although the space had great bones, Eells and Wollenzien decided that a near-total renovation was in order.
“The feedback we got from the community about the space previously was that it was too loud, too dark and too hot,” explains Wollenzien.
Construction began this past March, with the goal of opening by early summer. The team ended up working with Karpenske to redesign the space to better suit Coalition’s needs. The space received a head-to-toe makeover, including new wood floors, a bar area paneled with antique mirrored tile and industrial-style lighting fixtures throughout. The kitchen is separated from the dining room by a floor-to-ceiling illuminated wine cellar, helping reduce noise. New air conditioning was also installed.
“The only things we kept were the original 1886 tin-stamped ceiling and the exposed brick walls,” Wollenzien says.
The menu, too, was the result of much care and planning. “This wasn’t supposed to be a place that was going to teach you how to eat,” explains Wollenzien. “We wanted the focus to be on well-sourced ingredients and relatively simple but elegant presentation.”
Many of the farms that Coalition partners with are in western Wisconsin, the community where Eells and Wollenzien were raised. The menu will change seasonally to feature what is available locally, Wollenzien explains. Everything from meat and fish to greens and vegetables has been carefully chosen for its ties to the community, in Minnesota and neighboring states.
The beer and cocktail offerings, while not as hyper-local, keep a focus on supporting independent producers. The cocktail menu relies on spirits from boutique distilleries such as North Shore Distillery in Lake Bluff, Ill., and Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon in Swisher, Iowa. (Both companies are run by husband-and-wife teams). Tap beers come from as close to home as Victoria’s ENKI Brewing, among others.
Nick Boom, a resident of the lake area, has been bartending at Coalition since it opened in June. He says the new restaurant has been a great place to work. He cites the management’s positive, community-oriented attitude as the main reason for Coalition’s success. The owners are really down to earth, Boom explains. “They can have conversations with their employees, person to person.”
227 Water St., Excelsior