When co-owner Matty O’Reilly talks about the early days of 318 Café in Excelsior, you might think he’s referring to the wild, wild west—and no, not the west-of-Highway-494 kind.
In the early 2000s, O’Reilly says, it felt like most of the businesses in downtown Excelsior were vacant, and the rest, he says, were mostly antique shops and beauty salons. “There was no healthy mix of what makes a community cool,” says O’Reilly, who, as a 33-year-old at the time, questioned friends when they swore Excelsior was a fun town. “By 9 p.m., there was nobody on the street!”
Then his cousin, Tom Peterson, played the Bean & Wine Café as a musician. It was one of five retail spaces in a former lumber mill at 318 Water St. The Bean & Wine was a restaurant and coffeehouse, and doubled as a music venue. It was a quirky, trendy gem in then up-and-coming Excelsior.
When the topic came up in conversation at a family event, the guys agreed then and there to buy the place if it ever came up for sale. It did, and the rest has been history. 318 Café opened in 2004.
“I first fell in love with the intimacy of it—the sound, the warm acoustics,” says Peterson. “It was quaint, charming … what’s special about it is that people are on the edge of their seats and attentive.”
Local singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist Boyd Lee agrees. He and Joe Cruz were the first artists to play the café when it first opened, and they still get onstage occasionally. “It was really my first love as far as a music venue in Minnesota—it’s so great, like someone’s living room, a true listening room. I wish there were more of them.”
(New York cheesecake topped with whiskey-soaked cherries, on-tap craft beer and the staff and customer favorite El Cubano sandwich)
Peterson and O’Reilly—both musicians and veterans of the restaurant business—knew it would take some creative thinking to deliver the top-quality talent that customers had come to expect at the venue, while also reenergizing the space and its food and drink menu to grow the business. The word “tiny” doesn’t begin to describe 318 Café, which comes in at around 1,000 square feet—smaller than most starter homes.
“We had to take a super-creative approach with the kitchen,” says O’Reilly. “We can’t cook a steak or a hamburger to order. There’s no storage. No basement. No back room. Nothing.” The team wanted to up its culinary game within a Starbucks-sized kitchen and seating for just 55 people (plus around 20 more during Minnesota’s short patio season).
So how do they do it? They’ve never had a freezer, and have room for only one double-doored reach-in fridge. A daily food delivery replenishes fresh ingredients for the simple comfort foods that make up most of the menu. “It’s nothing but a small miracle that it’s achieved what it has,” says O’Reilly.
Breakfast options include chef Ivan Barrera’s famous quiche, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, and a rotating lineup of baked goods (cinnamon roll, anyone?). Lunch and dinner feature creative variations on the hot dog; interesting salads; artful, simple cheese and charcuterie boards; tacos; and a famous Cuban sandwich. There are just a handful of dessert options—but, honestly, who needs more than cheesecake topped with whiskey-soaked cherries, a decadent red velvet cupcake or slice of carrot cake? The menu is simple but delicious, like what you’d be served at a friend’s house.
General manager Krista Vanmoorlehem is a longtime friend of O’Reilly’s. She says the genuine, approachable nature of the 318 Café staff is what first hooked her. “You walk in, and 10 people say hi to you,” says Vanmoorlehem, who officially joined the team in fall 2015. She’s a certified sommelier with years of experience in the restaurant industry. As the new general manager, she oversees staffing and operations but also gets to use her deep knowledge of wine to source and curate perfect pours for every occasion. Just as 318 Café features new talent on stage, it brings in an ever-changing cast of pours and pints from Minneapolis and Milan alike.
(Left: Jay Paul at thhe beer tap; Right: general manager and wine expert Krista Vanmoorlehem.)
“People want to try something new. Wine isn’t scary and snobby anymore—it’s more approachable than it used to be,” says Vanmoorlehem. The 318 Café uses a Winekeeper system that keeps tapped bottles fresher longer, so they’re able to offer higher-end wines by the glass and maximize their limited space. There’s an ever-evolving list of interesting, global wines: a Carignan from Sardinia or Austrian Gruner Veltliner will be served alongside a domestic pinot noir or cabernet. Afraid to take the leap? “I’m quick to give a sample!” says Vanmoorlehem. “I love being able to suggest something different and see people get excited about something new.”
So, you ask, how do you become a certified sommelier? “Certification was harder than college—but more fun,” she says. There’s a series of written and practical tests, including blind tasting, where she needed to identify a wine’s growing region, age and style. In case you’re not willing to take on that challenge anytime soon, stop by 318 Café for happy hour—or their famous open mic night—to take advantage of Vanmoorlehem’s enviable wine chops.
The café has a selection of beverages for the non-wine crowd, too—from Dogwood coffee drinks and TeaSource loose-leaf teas, to a plethora of local and seasonal beers. In true Minnesota tradition, you’ll always find a hop-forward IPA on the menu, or a brew for almost any taste. They’re all on tap, and if something sounds good, act fast—it might not be there in 20 minutes.
The high-quality music, unique vibe and interesting menu at 318 Café add another dimension to the lineup of businesses that have thrived in Excelsior in recent years. “We assisted in building a reason to come, making Excelsior vibrant and cool,” says O’Reilly. He notes that the city of Excelsior’s resistance to chain businesses has helped maintain the integrity—and community—of the small town. “We’re in a community that supports truly independent restaurants and people doing something different. It gives every mom-and-pop place a fair shot,” he says. Early on, the team recognized the unique sense of place that the venue enjoyed, and set out to capitalize on it.
“During the creative process, we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do that larger businesses can’t do?’ ” says O’Reilly. “The [music] lineup we’ve seen over the past decade is absurdly good for a place this size. It’s what people miss about living in urban places—it’s tiny, and far from the Cities. But it has an urban vibe in the suburbs.”
In the dozen years since 318 Cafe opened, the whole town has seen a bit of a renaissance. Nowadays, at 8 or 9 p.m., the café—and the brewery and restaurants in what was once sleepy Excelsior—are just warming up for the night.
“People come to hear the music, they appreciate the artists. People feed off each other,” says Lee. “It’s my favorite place to play. They get it.”
“There’s nothing else like it—even outside of Minnesota. There are so few destination small venues—it’s a fluke that it’s been there so long and is doing so well,” says O’Reilly, who swears the key to their success is booking musicians who are a draw in and of themselves. When bands take the stage, every Wednesday through Sunday night, the café grows quiet and the audience is rapt.
“People don’t have to drive to the city or go to the Dakota to see world-class talent,” says Peterson. “It’s an anomaly.”
(Co-owner Tom Peterson)