Erté and the Peacock Lounge: Artist in Residence
Adam and Kelly Milledge were able to make their dream of owning their own restaurant come true thanks to an SBA loan and the track record of a well-run restaurant, Erté in NE Minneapolis.
Northeast Minneapolis’ Erté (pronounced AIR TAY), named for the Russian-born, French-trained artist Romain de Tiroff, no longer hosts the artist’s art deco prints. Instead, the newly painted walls are lined with modern paintings for sale by local artists.
The original owners, the Kraske family, sold the restaurant and bar almost exactly a year ago to first-time restaurateurs Adam and Kelly Milledge. And since the couple aren’t “millionaires,” they’re making changes slowly, first with the menu and then later tackling the big issues of an aging building.
“We’d been looking for two years,” Kelly Milledge says about their search for their dream restaurant. “(And) we thought we’d do something smaller.” The space has 106 seats in the dining room, 20 in a private dining room and an additional 54 seats in the separate lounge. That’s a lot of chairs to fill. But there was something about the charming, white tablecloth steakhouse with the funky lounge that attracted them. “Small business is a lot of grit and creativity,” she says. “We were blessed to be able to purchase this.”
Prior to being a restaurant, the circa 1916 building housed a furniture store, a dance studio—the Milledges removed full-length mirrors from dining room walls that were more in line with ballet than dining—and a funeral home. “My private dining (space) was used for viewings,” Adam Milledge says, grinning.
The kitchen still has architectural elements over the doorways reminiscent of its time as a mortuary chapel.
And yes, those rumors that the place is haunted are true. But the spirits are all friendly, Kelly adds,smiling. There have been incidents of candles relighting themselves, nonexistent shapes appearing out of the corner of your eye or what’s been described as a sour-rags smell that will materialize out of nowhere.
“Word is that it’s a stinky man,” Kelly says. The smell also visits the hair salon across the hall and the stylists will have to ask him to leave—which he does, taking his over-cooked broccoli/sour rags smell with him.
Beth Kraske, the previous owners’ daughter-in-law, still works at Erté. She says years ago her husband used to see a little boy ghost and her mother-in-law claimed to hear her name being called when no one was around.
More proof is that when Kraske is asked to take pictures of diners, she says, lights or shadows show up in the pictures that aren’t there.
The Milledges didn’t capitalize on this bonus history for Halloween, but that’s a possibility next year.
The art deco vibe still lingers in the Peacock Lounge, thanks to two stuffed peacocks perched high above the bar, the high tin ceilings and large expanses of hand-painted turquoise marbled wallpaper.
The previous owners were “going to do the cuckoo clock thing,” Kelly says about the bar, but switched to peacocks—maybe a more fitting look for Erté? “Mr. P. (the peacock with the extended tail feathers) came right off the farm and was a pet,” Kelly says, before his meeting with the taxidermist.
When the Kraskes owned the restaurant/bar the entire family was employed. Kraske says she misses working with extended family members, but she’s enjoying being part of the new family. Many of the front-of-the-house employees stayed, but finding and keeping cooks in the kitchen is a bit of a challenge, Adam says.
Adam attended culinary school in Iowa, starting at the bottom of the culinary ladder and working his way up. He pushed himself to learn everything about the business—which had to be done off the clock. He learned about ordering, how to build a lasting relationship with vendors and how to get the best meat and fish at the lowest price.
Before striking out on his own, he worked with David Fhima on his contract with the Timberwolves. Feeding basketball players with healthy options was a several times a day job. And with the double-digit number of games the team plays at home, it was challenging. He left with a burning desire to work for himself, he says.
Although his passion is the kitchen, “I know the front of the house,” he says, explaining that a typical day will begin with him starting at the front and walking back to the kitchen, straightening chairs, ensuring the glasses and silverware are polished, the napkins folded right.
Working together is not a problem for Kelly and Adam Milledge. He’s the artist with the menu and she holds down a full-time job with Aramark. “I’m one-forth, he’s one and three-fourths,” she quips.
While he excels at the restaurant side of the business, Kelly’s expertise is on the foodservice side, in her role as district manager with Aramark at the University of Minnesota. She runs the front of the house in the evenings when UofM events don’t hold her up, and on weekends.
Adam works with a variety of vendors locally, including Swanson Meats, Rancher’s Legacy, the Fish Guys/Market House Collaborative and Revel Farms. The quality of their products fits seamlessly into his philosophy of no waste. “I have no walk-in coolers, so I order twice a week,” he says. “(Meat) scraps go to stocks, same with vegetable scraps. Cheese rinds go to cheese stocks.”
Although Adam has revamped the menu, he is retaining its longtime tradition as a steakhouse. His menus reflect what’s in season and what he’s craving, for instance a recent special paired mussels and shrimp with macaroni and cheese. He does tastings when the menu changes, walking servers through all the ingredients so they can be his translators at the table. There are tests and quizzes involved, he says. And he’s thinking about having secret shoppers give feedback on the total experience.
Part of what a new owner of an established restaurant needs to gauge is how to make changes and attract new diners without alienating regulars. “I remember the first time we served white asparagus, and I was told we were too fancy,” Kelly says.
The tables are covered in white tablecloths, there are chandeliers casting gentle light and the food is a bit on the fancy side, but it’s also a casual dining place, since today’s diners don’t always dress up when they dine out—or when they go to the theater.
Neighbor Ritz Theater, where Theater Latte Da stages edgy musicals, has been a good source of customers, and the couple partnered with the theater by buying ads in their play programs and being listed on their website. They have had to learn the theater’s schedule so they can be prepared, since theatergoers are notorious for wanting to dine in a hurry in order to make the curtain. That also means servers need to steer them toward dishes that don’t take extra time to prepare.
The menu on Erté’s website has an interesting arrangement: Diners can click on buttons breaking the menu out by seafood, the proteins, the upgrades, the sides, etc. Happy hour, in the lounge only, is from 4 to 7 p.m. and there’s live jazz on the weekends.
There’s also a button on the website’s landing page that introduces the current artist whose work is hanging on the walls. The staff at Erté handles the sales for the artist, Adam says.
Now with a year under their belts, the couple has a bucket list of things they’d liked to do. If there were millionaires, as Kelly says longingly, they’d consider starting completely over, maybe even change the name, but for now they have to be content with minor changes, such as painting the dining room, adding a series of mismatched antique framed mirrors to a wall. On the wish list are a bigger kitchen and redoing the entryway. Currently diners enter through the shotgun-style (long, narrow) Peacock Lounge and then go through an interior door to the restaurant. Their offices are on the second floor, but that could be reconfigured, too.
All of that will come. Remember Kelly still has a full-time job and Adam is running the kitchen in a tight labor market.
“It’s a tough business but what other job can you have a glass of wine at work,” Kelly says over her shoulder as she rushes off to greet a guest.
Erté’s kitchen, which is small for the number of seats it serves, is one of the things on Chef Adam Milledge’s bucket list that he’d like to update in the historic building.