A few months ago, on a snowy and bitterly cold evening, the thought came to me: ”Let’s go to JAX this Saturday night.”
Because it’s located on the other side of town from where we live, we hadn’t been there in years. But Jax has…90 years to be precise. Yep, it opened in 1933 which makes it perhaps the longest-standing restaurant in the Twin Cities. For nearly a century, Jax has proudly served refined supper-club fare, including prime rib, steaks, chops, chicken and fish…with a slight Polish footnote.
So, off we went.
Parking was convenient – Jax has a lot just across the street – and the restaurant’s main entrance leads you directly into a serious bar. I say “serious” not only because it extends the length of at least 12-15 stools, but because the bartenders clearly know what they are doing. They know how to concoct no-nonsense drinks both for today’s trendiest hipsters and stodgiest oldsters (Both will be happy with Jax’s perfect Negroni). Anyone in the mood for a crème de menthe-laced Grasshopper? Or perhaps a Brandy Alexander? (Joanne is!).
The restaurant flirts with refinement, comfort and familiarity…crisp white linen tablecloths and napkins, patterned carpet, a main dining room with a grand piano, professional wait staff and the requisite old standby: sanitary bathrooms.
NO site is quite as satisfying as walking into Jax’s dining room on a cold winter’s night.
The restaurant has been in the same family since the beginning. And it shows. On a crowded Saturday evening, the place positively hums. The food is high quality and generously portioned. Service is solicitous and ticket times are prompt. Jax is a well-run restaurant with a continuity perfected over the generations. IT’S GENUINE.
Expect to travel back in time…perhaps the ‘40s or the ‘60s…to a restaurant where the menu is driven by classic American cravings.
To open-up the dinner we shared appetizers including a Jumbo Shrimp cocktail (a classic presentation), deep-fried tempura shrimp (distinctly contemporary), five fat, spinachy, cheesy, blistered Oysters Rockefeller (back to the classics), and in a nod to its Eastern European roots, an order of Pierogies, rich with buttery sauteed onions.
Salads were crisp and cold (no brown lettuce edges to be seen). In addition to the expected Caesar and wedge and green salads, I was surprised and pleased to see a WALDORF SALAD. Hadn’t had one of those since I was a kid in Kewanee, Illinois, treated to a “Preacher’s Comin’ Sunday Night” dinner at the Roberts’ house.
Jax has always been known for their steaks – and deservedly so. Lobsters are fresh and briny and buttery. And why wouldn’t they be? The restaurant has its own live lobster tank.
By the way, Jax also has its own trout pond out back, by the lovely, expansive patio (to which we’ll surely return when the weather warms up). You can net your own trout and have it prepared on the spot for your dinner. And you don’t even need a fishing license!
Jax sits on the corner of University & 20th street as an oasis in what once was a blue-collar neighborhood in the heart of “Nordeast” Minneapolis, the traditional home to Polish immigrants as well as Germans, Russians and Slovaks. And to some degree that heritage still makes up a preponderance of the population of the area.
Parts of northeast Minneapolis have become dicey over the years. Other portions have been claimed by hipsters and gentrifiers. But Jax carries on as a neighborhood institution – the go-to destination not just for a pleasurable night out, but for wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners, sweet sixteen parties, prom night dinners, breakfast with Santa, hunter’s game dinners in the fall, and mother-and-daughter brunch, as well graduation, retirement and anniversary events. People meet for lunch before Gophers games and pile into buses for the stadium. They pack the place on St. Patrick’s Day. Jax may even does Lutefisk Dinners.
So I ask myself, “Is Jax a supper club? Is it a steakhouse? Is it a restaurant that functions as a social club?” I think the answer is YES…YES…and YES.
BUT IT SEEMS TO BE EVEN MORE THAN THAT – because Jax isn’t just about getting fed. It’s a true social event. The ambiance is nicer than a normal place, with walnut-paneled walls and sorta-swanky napkin folds on the table. People were kinda dressed up in slightly nicer-than-normal outfits. They knew one another. They laughed out loud. The crowd comprised SEVERAL GENERATIONS united by the fact that what they wanted most was to HAVE A GOOD TIME. Jax is just well connected to the rhythms of the neighborhood.
HERE’S THE BOTTOM LINE:
Jax is a treasure – not just for the neighborhood. Not just for the Twin Cities either (although it is surely that). Jax is an institution. It’s living history. It’s a time capsule in which the history of American dining comes to glorious life.
FOLLOW MY ADVICE: If you have kids or grandkids, bring ‘em to Jax on a Friday or Saturday night for an experience that surely won’t be around forever. They just don’t make restaurants like this anymore. Even some of our other dining institutions no longer deliver this kind of experience. Murray’s, for example, carries on serving fantastic food, but long ago it shed its swanky pink décor, trading it for a more generic wood-paneled dining room. Live music echoes only in memory, and its dance floor has been claimed for additional seating. Elsewhere in the city, the classics of the past, like Charlie’s and The Blue Horse are long gone.
But Jax still has live piano music on the weekends. It retains that magnificent bar and graciously appointed, widely spaced tables in the main dining room. Baked potatoes still come wrapped in foil. There’s a proper bread service. A maître ‘d still greets you at the host stand. You don’t feel pressure to give up your table after an hour-and-a-half.
Older folks will be thrilled to reexperience the past at Jax, and your kids and grandkids need to be introduced to it.
It’ll be the most delicious history lesson they’ve ever had.