Here’s the thing about La Belle Vie — the gilded, aristocratic, white-linen, in-house-sommelier pinnacle of Twin Cities fine dining. It never set out to be any of those things.
Fifteen years ago, while working at D’Amico Cucina, a young Tim McKee scored an accolade from national rag Food & Wine — as one of the best new chefs in America, to be exact. This was back when the Twin Cities wasn’t getting much attention at all for our then-nascent food scene. So, McKee figured he might as well make a go of this whole cooking thing. He pushed his anthropology textbooks aside, and along with then-partner Josh Thoma (now of Smack Shack), opened a little restaurant that could in Stillwater: La Belle Vie.
“We just wanted to be the friendly little neighborhood place that you went to a couple times a week,” McKee said. Instead, La Belle Vie quickly became lauded as the best restaurant in all the land. “So, when our lease was up, we decided that since everybody perceived us that way, we’d go all out with it.”
Seven years ago, McKee and company moved into the prestigious apartment building at 510 Groveland in Minneapolis, hung up the gauzy curtains, moved in the gazillion-bottle wine list, hired the best service staff available and continued cooking the best, best, food with a French-Mediterranean influence. Scads of awards and accolades later, the LBV crew say they’re really still the same guys who wanted to be the friendly little restaurant down the way.
“We know that this building and this room can be a little intimidating,” says partner, general manager and sommelier Bill Summerville. “But anyone who actually sits down to eat here will be blown away by how friendly and relaxed our service is.”
The reason McKee is such a super fantastic chef, Summerville adds, is because he really, really likes to cook for people. The menu is composed, simply, of stuff that the staff is just really excited about. While the staff can’t always travel as much as they’d like, they’re voracious readers and take cooking inspiration from everything from Lucky Peach to the New Yorker.
Beyond that, McKee gives credit to his staff, in a humble way that’s become sort of his signature attitude. In a profession often known for drama and egocentrism, McKee is a paragon of calm and chivalrous behavior, always offering mutual respect to everyone around him.
“Tim gives you a lot of creative freedom here,” says pastry chef Diane Yang. “He tastes everything you put out, and if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t just come out and say no. Instead, he works with you to tweak it in order to make it that much better. He’s let me consult at a bunch of places, and I just haven’t ever been able to get myself to leave. I know all of the guys have my back here. They’re like brothers.”
Beyond that sense of family, the crew says they draw their energy from wanting to be the best. As chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp puts it: “You don’t wake up in the morning and say to yourself, ‘I want to be OK today.’ Instead you wake up and say, ‘I want to be the best.’ ”
Where will the restaurant be in another 15 years?
“We don’t think in those terms,” McKee responds. “We’re thinking about the menu for Friday night.”
La Belle Vie 15th birthday party
Where: La Belle Vie, 510 Groveland Av., Mpls.
With: Music by the Twilight Hours, passed small plates, a caviar bar, champagne table, and a sommelier table with special tastings.
Tickets: $150, limited to 100. Call 612-874-6440.