Plattitudes: Zelo at 20

Plattitudes: Zelo at 20

Rick Webb's now-iconic Minneapolis restaurant has its mojo back.

The connective tissue of the content in this Food Issue is how sharing a meal connects us, which leads inevitably to the ineffable allure of restaurants. It’s why people want to invest in them, work in them, and spend money in them—even when there are better ways to deploy your time or capital.

We all know that restaurants fail at a very high rate, that they are complex businesses that are highly disruptible by a panoply of external factors. So when a restaurant makes it 20 years, it is no small achievement. The restaurants that endure locally, more than anything, excel at hospitality. Their ambiance and food are usually solid, but what people really gravitate to is the sense of welcome and of being at home away from home.

The restaurants that endure locally, more than anything, excel at hospitality. Their ambiance and food are usually solid, but what people really gravitate to is the sense of welcome and of being at home away from home.

I was reminded of this when I stepped into Zelo on Nicollet Mall a few months ago. It opened 20 years ago this summer, when Rick Webb took a former bridal studio and installed an Italian restaurant with big picture windows fronting Nicollet Mall. The success of its sibling Ciao Bella in Bloomington was a harbinger that Zelo would be an immediate hit, and it spawned two of its own offshoots, Bacio in Minnetonka (no longer Webb-owned) and the Zelino takeaway behind the flagship.

In 1998, Zelo felt modern and urbane, but not too big for its britches. It was more than happy to serve you a cheese-laden risotto on a 90-degree day or an underripe Caprese salad in winter because that’s the way the locals liked it. Eating seasonally was for Italians anyway.

I used to have lunch at the bar at Zelo all the time in its first decade. The chopped salad and the walleye sandwich on focaccia were unbeatable. I got to know some of the staff, they knew me, and though nobody was buying me drinks or comping meals, I nonetheless felt very welcome and returned the favor with my loyalty.

Still, times change. Work got busier, money tighter, and a 75-minute lunch became a luxury. Zelo and I went our separate ways. Webb wanted to cut back, too, and sold it to his managers in 2008. He missed the recession, but it didn’t miss Zelo, and the restaurant ended up back in Webb’s hands in 2016 via foreclosure. He decided the restaurant had another generation in it but needed some TLC, so he embarked on a seven-figure renovation.

The new space is warmer and less quirky. I headed back early this year after hearing a former manager (now at another restaurant) extol how much he learned about the restaurant business from Rick Webb—how Zelo got right what so many restaurants struggle to figure out.

I liked the new warm, minimalist look, and was charmed to see server/bartender Jonathan there after all those years. I had forgotten how good Zelo’s food was—that definitive tuna burger, the salads. Zelo isn’t cheap, but you rarely feel ripped off. And after a few months, I realized that I was finding myself in the bar at Zelo more and more—on Friday nights for family dinner, after an evening of working late or a ballgame that didn’t run three hours.

Rick Webb (and his late brother, David) are local restaurant royalty. They created more successful local spots than I can count, and though the two are/were very different, both understood something essential
about local diners and the allure of restaurants.

I phoned Rick in June, a decade since we’d last spoken, to ask about Zelo’s evolution. He’s a rather private guy, modest about his achievements, and quick to deflect credit.

Webb’s sense of Zelo’s success is its consistency and capacity to build relationships between management and staff, and staff and guests. “We really are focused on making all our decisions with customers in mind,” he says.

Webb is bullish on downtown Minneapolis and its evolving vibe, which he believes helps keep Zelo’s clientele evolving and compels the restaurant to stay relevant.

Zelo shuns some of the low-hanging fruit most restaurants can’t resist; there’s no Sunday brunch because Webb can’t figure out how Zelo could do a good job with a meal it only offers one shift a week. And there’s no happy hour. The bar is busy anyway, which Webb attributes to modest markups on superb wine pours.

I do wish the bussers weren’t so aggressive with clearing plates and Zelo didn’t close quite so early on nights downtown is active, but in general the place works.

It’s not a complex formula, but neither is it easy to execute. Restaurants that just work, and just work day after day, year after year, make it look easy and diners take that for granted. But if you read our restaurateur roundtable (page 16) you’ll realize how much carefully choreographed effort goes into making it look easy.

So happy birthday to Zelo. It took me a decade to rediscover what the rest of downtown already knew: Great hospitality stands the test of time.

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.