Featured Project

Betty Danger’s Country Club

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Restaurant owners will often describe their restaurants as "unique." "There's no place like ours," they'll say, and they're right – to a point. Look around a bit, however, and you'll find that there are other spots in other neighborhoods and towns doing much the same thing on a similar scale. But the newly opened Betty Danger's Country Club in Northeast Minneapolis doesn't have to talk up its unique feel – it's a place that's unusual not just for Minneapolis or Minnesota, but for the country as a whole. Not for nothing it was voted by one Food Network program as the Weirdest Restaurant in America.

Take, for example, the fact that it's a restaurant masquerading – heavily masquerading, to the point of selling memberships – as a country club for the 99 percent. Or look at the sculpture-laden mini-golf course that criss-crosses through the indoor dining area. And then, of course, there's the Ferris wheel that functions as a vertical dining room ... but let's come back that, as it's a story that needs a bit of space in which to unfold.

Betty Danger's is the latest in the string of spaces owned by Leslie Bock, a restaurateur best known for the sprawling and iconic Psycho Suzi's tiki bar not far from Betty Danger's on the Mississippi River. For Bock and her team, building out Betty Danger's was a chance to work with partners like Boelter Landmark Restaurant Equipment and design specialist Kurt Grutzmacher to build (largely from scratch) an ideal environment for an extravagant restaurant-meets-theme-party space that works.

"This structure was new, so many of the challenges we faced at Psycho Suzi's we were able to prevent here," says General Manager Emily O'Brien. "For example, Psycho Suzi's has one of the most beautiful patios in the state – it's right on the river here, but that giant patio presented some problems."

The problem isn't the view or the flow – it's the fact that when inclement weather pops up, up to 400 people can be sent scrambling for cover. It's a recipe for chaos, just add water.

"So here [at Betty Danger's] we tried to create some covered outdoor spaces - the garden room is a covered outdoor space, and we leave those garage doors up even if gets a bit chilly or the rain begins," says O'Brien. "We also have the garage space which serves as a covered space."

Part of the Betty Danger's formula is coping with up to 700 guests at one time - a careful consultation with the restaurant's design partners resulted in some smart decisions that make it all possible.

"The placement of the host stand means one single host can see the entire room they're meant to be seating," says O'Brien. "The placement of the kitchen is ideal, and the flow of the bar works really well."

The restaurant's service well is located so servers can understand what's going on in the busy main kitchen; the bar has two tap towers, one up high that moves drinks out quickly, and one down low to foster great customer service.

"CLUBBY ATMOSPHERE" REINVENTED

Restaurant design is all about the details, and Betty Danger's is laden with them – from the tartan wallpaper to the faux library to the free-standing fireplace to the innumerable whimsical animal- and carnival-themed design touches that cover the grounds, inside and out.

Perhaps most striking is a bank of beautiful wooden lockers with brass accents. They're reserved for paying members of the club. "Many of the lockers have electrical outlets so you can charge your laptop or cellphone," says O'Brien. "You can keep maybe your favorite mug that you like to drink a cocktail out of or a mixer that's special to you. If you hold your membership to benefit your business, you can keep paperwork for your business or even an overnight bag."

DINING IN THE ROUND

It's impossible to talk about Betty Danger's without talking about the towering, custom-made, Italian-imported Ferris wheel – AKA "vertical people mover" AKA "vertical patio" AKA "the mechanical tree" AKA "the Danger." The wheel has its own backup power generator (which was put through its paces on the restaurant's first day of operation, when a power outage struck Northeast) and its own support bar and fast-moving kitchen.

"The Danger is a dining room – when you purchase your ticket, you receive a cocktail, and when you queue up to the wheel in line, you can sip on your drink and you meet a couple of people along the way who explain to you what your experience will be, which is 20 minutes long," says O'Brien. "You stop and start as we load and unload down below, allowing you different views of the city so you can check out the beautiful Lowry bridge, the Mississippi riverfront, Psycho Suzi's, beautiful industrial Northeast Minneapolis and the downtown Minneapolis skyline."

Customers sit in groups of 2-4 people – the 64-foot-tall wheel has seating for 64 in its 16 four-person gondolas – and eat and drink cocktails while they rotate around.

"We utilize the auxiliary kitchen as our prep kitchen during the day, but during the hours we're open to the public it serves as our Danger kitchen," says O'Brien. "It's a separate area that doesn't disrupt the flow of the rest of the restaurant so our Danger customers can in a very timely fashion get their meals. The auxiliary bar means our Danger customers don't have to wait in line at the bar."

Timing is critical to the wheel's operation. The gondolas aren't numbered in order, and that's no accident – it helps the wheel's operator figure out the order in which to seat guests so that the wheel stays balance.

"It doesn't matter how much electricity is poured into an electric wheel, gravity also has to be taken into account," laughs O'Brien.

FINE MEXHAMPTON DINING

"This is one of the busiest restaurants I've ever worked at and it's like that all day long," says Betty Danger's chef, Scott Schumacher. "Switching from brunch to dinner is a challenge ... We run most of the food off of the main line, and we also have a wheel line, which doesn't have stoves - you only have three minutes to prepare a ticket. It's pretty difficult, actually."

Juggling large numbers of staff, tickets, and dining areas means that Chef Schumacher's efforts are one part culinary supervisor, one part administrator, and one part circus ringmaster. His passion, however, is for creating new dishes. Most of those are squarely within the restaurant's house cuisine, wryly termed "Mexhampton."

"It's South American/Mexican food with a twist of Minnesotan and the Hamptons," says Schumacher. "You want to have that South American influence with the heat being part of the profile of the dishes, but this is also Minnesota so a lot of people are sensitive to the heat. I'm actually one of them – I love heat but I can't handle a lot of it."

Dishes like loaded nachos, a lovely rendition of (house-made) chips and scratch guacamole, fish tacos, and delightfully old-school pimento dip with Ritz crackers are accompanied by cocktails that are equal parts strong and whimsical. The bright pink, exceedingly smooth and slushie Yale margarita packs a tequila punch and seems to embody the brash, bright attitude of the place.

A CONNECTION TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD

As conspicuous as it may be (both inside and out), Better Danger's also connects quite deliberately with its surroundings, the arts and culture-infused streets and avenues of Northeast Minneapolis. "The dedication to the neighborhood is central to our business plan," says O'Brien. "Membership [in Betty Danger's] benefits the Northeast Arts District, which we're smack dab in the middle of right now."

"The Northeast neighborhood is full of people who appreciate the arts and architecture," says O'Brien. "They kind of sing their own tune. There are all these businesses built around being alternative – doing your own thing, thinking your own thoughts, being your own businessperson."

"Art is all in the eye of the beholder – there are many different art-focused buildings here, and all the different breweries – that's one person's form of art," says O'Brien. "And that's what we're doing here as well."