While I’ve nothing against the electronic squawk that commonly services as music in most bars and restaurants, live performance will never be replaced. Listening to a great musician, particularly over a good dinner and glass of proper restorative, is the acoustic equivalent of slipping into a warm bath. The experience isn’t all too difficult to find, but finding a better one than that which Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis offers is tricky indeed. Dakota is tops.Now celebrating its 35th year since its doors first opened, Dakota originally started out in St. Paul where they hosted jazz exclusively. They relocated to Minneapolis and expanded their focus in 2003: Jazz still enjoys its limelight, but blues, country, folk, and other acts that defy classification perform on Dakota’s stage just as well.
Dakota’s layout breathes intimacy. The stage, front and center, is barely elevated, a simple platform for musicians embellished only by a brick wall with a blue neon sign declaring “Dakota” behind it. The restaurant spans around the stage, providing nearly every table with a good view of it. The best treat is the balcony seating, rumored to have been Prince’s preferred perch during his frequent visits to the club. From there you can see the whole joint breathe in and out to the music.
Dakota hosts headliners. Ricky Skaggs, Martin Sexton, Brian McKnight, Chick Corea, and Tower of Power have all played there recently, and Dakota’s monthly lineups read like a who’s who in music. The size of the club permits some audience interaction. When Martin Sexton asked for the audience to serve as his chorale for a number, the crowd sweetly obliged. When a woman in the audience professed her profound affection for Sexton, loudly, he reciprocated the feeling back to her. It must have made her night.
Dakota’s food and drink match the excellence of its performances. In keeping with the roots of American jazz, the club’s menu is inspired by the cuisine of New Orleans. You might imagine that it’s difficult to capture the essence of a culinary tradition that found its way to America via France by way of Canada and mixed inseparably with African traditions. Dakota manages to reproduce the delicate Cajun zeitgeist quite nicely, however, and their gumbo, shrimp, grits, collard greens, and fresh seafood (flown in daily) demonstrate it. More American fare like steaks and burgers are available, and out of respect to the greatest food on earth, Italian, they make the hell out of gnocchi and risotto. (Good gnocchi is a treasure — bad gnocchi is like boiled pencil erasers.) Dakota also bakes their own bread daily.
Food without drink is like a bedtime story without a kiss goodnight. Dakota makes a slew of signature cocktails, many with musical names like Flight of the Bumblebee, No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn, and Under the Cherry Moon. The right wines are available to compliment Dakota’s diverse menu, and their list of beers is frustratingly long, far more than I could try all in one sitting.
Dakota Jazz Club is the perfect sophisticated downtown destination, the ideal denouement to any night out or an entire night out all in itself. To plan which of Dakota’s upcoming live acts you’d like to go dine to, visit dakotacooks.com.
By David Scheller