By Sara Boyd, WCCO

Downtown Minneapolis has had its share of disappointments in the last few years. An effort to revitalize the area has ended with a mostly-empty Block E. Not to mention, the word “restaurant” has practically become synonymous with “closing.” So what exactly is Kam Talebi, owner and CEO of CRAVE, thinking opening his most ambitious restaurant yet in the heart of Minneapolis?

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Simply put — now, more than ever, Minneapolis needs this, he said.

Talebi said he jumped at the chance to build his fourth CRAVE restaurant in Minneapolis, as soon as he heard the space was available. After successful locations in Edina, Mall of America and at St. Louis Park’s West End, Talebi said he wanted the downtown location to be his biggest yet.

Nearly $5 million later, the former Palomino location has been transformed into something completely new. The restaurant is really three spaces — the main dining area, which boasts an open concept with plenty of seating, three private dining rooms that serve parties from 10 to 125 and the gem of the project — a 6,500-square-foot rooftop patio that will have its own bar and own kitchen (and that’s already been mentioned as a “must see” in National Geographic).

The new restaurant will host a weekly Sunday brunch and daily happy hour specials. And as a bonus to those commuting, CRAVE will offer validated parking in the LaSalle Plaza indoor parking ramp for $5, which gets you about two-and-a-half hours.

CRAVE Minneapolis opens Thursday, but before the first sushi roll is cut, we sat down with Talebi to see how this downtown destination came to be.

When did this project first come together?

Talebi: I actually got approached late September, early October of last year. At that point, I found out that Palomino and the landlord were not going to agree on another extension — actually, thoughts about closing is what I heard. So we took a hard look at the site, and frankly, with all the vibrancy that is in downtown and what I believe is the continuous evolution of the Hennepin Corridor, I absolutely fell in love with the site. We had a tremendous opportunity by being able to build a rooftop on the existing space, which was a critical differential for us. Expensive, but very important. I felt that it would really complete what we’re about. Adding another element to the CRAVE brand was something I was excited about.

We moved quickly to finish up the lease. I think we had a deal done sometime in late November of last year. Ultimately, we started construction in late January, early February. We moved very quickly. It was a fast and furious build out. It’s by far our most ambitious project that we’ve done and undertaken in Minneapolis. The way I look at it was, really, we built two restaurants. One of the critical things for me upstairs was that it would be seen as a dining destination. We actually built another full kitchen upstairs so we could deliver a full CRAVE product and CRAVE menu and do it right. With the right level of service that we take pride in. … It’s not primarily a late-night patio. You can have lunch, you can have dinner, you can have happy hour upstairs and hang around during the evening hours. So it’s a full breadth of offering on the rooftop, which is not very much offered in the Twin Cities.

(credit: CBS)

When you walked into the space, you said you fell in love with the site. How did you envision the renovations and what was the concept for the new location?

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Talebi: Well Palomino had a completely different layout. They were closed off and for us, we’re all about an open environment and creating a concept and a feel and look to the restaurant that’s approachable, that’s comfortable, yet chic. If you look at the evolution of this location against others, we really made the finishes and the look and feel to be a lot more hip. From your alligator skin-type seating to more vibrant fabrics and design elements, so it’s a lot more urbanized. It fits the mold of what we wanted to do for a downtown location. (Talebi added that custom-made tile, with hand-blown Italian glass, are part of those finishing touches he utilized to create his chic look.)

What has the initial reaction been like from the public to this new layout and concept?

Talebi: The feedback has been tremendous, from the walk-by LaSalle Plaza customers and we’ve been in mocks — we’ve done mock services here the last couple of days and we’ve got just rave reviews about how the restaurant looks. And it’s different for downtown. If you look at the Hennepin Corridor, really, it’s filled with a lot of restaurants that are steak restaurants — Capital Grille, Seven, Fogo de Chao. Our menu is eclectic and has an incredibly wide range of offerings from great steaks to salads to pastas to entrees to seafood. So it’s a wide mix and appeals to a much, much larger demographic. And a lot more affordable. So the ability to ultimately deliver that in a chic, vibrant restaurant with our finishes, I think will be a wonderful addition to the Hennepin Corridor and the theater district-goer. And adding another element of dining to upstairs is another critical feature that we’re offering to Hennepin and downtown in general.

With constant news of businesses closing in Block E, and surrounding areas of downtown, what is your outlook going into this project and opening a venture that’s perhaps a little risky?

Talebi: Well, we’ve been very fortunate that the CRAVE restaurant system as a whole has been an absolute winner. All of our restaurants are growing and have grown in the last couple of years. And the product is in demand. When you look at the existing amount of corporate base that is here that supports and would welcome this kind of offering, which again is more casual based than fine dining, we’re very optimistic about the outlook that we have in front of us. As a matter of fact, we took additional space for additional private dining, based on the demand we were getting from our customer base, Target, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo. There are a lot of companies that are looking for that private dining experience, and they want it at an affordable price. Everybody’s looking for value, even corporate America, and that’s where we come in. … We’re excited to be downtown and hopefully we’ll get the support of the downtown marketplace.

Will the menu be different at the Minneapolis location? What can people expect?

Talebi: We just rolled out our new summer menu so it is consistent. We do have a separate rooftop menu that compliments, actually sits on top of our menu. So you can have some fun grilled items, whether it’s grilled shrimp, grilled shish kebobs. We have a separate menu we’re designing for the rooftop, in addition to the core menu.

With this location now opening up, it’s certainly been quite a year for CRAVE. What’s next?

Talebi: Relatively immediately after this, we’ll actually be starting our next project in Coral Gables, Florida. We’re probably about a month away from starting construction there, hoping to open at the end of summer, early fall. So that will do it for this year. That will be four restaurants — here, Urban Eatery, Sopranos and Coral Gables. There are more in the works — for the northeast for 2012. We have not released any information on that but there’s definitely more coming.

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CRAVE opens Thursday at 825 Hennepin Ave. in LaSalle Plaza. The grand opening VIP party will take place on June 4, with the grand opening of the rooftop patio on June 6. For more information to all of the CRAVE restaurants, check out the website.

Slideshow: The New CRAVE