“It’s not what you thought it was and now we’ve exceeded the promise of this old roadside cafe,” executive chef and proprietor Scott Graden said.
Exceeding promise — implied promise, as the cerebral Graden calls it — has been the business of the New Scenic Café since 1999. The restaurant that challenges the norms of cuisine in the Northland celebrates its 20th anniversary April 1, and all month long will feature a special greatest hits version of its famously revolving menu.
For regulars, little else compares to New Scenic Café locally.
“We’ve never been disappointed by a meal,” said Jacquie Sebastian, of Duluth, deeply emphasizing the word “never.”
“It was my first introduction to stuff done creatively with food that I’ve experienced around here,” said Dan Markham, an executive with the commercial contractor Kraus-Anderson and among the vocal devotees of the New Scenic Café’s sashimi tuna tacos. “I travel and I’ve had other unique dining experiences, and when I come back to the New Scenic it seems like Scott is still doing stuff just as unique.”
Graden bought the cafe when he was 28 years old.
“I just wanted to do what I did and I was hoping somebody would like it,” he said.
By that time, he’d already opened establishments around Duluth while working for large restaurant companies. He’d sat in on steering committees which plotted how ingredients from one dish could be maximized and used in other dishes. He’d sweated the 400-seat dining experience, helping companies do $5 million or even $10 million a year in business.
But he didn’t want that anymore. He’d grown weary of the local scene — the categorizing of food along sandwich or entrée lines, the competition pivoting a single degree from one another and calling it a revolution.
So when the cafe went up for sale, he made the leap from one ride to another.
“These big restaurants move a lot (of food), but they’re like a big ore boat,” Graden said. “When something happens they don’t have the ability to sway off course. This is more like a little speed boat. We can zip around. We can’t carry a lot, but, boy, can we adjust quickly.”
Carol and Jerry Peterson estimate they’ve eaten more than 1,000 meals at New Scenic Café. Both retired from the University of Minnesota system, they were on a near daily lunch schedule for years. The staff knows them as Ma and Pa.
“We found that when we went there and had a glass of wine, we had some of our best conversations,” said Carol, whose husband has an early form of Alzheimer’s, resulting in fewer visits lately and more take-out meals.
Carol can go on about the food. She mentioned the egg sandwich prepared with asparagus and cheese on ciabatta bread, the salmon burger on a brioche bun made black with squid ink, and the soups with names that water the mouth.
But it’s the whole experience she raves about. From the inspired, on-site catering yurt to the gardens on the grounds that yield seasonal herbs and vegetables which appear on the menu to Graden himself who has catered the family’s most precious moments.
“There have been times we’ve gone there and walked out feeling that it was kind of magical,” Carol said. “Everything was perfect — and the food was, like, the top of the charts.”
Sebastian and her husband, Jim, know the feeling. The Duluth couple met Graden many years ago through winning a charity auction bid and the right to have Graden cook dinner at their house. He brought a whole salmon and wowed them from preparation to mealtime. They became regular guests to his restaurant, where they say the staff is unparalleled in its ability to pair wines with meals.
“We don’t go out to eat a lot, but when we do that’s our first choice,” Jacquie said of New Scenic Café. “Scott has this innate ability to pair ingredients together — to come up with the most fantastic menu items.”
Jim, a retired obstetrician, added that Graden continues to offer his time and talents to charity events.
“He’s just very community-minded, very generous,” Jim said.
You listen to people talk about Graden and his restaurant, and it’s surprising to hear Graden say, “I’ve never taken a culinary class in my life.”
Raised locally and a 1989 graduate of Superior High School, Graden described his origins in cooking as coming from a variety of people. His mother made the kitchen a comfortable place for a kid to be, never shooing him away. He spent significant time with his paternal grandmother, a go-to for locals in need of birthday and wedding cakes. His stepfather traveled the world and dabbled in the kitchen, exposing the family to a variety of foods and candlelit dinners with a hair of wine for everyone at the table.
“We had tater-tot hotdish,” Graden said, “but we also had things like stifado and bouillabaisse growing up.”
Graden attended Montana State University in Bozeman, pulling down two masters degrees in his career, one in chemistry. People who talk about him wonder if that degree has something to do with his cooking success.
It’s a part of it, he admitted.
“Food is science to some degree,” Graden said. “Certain things I just knew that were happening with the food scientifically gave me an edge.”
But it would be untrue to paint the picture of Graden as a maniacal genius concocting recipes in a kitchen lab.
Talking with Graden, now 48, smooth jazz piped through hidden speakers in the background. He spoke about food and his restaurant as art and acts of creating and disrupting expectation. His creative process is mostly in his head, a playground where he seems to also be capable of bullying himself. Ask him if 20 years and still going strong makes New Scenic Café a success, and he will veer into the hard analytical.
“My intention was to be a doctor, so when you talk about, ‘Was this the right choice?’ it probably depends on how far back you roll it,” he said. “If you roll it all the way back, maybe I should have studied harder and not been so fidgety and kinetic.”
Sitting with Graden, he’s perched on the edge of his seat and the fidgeting is evident. He pulls his glasses off and puts them back on. He tugs at an ear. He scratches his neck and, thinking hard, wipes a palm down his face.
“I’ve always been a learner,” he said.
For the past 10 years, Graden has been teaching management and finance classes at both the University of Minnesota Duluth and College of St. Scholastica. During conversation, he cited the philosophies of a Stanford professor and at one point asked, “Have you heard of the six hats mentality of decision-making?”
A quick online search afterward revealed how the hats represent different personalities and perspectives. But an hour with Graden made it seem as if he were capable of wearing any one of them at a given time. For Graden, 20 years of sterling reviews and a glowing word-of-mouth which extends down Interstate 35 and is amplified in the Twin Cities, where his believers are legion, doesn’t seem to mean he’s succeeded or that the New Scenic Café is an unqualified hit.
Instead, he said, every winter is still a struggle. And every step forward, an opportunity for hindsight.
Take the heavy timbers assembled around him into the cafe’s new entryway. Accented with sheepskin throws brought home from a Graden family trip to Iceland, the 16-by-16-foot space stands as a prism between the lake and the tables. No more will guests squeeze their way into one of the restaurant’s three intimate dining rooms. Instead, they’ll filter into the new space and linger there — the promise of something magic awaiting them.
“We struggled with people cramming into the entryway and it was clearly unappealing to have belly buttons and butts together as the entry and exit to your dining experience,” Graden said, a sunlight day unfolding outside the new picture window. “So, why the hell didn’t I solve this problem 20 years ago?”
If you go
New Scenic Café anniversary event
What: Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce ceremonial ribbon-cutting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of New Scenic Café
When: 3 p.m., April 1
Where: New Scenic Café, 5461 North Shore Drive, Duluth, 55804
Details: A small, invitation-only reception for close family and friends will take place after the ceremony. The restaurant will carry on throughout with business as usual.