It’s hard to believe it was just two weeks ago that Justin Sutherland was rolling through the Phillips neighborhood, sharing live video as he marched from the site of George Floyd’s murder to the intersection of 31st Street and Stevens Avenue, where he and his group were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. The chef, perhaps best known outside of the Twin Cities for his appearances on Iron Chef and Top Chef, wore his signature “In Diversity We Trust,” hat, and a grim expression — knowing what was coming and prepared to still show up. Near the end of the video, the sound of gunshots echoing, Sutherland says, “They can’t stop us.”
In the span of a few months, Minneapolis and St. Paul have changed dramatically in many ways. In mid-March the coronavirus pandemic shut down restaurants, leaving an entire industry that people turn to for comfort without work, without clear purpose, and without any indication of when those jobs might return. Then, on May 24, 2020, outside Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue and 38th Street, white police officer Derek Chauvin took George Floyd’s life. The incident broke wide open something long simmering in Minnesota, and eventually the world. In the protests that followed, local landmarks burned and people raged.
For Justin Sutherland, he knew he had to be a part of demanding change. After the video turns off, he said a national news camera crew grabbed him and his friends that were marching that night, offering shelter. It was May 30, what would end being the final night of widespread violence in the city, a night that would leave the post office, just steps from where the video leaves off, a charred husk of a building. “We got pulled in by a CNN crew,” said Sutherland. “They said, ‘Stay with us! They can’t shoot us!’” This assurance came despite a CNN reporter being arrested on air the night before. and another freelance photojournalist lost use of her left eye after being shot in the face with a rubber bullet.
Sutherland and his friends did manage to get out of there that night safely. Eventually, he and his girlfriend took a full break from Minnesota and public life, unplugging and recharging in the wilderness.
Fast forward to yesterday, Sutherland stood in the midst of a restaurant under construction. The chef has opened half a dozen, or so, over the past two years, and this scene is almost jarring in its familiarity. The truth is, opening an exciting restaurant is what this chef does, but what was once ordinary, now feels chimerical.
A week ago today, Minnesota began to open up patio dining at restaurants for the first time since the March 17 statewide closure began, in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Wednesday of this week, dining rooms were allowed to open.
In this new chapter, Sutherland is relocating his first restaurant, The Handsome Hog is after five years in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood. That building, that housed it and Public Kitchen and Bar is being converted into luxury apartments. Public has permanently closed, but the commercial kitchen is currently being used to prepare meals to feed protestors and the hungry.
Handsome Hog 2.0 will take the place of The Fitz, formerly Fitzgerald’s, at the corner of Selby Avenue and Western Avenue in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
Sutherland’s original paean to bourbon, smoke, and Southern comforts will reemerge soon, possibly next week. The final touches are being installed on the patio now, while the interior is still being reworked. The kitchen is nearing completion.
The Handsome Hog will continue to serve what fans fell in love with at the original location: fried chicken and waffles, smoked brisket, gumbo, and a cocktail list dominated by brown booze. For the Hog 2.0, the menu will also include a few lighter dishes, including vegan options and expanded salads. There will also be an abundance of smoked meat. The brisket, a dish that was known for selling out quickly. “No more 86 the brisket at at 7 p.m.,” said Sutherland. The new smoker being installed more than doubles the capacity for prepared that popular entree.
Fans of The Fitz, which closed with everything else when the coronavirus pandemic hit, will be thrilled to hear that the pizzas the restaurant was known for, will return in the form of a weekly special, including the much-loved Chicago-style deep dish.
The patio will open first, with a newly constructed pergola, full bar, and two fire pits. It will have the capacity to seat up to 110 people, but will open with closer to 80 diners allowed on the patio at any given time, to allow for social distancing. Inside the restaurant will include up to 160 seats, but will open at a lower number to, again, allow for distancing.
Inside the restaurant, dark banquets have been installed along the front wall. All The Fitz’e light colored walls have been painted dark, and the signature olive green accents have been added to the room-dominating 360 degree bar.
Downstairs, The Handsome Hog will have a bourbon room — a small, intimate space that can be rented out for private events
The Hog is Sutherland’s first major project amidst the reopening, with Ox Cart’s glorious rooftop bar overlooking CHS Field and Lowertown will be following soon. After that, well, things just might land somewhere in the realm of normal, with more even more restaurant openings to follow.