by Britt Aamodt
People in the restaurant business are sometimes a superstitious lot.
Spill salt, throw it over your shoulder. A party of 14 loses a number? Keep the extra place setting. Say to yourself, “Man, what a slow night” and two minutes later you get slammed.
The superstition that built up around the lodge-style building at 21390 John Milless Dr. in Rogers claimed that any business reckless enough to set up shop under its roof was doomed to flop. That’s how Dean Soltis and Cynthia O’Connor heard it anyway.
The site was the former location of Black Bear Lodge & Saloon, which juggled owners before finally closing some years back.
Now the attractive building with its log-built facade and lofted great room has a new owner, a new name and a menu that promises upscale casual dining along a stretch of I-94 better known for fast food.
The Stone Lounge opened without advertisement or fanfare Dec. 22.
“We opened quietly,” says Dean Soltis, the owner. “You only get one chance to put your best foot forward.” Or did he mean best food forward?
Soltis and general manager Cynthia O’Connor wanted time to get their kitchen in top shape and the cooks, prep cooks and wait staff familiar with the plates that are — or will become — Stone Lounge’s signature dishes.
O’Connor describes the menu as “comfort food with flair and some lighter offerings mixed in.”
But the ingredients, flavors, presentation and overall decor situate Stone Lounge several links up the food chain from the family food joint.
There are burgers and steaks. But then there’s also lobster pot pie, chicken wings straight out of an on-site smoker and something called poutine (hand-cut fries topped with cheese, short ribs and gravy). Guinness may be Irish beer but it takes an American to put it in chocolate cake.
O’Connor, who designed the interior and the menu, knows what she’s doing. She literally grew up in the food business. Her parents owned restaurants, bars and hotels. Later, she and ex-husband, Dean Vlahos, managed a number of Twin Cities restaurants before co-founding Champps in 1984, which has since spun off more than 60 locations around the United States.
She encountered the other Dean, Dean Soltis, when his company, Affordable Granite & Stone, did some work at BLVD Kitchen & Bar in Minnetonka, where O’Connor consulted on the design and menu.
They met in August 2010. By December, Soltis was phoning O’Connor and asking if she’d like to look at a property in Rogers, see if it might make a nice restaurant.
The snow was 3 feet deep. The lot was unplowed and O’Connor had to park a distance away. But she saw what Soltis did: an opportunity.
“There were very few upscale casual restaurants in the area,” says Soltis, who lives nearby and often found himself driving to Maple Grove for fine dining. “What I wanted to do was head off the people like me driving to Maple Grove.”
The plan was to open Stone Lounge in July 2011. But if there’s a superstition about plans, it’s that they often have a tendency to go off the rails.
“It was April Fools Day. I’d had some work done on my truck,” Soltis remembers. “I was driving home and where the road curved, I went straight. I ended up taking down four telephone poles and flipping the truck three times. I was dead at the scene.”
Coincidentally, a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy and a Dayton police officer were both driving by when the accident happened. They resuscitated Soltis and had him helicoptered to North Memorial. He sustained severe injuries and was forced to sideline the restaurant.
The day before Stone Lounge’s December opening, O’Connor and Soltis probably said a few prayers and crossed their fingers.
“You always have nightmares beforehand,” says O’Connor. Would anyone come? “But we were slammed, and it was just word of mouth and Facebook.”
O’Connor and Soltis continue to tweak the menu. Expect lobster mac and cheese soon. They’re also scheduling live music and arranging a special Night of Romance for Valentine’s Day. An outdoor patio bar with fireplace and waterfall will open by summer.
And if that’s not enough, they’re thinking expansion.
“At some point, we’d like to take Stone Lounge to the Cities and beyond,” says Soltis.