Nestled on the corner of Snelling and Bayard in Highland Park, Joan’s in the Park has been up and running, and winning top-notch reviews and awards, for four years, thanks to owners Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop.
The two met in 2006 at Morton’s Restaurants in Florida, where Schmitt was opening a new Morton’s, and Dunlop was the regional director of operations. Dunlop had just moved to Florida from Los Angeles, where she had the same position at California Pizza Kitchen, and Schmitt had been with Morton’s for 15 years when they met, and they started talking about opening their own restaurant.
Schmitt’s family was in Minnesota, “and our idea was that we would do a restaurant that had the support of family,” Dunlop says. Yet, she adds, “I had never been to Minnesota before.” But it seemed to be the perfect location, so they moved north and started planning.
The idea was to create a fine-dining experience with an approachable price tag. “Great hospitality, amazing service, high-quality food and we’re going to deliver it at something that’s more approachable than other higher-end restaurants,” Dunlop says.
“Where we both were [at Morton’s], the check average per person got up into the $100 range,” Schmitt says. The goal for Joan’s in the Park was “to be able to provide the same level of service and the same high-quality food, but at a $50 check average.”
The two had experience, and success, opening restaurants for other people, and they wanted something they could call their own. But, they admit, it’s harder than it looks—the duo needed to learn about things such as licensing and sales tax. Schmitt says, “It’s a double-edged sword because it’s really nice to have everything that’s ours.”
“If we want to close when the weather’s bad, we don’t have to call corporate and say, ‘Is this OK?’ ” Dunlop adds. “Certain decisions are yours to make, but at the same time if equipment breaks, you can’t just call facilities and say, ‘Come fix this.’ ”
But they get to hold the positions they always dreamed of. Dunlop always wanted to be in the kitchen as opposed to being behind a desk.
“I was more on the corporate side of things, and I really just wanted to be in the kitchen,” she says. “I just wanted to cook and be in the kitchen and work with food. Because my passion is food.”
That passion has created a following of regular guests and accolades from top critics. Joan’s in the Park is known for having some of the best steaks in town without being a steakhouse, and for making guests feel right at home.
“We want them to feel like they’re almost a guest in our house,” Dunlop says. “We try not to let anyone leave without us saying goodbye to them and thanking them.”
That connection to guests also helps them create menus, they say. “We change our menu; every week we’ll do something different, but there are some things that are such guest favorites. We keep them on the menu—for now,” Dunlop says.
One of those is the crab toast with fresh blue crab, a perfect sharing appetizer. “And then the brown butter pudding is, for sure, our signature dessert,” Schmitt says. “It’s the basis of our comparison for other food. ‘It’s brown-butter good.’ ” The treat is even served with a spatula so you can scrape the edges, getting every morsel.
They keep the menu as local as possible, and one Monday a month they host a dinner called “Chef’s Day Off,” when they’re normally closed. With several courses, and open for anywhere from 14 to 18 people, the dinner is completely local. “We don’t use lemon, we don’t use pepper, we don’t use olive oil,” Dunlop says.
“I got the idea of something like this when Rick Nelson [food critic at the Star Tribune ] did our review,” Dunlop says. At the time, she had white asparagus on the menu, and though the review in general was very positive, she says, “He made a comment like, ‘White asparagus is so far out of season it’s almost back in season.’ ” But Minnesota is limited. “To really be legit you couldn’t have any lettuces or tomatoes, so I decided I really wanted to do something seasonal,” Dunlop adds.
This is a challenge, since January in Minnesota doesn’t have much in the way of fresh produce, but it’s a fun experience, they say. It also allows Dunlop to get creative. “That’s the nice part,” she says. “I get to experiment.” In the past they’ve served goat, corned beef tongue and snapping turtle.
While Dunlop has fun experimenting in the kitchen, Schmitt says her favorite part of owning Joan’s in the Park is interacting with the guests. “It’s 100 percent social,” she says. “I interact every day with our people—people having a good time. We’ve made some lifelong friends because of the restaurant.” They also get to work with family. Schmitt’s son works full time as a server and general manager, and her other son and daughter work there periodically, as does the girlfriend of one of her sons. Dunlop’s daughter moved to Minnesota after the restaurant opened and is in charge of their social media accounts.
Between working with family and doing what they love, it’s easy to say Schmitt and Dunlop’s Joan’s in the Park is a success. They will say it’s all because of the guests. “I mean, we’re here because there are guests that visit our restaurant,” Dunlop says. “They’re allowing us to live our dream.”
(This meal features grass fed and herb marinated beef rib-eye and charred beet slaw with balsamic, paired with Caburnio Toscana.)