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'A Fun Esthetic': A Look At The Neon Trend Alighting Twin Cities Restaurants

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- When Paige Alexander was planning her new Minneapolis restaurant Zettas, she knew the look would matter.

"The days of 'It's just about food' is over with restaurants," she said.

Located inside a building with several tenants on Minneapolis' Eat Street, Zettas had just 263 square feet to work with.

Alexander decided, she needed neon. Customers noticed.

"It creates a great glow, a little pink, it's a fun esthetic," said Sarah Billings, over lunch a recent Tuesday.

"We want it to feel clean but bright and vibrant and still trendy," Alexander said.

Zettas is one of the latest to turn to the retro-feeling tubes to create a vibe. This is way beyond the beer signs in your Man Cave or Pub Shed.

"I think it's nostalgic," said Rachel Meyers, one of the glass artists at Ne-Art Custom Neon in Northeast Minneapolis.

Ne-Art created the neon at Zettas, as well as pieces inside Nolo's Kitchen, and The Bad Waitress Northeast.

"Even though there's a lot of science, using noble gases, electricity. It is kind of magic. You're getting this beautiful bright light," Meyers said.

Instagram and social media is driving the resurgence in neon as a design element, as well as a growing interest in local and craft creations, according to the owner of Ne-Neon, Brian Crawford.

"With Facebook, Instagram and Pintrerst, people bring ideas to us and say, 'Hey can you make this kind of thing' because they've seen it somewhere," he said.

The "Ne" in Ne-Art stands for the chemical symbol for Neon, although Brian won't correct people if they think it's short for Northeast, as in the neighborhood.

They're busy creating logos, and restoring old neon signs, but more and more designers are coming to them, too.

He's seen the trends change from beer signs like the Hamm's logo towards more unique and memorable work.

"I think there's more of an artistic appreciation for what neon really is," Crawford said. "It's not just a factory-produced thing, it's artistic too."

Neon phrases used as photo backdrops are currently the rage.

"From Asia With Love" at Golden Valley's new Lat 14. "Sweet Vibes Only" at Edwards Dessert Kitchen. And the lobster boil is "What's crackin'" at St. Paul's Grand Catch.

Neon bending is precision work which starts with a design in reverse, so the mechanics and connecting pieces to the sculpture can be attached to the back side of the glass. Focused burners, like a cross fire torch or a ribbon burner, are the tools used to heat up the glass, slightly melting it so an artist can shape it to his or her whims.

"It takes a lot of skill, a lot of practice," said Meyers, who said she's been working with neon for more than 20 years.

At Zettas, both the flatbread and the ricotta cheese are handmade, and according to Alexander, it just makes sense to have a hand-made neon sculpture on the wall, giving everyone a nice glow.

"People stand in that corner and take pictures. It looks great! Good lighting, I guess," she said.

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