Esquire: Minneapolis Is the Food World's Best Kept Secret
Written by Jason Tesauro, published on January 31, 2018
Minneapolis is America's most intriguing food and drink city that no one’s talking about. Aside from Prince, Target, and the Twins, outsiders don’t know much about it, because traditionally there are only two kinds of people up there: those who never left, and natives who explored the world but returned. They're fearless in the elements and worthy of validation—overdue for it, even—though in no way longing for it. As welcoming to outsiders as they are, “We’re just as happy to see you go,” one local admitted.
As the country descends upon Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, stories of a Scandinavian-esque foodshed, revitalized industrial districts, and homegrown booze will be told, but it's only a fraction of what makes it the best-kept secret in the north. Well, lucky for us, the word is finally out. Whether or not you’re headed there for the game, it's time to put it in your sights.
Where to Eat
For much of the year, locals are just trying to survive—there's no energy to be wasted on artifice or razzle-dazzle. You'll find excellent meals and service, but don't expect dress codes or molecular gastronomy. "People don't care for the 'put-on-ness' of fine dining," said one restaurant manager. "I will refold your napkin when you get up, but you can still eat a bologna sandwich with a $3 canned beer."
At Borough, where the chef de cuisine is Danish, pickled mackerel and raw vegetable salad will change how you think about winter bounty. Ask Keely for a table, and high-five cocktail guru Jesse Held. His drink—the Nightman Cometh, with beet-infused gin, sage, honey, Cynar, lemon, locally made Dashfire Bay Leaf Bitters, and a curry salt rim—is a Loch Duart salmon-hued showstopper.
Head to Powderhorn Park, and you’ll encounter a regional burger war to rival the battle taking place on Super Bowl Sunday. Matt’s Bar & Grill, home of the molten cheese core, is the original landmark burger dive. For stupid good hangover food, try the Jucy Lucy, misspelling and all. It’s served cash only, on waxed paper, with or without pickles and sautéed onions. Amy runs the floor and Paulie runs the flat-top with a mesmerizing calm, even during the lunchtime rush. Down the street, 5-8 Clubcalls its burger a Juicy Lucy (note the "i") and lets you fuss with cheeses, toppings, and yes, debit cards.
Mercy in downtown Minneapolis, across from the famed Orpheum Theatre, is hunter/fisherman/papa bear/chef Mike Rakun's love letter to the Gopher State. Beer can chicken and the best fish fry of your life? Yes, please. Downstairs, his bibliophile wife, Abby, has created the Library Lounge, where you can relax among curated tomes after downing frosty drams outside at their ice bar.
South of the city near Richfield Lake (one of the state's 13,000-plus lakes), Lyn 65 Kitchen & Bar is a gastropub anomaly with fare ranging from fried chicken to ramen to Neapolitan pizza and Au Cheval-style burgers. "I come from a picky family," says Chef Ben Rients. "I needed a burger for my dad, pizza for my brother, and fish for my mom." All of the craveables are here, and they're flat-out delicious. Don't miss the hummus with veal ragu.
You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to dig Fig + Farro. Eschewing Michelin stars for a mission bar, proprietress Michelle Courtright gave up the riches of advertising to instead tackle climate change, food waste, and carbon footprint issues in the restaurant industry. With communal tables, accessible and affordable eats, eclectic design and high-minded policies (an all-regional booze list, $15/hr minimum wage), this is the place for hungry progressives who like voting with their dollars while toasting with strangers.
They leave, they come back. Martina executive chef Daniel del Prado got a taste of Minneapolis, went away, and then returned. Now, del Prado and his business partner, both Argentina-born, serve Spanish and Italian verve to a quiet neighborhood. Chef Facundo DeFraia makes his grandmother’s empanadas each day. And then there’s Marco Zappia’s cocktails. Even if you don’t finish them, order three, or five, or all 10, just to see genius in concoction, color, flavor, and garnish. We're calling it now: At barely three months old, Martina is destined to be one of 2018’s best new restaurants.
Where to Drink
It’s cold. The ground is frozen. Wine grapes don’t really grow here, but breweries and distilleries thrive. Minneapolis is an A+ drinking town where the local booze IQ falls somewhere between gifted and savant. Barflies rejoice: While craft cocktails and ice programs in some cities are reserved for preferred eateries and premium bars, here a serious drink is standard fare in just about any place with chairs and straws.
In these parts, craft beer is as basic a public utility as tap water, and it flows down every street in pretty much the same way. Surly Brewing Co. Beer Hall is open all day, every day, with up to two dozen brews on tap and an appetite-spanning food menu that alone is worth the trip. Bonus: from the brewery, you can catch a glimpse of the historic 1913 Witch’s Hat Water Tower.
Looking for an energetic place to drink and mingle? Tattersall Distilling Co. is tucked into an enclave of artists and small industry. One of the partners is a bartender, so the portfolio ranges from base spirits (a juniper-muted flagship gin, a corn-based vodka, and a dynamite caraway/rye/fennel-forward aquavit) to all of the liqueurs and fixins needed for proper cocktailing, including a natural Bitter Orange that’s a cross between Campari and Aperol.
If you can stomach egg whites, Cheetos, and a no-reservations policy, then Marvel Bar is the joint for you. It’s a geeked-out cocktail hangout beneath a restaurant, hidden behind an unmarked purple door. This isn’t where you go for classics, tiki, or shots of Fernet, it’s where you sip on something you’ve never tasted before—and might never again.
Remember Jesse Held from Borough? Parlour is one of his seven drinking havens. Try his take on the region’s ubiquitous Old Fashioned, a go-to warmer-upper. This bar is like a house party, which makes sense, because “Minnesotans love to entertain, especially in the winter,” says Held. “Tornado, blizzard, whatever: Parlour gets busier when the weather gets worse."
“Kastina Morrison sent me" are the words you might have to utter to gain access to Brick + Mortar, a private social club with panoramic vistas, gorgeous furnishings, discrete lockers, corners for canoodling, and a rooftop terrace. Smooth talk your way past the velvet ropes, if only to see two remarkable tables: one of petrified wood, another of inlaid wood and stone.
Where to Party
Seemingly every Minneapolis native has a Prince story—attending one of his Paisley Park parties, pulling alongside his 1999 Plymouth Prowler convertible (purple, of course), running into him at Whole Foods. He loved just showing up, hitting the stage, and throwing down. When the tunes get hot, ditch the parka and follow his lead.
The Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant is the kind of laid-back, old-school jazz club where you might hear the Roy Hargrove Quintet bust out old MJ hits while you sip on a regional gin and tonic. It's in Nicolett, a pedestrian-friendly downtown district. Stroll through the enclosed overhead skyways that allow local suits to scoot block-to-block without ever stepping outside.
First Avenue & 7th Street Entry is two venues in one: 7th Street is a tight, 250-person club for DJ sets and punk shows. The Mainroom holds over 1,500 and has featured too many greats to list—Prince got his start here, and there’s a who-who constellation of rock stars painted on the building. Two blocks away, Eduardo Kobra’s Bob Dylan mural awaits a selfie.
To find rock, funk, and blues, head to Bunker’s Music Bar & Grill. North Loop is the up-and-coming, trendy section of town, but Bunker’s is still a neighborhood bar with loud music and cheap beer.
Where to Nightcap
Keep it simple for your late night snacks and last call drinks: Go where the locals go.
"Don’t tell anyone about Northeast,” warned one local about Minneapolis' best after hours neighborhood. Visit 331 Club, where there's no cover, $5 Fernets after midnight, and amp-smokin' bands onstage, and you’ll know why some want to keep the secret safe. (Just pronounce it “Nordeast” like locals do.)
Also in Northeast is Young Joni. The wood-fired pizzas and Korean short ribs are reportedly smashing, its Back Bar is sublime. Look for a red light in the alley around back, where you'll find reel-to-reel music on a mint-condition Akai, sumptuous sofas, and vintage touches galore. As the bartender put it, “It’s not any basement bar. It’s Grandma’s basement where your cool uncle lives.”
Behind Monte Carlo's century-old copper bar, bottles reach nearly to the ceiling. Elegance aside, no one will look at you askance for ordering Beijing-style chicken wings with a Captain and Cherry Cola float at midnight.
Where to Recover
To soak up your night out, face the cold sunshine of a Minneapolis morning and treat yourself to a hearty brunch. And don't skip out on the donuts.
Adjacent the restaurant, Bachelor Farmer's café serves up a healthy breakfast. Wild rice porridge with walnuts and maple-cardamom butter will stick to your ribs before a day of fat tire biking, cross-country skiing, or frozen waterfall hiking.
Don’t be afraid to order a mixed dozen Cardigan Donuts just for yourself. At the very least, grab yourself the sweet and spicy, cinnamon-sugared churro roll with fudge sauce. Cardigan also serves Blackeye Roasting Co. coffee. Pocket a slim can of nitro cold brew for a defibrillating afternoon jolt.
Chef Gavin Kaysen is a James Beard winner and another Minnesotan-returned-home. His restaurant Spoon & Stable (formerly a horse stable) is lavishly bright and inviting, elevating brunch the way caviar elevates a blini. Go hungry, linger, and treat it like a tasting menu: trout roe on lefse (a gluten-free potato pancake), bison tartare with chickpea flour crisps, pastry service, and a 20-layer crepe cake so light it should come with string to tie about your wrist to keep it from floating away.
Relocated from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Minnesota, Hi-Lo Diner is a true time-machine. Sip a Vikre Boreal Gin Red Snapper (served with a High Life pony) and chow down on a Yum Yum Yum Hi-Top: braised Korean short rib, apple-bacon slaw, and wasabi microgreens served on a glazed donut. Yeah, you read that right. Whether you’re stretching legs after brunch or killing time before getting a table, walk down the block to Hymie’s Records, a first-class new and used vinyl shop. Buy a record as a souvenir from your new favorite food and drinks city in America.