Dining with RNC delegates
Welcome politicos, pollsters, and protesters. For the next few days, downtown St. Paul is going to be a madhouse, as tens of thousands start showing up for the Republican National Convention. Frankly, I can't even wrap my head around how the city will deal with the crowds, and what sort of antics might take place. The one thing I do know is that all that cheering, debating, and hand-shaking is going to make you hungry...and probably want a drink. So when you're hankering for a real meal—one that's close to the convention, or one that's worth the drive across town—here's what you need to know. And if you're a local, crib this list for the next time you're headed to the Xcel or want to impress out-of-town guests.
CLOSE TO THE CONVENTION
There are plenty of bars and restaurants right near the Xcel Center, particularly clustered around Rice Park and along the West Seventh strip. Some will be closed for private events (Pazzaluna, for one), but several other favorites are open and in walking distance. All are within the Vehicle Restriction Area (between 35-E and Shepard Road, and Chestnut Street to St. Peter), so try to avoid traveling by car. "As for your parking situation, I can't tell you what to do," one employee warned. "I'm going to have to take my bike or the bus. Or have my mom drop me off."
COSSETTA ITALIAN MARKET & PIZZERIA
211 W. Seventh St., St. Paul
Just a couple of blocks down West Seventh Street from the Xcel, Cossetta's nondescript green awning marks the location of some of the best Italian-American fare in town. The Cossetta family has been in the restaurant business for nearly a century, so they've had plenty of time to perfect their recipes and cultivate a loyal following. There's thin-crust pizza by the slice, crisp Caesar salads, and a hot line that dishes up items like meatball sandwiches, chicken cacciatore, and veal parmigiana. Last time I had the world-class lasagna—stuffed with meat and cheese and slathered in a red sauce I can only guess is laced with crack—it came not just with a hunk of garlic bread but a separate side of penne, so come hungry or be prepared to share. If the lines are long and the second-floor seating is taken, duck into the deli instead. You might be better off picking out a rustic loaf of fresh-baked bread and a few slices of imported salamis and cheeses and carrying it out for a picnic. $
175 W. Seventh St., St. Paul
If you want to keep your eye on the action, seats on the Liffey's sunny, rooftop patio will keep the Xcel Center in your sights. Even though the deck is lovely, the restaurant's interior is worth at least a peak, as Irish artisans hand-carved the bar and walls from burnished teak. The Liffey serves all the best Emerald Isle fare, from fish and chips to house-cured corned beef sandwiches, plus several pub favorites—Harp, Smithwicks, and Guinness—on tap. While you're here, be sure to sample the locally brewed Finnegan's Irish Amber, as it's sold only in Minnesota. The light-bodied, potato-based brew is perfect for summer drinking, and it's made by a local company that donates 100 percent of its profits to charity. $$
410 Saint Peter St., St. Paul
Tucked into the historic Hamm Building, this charming French brasserie is the classiest restaurant in downtown St. Paul. The name refers to an American wine made in the Bordeaux tradition, which seems an accurate reflection of the restaurant's cooking. On the one hand, there are the French classics—sole Grenobloise, bouillabaisse, steak frites; on the other, there's seasonally inspired American fare, from Iowa pork chops with green tomato jam to Wisconsin rabbit with spring vegetables and tarragon-Riesling sauce. The menu features a nice mix of gourmet options, such as foie gras au torchon, and comfort food, including a knockout chicken soup with matzo balls. September 1 to 5, Meritage will open for breakfast at 6 a.m., but they will be booked for private events during some lunch and dinner hours, so be sure to call ahead. $$-$$$
ST. PAUL GRILL
350 Market St., St. Paul
The St. Paul Grill is a top watering hole for Minnesota's politicos. Norm Coleman hung out there so much when he was mayor, he probably should have been paying rent (or at least below-market, long-overdue rent). The booths are prime real estate, especially the ones in front with a view of Rice Park, which are reserved for the biggest movers and shakers. The classic Grill meal is a thick steak, a dry martini, and a slice of the multi-layered devil's food Chocolate Lust Cake. The Grill will be open during the convention for both lunch and dinner, but on the evenings of August 30 through September 5, you'll need to reserve a spot with a $75 per person, non-refundable food and beverage deposit. $$$$
ON AN EXPENSE ACCOUNT
When you're entertaining an important crowd, here's where you go when you want the food to be perfect, the wine list to be stellar, and the service to be polished and discreet—oh, and if money is no object. Downtown Minneapolis's longtime standard-bearer of four-star dining, D'Amico Cucina, is already booked solid, as is the venerable Dakota Jazz Club. Luckily, there are several other haute cuisine temples that should still have space available.
601 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
From the lobby of the Graves 601 hotel, take the elevator to the fourth floor, where you'll enter a secret cloister of modern design. The space feels at once classic and space-age. The dramatic stage-like lighting and the subtle striped patterns on the tabletops and floors create an urgent sense of forward motion, a signal that this is cuisine for the future. At Cosmos, top-shelf ingredients—Wagyu beef, foie gras, and artisanal cheeses—are turned into inventive combinations. A basic lamb chop becomes unboring when it's served with cured lamb belly, fava beans, chèvre foam, and lavender. Ahi tuna tartare is no longer passé when it's accompanied by crispy ginger, shaved ponzu, Sriracha mayonnaise, and avocado ice cream. Do you see why the place is otherworldly? Evenings are booking up fast, but the restaurant also turns out an excellent breakfast, lunch, and "blunch." $$$-$$$$
LA BELLE VIE
510 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis
Celebrate "the good life" at the most lauded restaurant in the state, with its luxurious French-Mediterranean food, singular wine list, and expert service. The neat, white dining room has clean lines that complement ornate, turn-of-the-century moldings, gauzy curtains, and soft lighting. Every dish is prepared with a delicate touch, from the sweet-pea panna cotta with king crab and brown-butter vinaigrette to grilled beef tenderloin with morel mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, and Forme D'Ambert. The best way to experience the staff's talents is to order one of the multi-course tasting menus paired with the sommelier's wine flight, but the dark, sexy lounge also offers more casual meals, along with some of the most creative and carefully crafted cocktails in town. $$$-$$$$
821 Marquette Ave. S., Minneapolis
The locals' favorite steak place just moved into brand new digs in the stunning W Hotel in the historic Foshay building. The clubby ambiance is classy yet without pretension, a mix of dark wood and red-and-white checked tablecloths, and the service is as smooth as the whiskey bread pudding. From the moment the dry-aged steaks roll up on the meat cart, everything about the Manny's experience seems to say, "This is where the power players play." $$$$
WHITE-HOT AND NEW
For trend-forward foodies who want to hit the latest hotspots, here are a couple of new places that everybody's talking about, home to some of the Twin Cities' most boundary-pushing chefs.
819 W. 50th St., Minneapolis
Heidi's is what happened when chef Stewart Woodman, erstwhile New York City culinary star, moved back to his wife's hometown, launched a few flamboyant, short-lived restaurants, and then decided to scale back. The latest, Heidi's, is a precious little neighborhood place named after his beloved. And it means that his extraordinary entrées—black cod in tomato stew, with fennel, shrimp, and saffron, for example—cost less than $20 when they're served in the Woodmans' cozy, casual dining room. Stewart handles the appetizers and mains, while Heidi does the wine and desserts. And I wouldn't recommend skipping any of it. $$$
PORTER & FRYE
1115 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis
Located in the ultra-swank Ivy Hotel near the Minneapolis Convention Center, Porter & Frye is one of the most interesting restaurants in the city. The concept is Midwest modern, and the kitchen is home to some of the most talented, avant-garde chefs in the city, who are taking American cuisine and turning it inside out. Their playful flavor combinations aren't 100 percent successful, but when they work—take the swordfish with salsify, or the celery bisque with pork belly and deep-fried wild rice—they're nothing short of stunning. The space feels luxurious yet grounded, perhaps a result of adjoining the swank Ivy Hotel, tucked into the historic Ivy Tower, a castle-like 1930s landmark. The best seats are in the first-floor bar or the below-ground dining room with plenty of curvy privacy booths, including the most important-looking of Very Important Person tables in the city. $$$-$$$$
Sure, you can always stick with what's familiar—French food, Italian, steak—but I'd recommend you reserve at least one meal to sample our state's indigenous best. The chefs whose menus change with the seasons—locally raised, grass-fed beef, game birds, and heritage pork paired with sweet corn, mushrooms, berries, and greens, fresh from nearby farms—will give you the truest taste of Minnesota. All these restaurants are intimate venues with small seating capacity, so be sure to make a reservation.
1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul
If anyone is completely dedicated to demonstrating that Midwestern cuisine can hold its own when it comes to fine dining, it's New Jersey-raised, French-trained Lenny Russo, chef-owner of Heartland. His serene Arts and Crafts dining room has white tablecloths and two fixed-price options, while the adjacent wine bar shows the same devotion, just with smaller portions and prices. The menu descriptions read like little novellas and showcase what's local and seasonal—Wisconsin elk roast with braised chard, roasted cipolini onions, and spiced blueberry catsup; Footjoy Farm Romano bean salad with baby roma tomatoes, young organic field greens, and St. Pete's Select blue cheese vinaigrette. It's contemporary Midwest at its best. $$$
1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis
Chef-owner Lucia Watson is thought to be the matriarch of local ingredients, having penned Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland before such things became trendy. In Watson's relaxed Uptown bistro, wine bar, and quick-service takeout place, she serves a short menu of such dishes as spinach gnocchi with wild mushrooms, sweet corn, ricotta, and sage butter, or roasted chicken with orzo, ratatouille, and basil tapenade. If you're lucky, she'll have fresh berry pies or cobbler for dessert and space for you to sit out on the sidewalk. $$$
528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis
Chef Alex Roberts may have earned his chops at New York City's Bouley, Union Square Cafe, and Gramercy Tavern, but his University-area restaurant serves fine, flavorful fare, without any white-tablecloth snobbery. He sources ingredients from his father's farm to come up with dishes like rabbit and baby leek terrine with aioli and pickled jalapeño, or scallion pancake with slow-roasted pork, homemade hoisin, and toasted sesame. They sound deceptively simple, but they're both refined and divine. $$$
750 S. Second St., Minneapolis
The narrow, all-windows dining room across the street from the new Guthrie Theater is a modern temple of healthy eating. (If John McCain is concerned about staying spry, this is where I'd suggest he eat.) Owner Brenda Langton is as committed to local and organic produce and naturally raised meats as many others, but is also sensitive to keeping her food light on the oil, cream, and sweeteners. The udon noodle salad with a peanut-lemongrass dressing can be ordered with free-range chicken or vegetarian-favorite mock duck—it's spa fare at its finest. There are several light snacks, including a charcuterie plate with sausages, cheese, pickled vegetables, and pâté, which pair nicely with such drinks as the Honey Lavender Spritz (infused vodka, soda, and bee pollen) or a biodynamic wine. $$-$$$
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