Five Ways To Avoid VD

Mark Wojahn

1950 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 698-8387.
36 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 222-5633.

Top Hat Lounge
134 E. Fifth St., St. Paul; 228-1347.

White Castle
608 Central Ave. N.E., Mpls.; 379-4935.

Vegas Lounge
965 Central Ave. N.E., Mpls.; 378-1873.

2500 N.E. Fourth St., Mpls.; 789-7301.

Okay. The jig is up. Let's just all admit that Valentine's romance is like the fluffy plastic bunny those greyhounds in the Bugs Bunny cartoon chase around the dog track: unachievable because the game is rigged, and too fake and fluffy and pink anyway. Human beings can't sustain the sort of joy and excitement seen in Tiffany's ads and porn because those things are edited, and because much of the action takes place offstage in your imagination, where life--being unmediated by reality--is more dramatic and personally fulfilling. Reality is full of stress and long boring pauses. Reality is the fact that none of the Twin Cities' best restaurants are particularly romantic, and all of the most romantic restaurants have menus like minefields: One misstep and kablooey!--you're faced with a grotesque brownie masquerading as a flourless chocolate torte, laughing hideously up at you from a sauce-painted plate as big as your unfulfilled expectations.

Of course, no one wants the happily-ever-after and fade-out as much as I do--really, you'd have to be a chump not to. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn twirling at the end of Philadelphia Story, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow setting up house at the end of Libeled Lady--I want the pink fluffy bunny so bad I can taste it. That's why my last bout with VD (that's Valentine's Day, you so-and-sos) found me all dolled up in the atrium room at Kikugawa, desperately trying to not feel avaricious and fake while the Ivana-coiffed, diamond-encrusted half of the couple at the next table called up everyone stored in the speed-dial of her alligator-encased cellular to squeal about the jewelry she had just received. I want that pink fluffy bunny. But if the only way you can find happiness on this dog track is to be both very attractive and not the brightest kinder in the garten, you can count me out.

That's why I'm going to spend this pink and fluffy holiday at one of the spots where VD is of little or no concern, where curmudgeons, cynics, and the heartbroken blend in like so many drink rings on the bar, where pursuit of the fluffy plastic bunny was given up long ago.

Like Mickey's. You might know Mickey's as the pair of all-night diners on Seventh Street that have been slinging hash and spinning shakes since 1939. But Mickey's is also the site of a regular, yet underappreciated opportunity to divine the near future: the Potatoes O'Brian ($2.80). Sometimes they're a heavenly hash of crispy-browned potatoes, cubes of salty country ham, and sweet bits of fried onions and peppers. Sometimes they're a glutinous inedible mash of the same. If they're heavenly you'll know it's time to ask out that cute redhead at the coffee shop, time to order that apple tree for the front yard. If they're icky it's time to order a thick old-fashioned ice cream shake ($3.50) and disconnect the phone.

I can't figure out the rhyme or reason of why things are good or bad at Mickey's--it doesn't seem to have anything to do with time of day, business or lack thereof, etc. I can only conclude that the tough-as-nails waiters/cooks can see into your soul, like those psychic aura readers, and serve you exactly the meal you deserve at that moment.

Another of Mickey's underappreciated charms is the eavesdropping. The chrome walls make all the voices echo, and the closely placed booths reverberate with tales of repossession, cheating, prosecution, and interesting takes on current events: "It's the same old story, lay down with a 10 at 2 and wake up with a 2 at 10, same for him as for everybody." An hour at Mickey's and your own troubles start to seem like a wounded sparrow at the Battle of the Bulge--not the biggest deal.

In any event Mickey's coffee is bottomless, the eggs are fried in real butter, and the $4.95 "All-Day Meal" of ham and eggs with crispy hash browns, toast (including an option for black Russian rye), and a plastic pack of jelly gives you the foundation for whatever sort of night you're going to have. I can also recommend the pancakes, at $2.80 a stack. The burgers are pretty bad--though some do say that indigestion is the perfect thing to distract you from a broken heart.

More distraction can be had in downtown St. Paul at the Top Hat Lounge, America's premier hard-rock dart bar with a riverboat theme, where the whir-and-thud of darts sets off the scream-and-thump of Metallica under gold-and-white windows. The saccharin vulnerability of Valentine's Day is about as out of place here as a potpourri sachet in a pony car, so you should be able to drink in peace.

If you can't make it to Mickey's you should get a Valentine's experience worthy of inclusion in your darkly comedic autobiography at White Castle, where the annual Valentine's celebration will include table service, romantic lighting, candles, bowls of heart-shaped candies on the tables, and required reservations--call 646-1811, extension 12 during business hours. But hurry: Word has it that popular White Castles, like the Hopkins one, are nearly sold out.

My personal favorite is the one up on Central, if only because it's in proximity to so many great Nordeast bars, like the legendary Vegas Lounge with its polished wood, beer mirrors, and prominent interior neon signage. If there were a Spooner, Wisconsin-themed casino in Vegas it would look like this. And if you're really in the mood for mischief, program the jukebox to play the All Occasions Album, which features such feel-good hits as "The Wedding March," "Sunrise, Sunset," and "My Funny Valentine." I've never seen such cheap and easy potential for mass emotional distress.

Tubby's--another Northeast bar, but with a Mexican twist--promises to be the nonpressure hit of the evening. Salsa blares from the jukebox and couples spin woozily on the back dance floor among the stringy potted palms; there are cheap margaritas, plenty of bottled Mexican beers, and a surprisingly good selection of top-shelf tequilas behind the impressive old oak bar. If no one holds the door open you'll soon forget you're even in Minnesota--never mind that you're supposed to be champagne-soaked and gazing into the soul-dark pools of your beloved's eyes.


FANCY THIS: Okay, okay, so you say your emotional health and significant other won't allow for curmudgeonly self-indulgence this Valentine's Day--and all the romantic hot spots like W.A. Frost, Bobino, the Loring, the Vintage, 510, Campiello, and Lucia's were fully booked two weeks ago. Luckily, as of this writing there are still a good number of tables available for the Valentine's Ball at Chutney Indian Bistro, which will include a sarod (Indian lute) concert by Praful Kelkar and dancing. Call 633-6224 for reservations.

If you can provide your own early-evening diversions, Caffe Solo (332-7108) has tables available after 10 p.m., and they're dishing up Valentine's specials like Red Snapper Fra Diablo. Even if you're reading this at 4 p.m. Saturday (shame on you!) there is still hope. Everyone's favorite Italian market, Buon Giorno, is having its annual "Sweetheart Sale." This is your one-stop shop for all the dinner fixings, romantic gifts like Baci Perugina, Italian wines and liquor (including bubbly Cinzano Asti Spumante), and a variety of swell homemade breads. (Call Buon Giorno at 224-1816 if you don't believe me.)

And finally, it's the day we've all been waiting for, when for the very first time some restaurants' aggravating no-reservations policies become incredibly convenient. The lovely Sawatdee on Washington Avenue even offers a special Valentine's menu of two glasses of wine, a combination appetizer plate, Pad Thai, chicken Rama Thai (peanut-curry on steamed spinach), and ice cream for $39.95, so your lack of reservations can look like a well-laid plan. And if all else fails, call your local Buca up to two hours before you want to eat, put your name on the fabled "list," and treat yourself to wine and marinara sauce as red as your fiery passions.

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Mickey's Diner

1950 W. 7th St.
St. Paul, MN 55116


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