With just a few months of parka-free frolicking to be had in Minnesota, we take to doing everything al fresco while we can, including eating and drinking. Sure, the habit has its downsides: losing napkins to breezes, blood to mosquitoes, and sanity to the roaring engines and toxic fumes of passing cars and buses.
The restaurant roof deck protects patrons from at least some of those street-level distractions, which may be why it's becoming the next frontier in local outdoor dining. With so many restaurateurs raising them up—we've seen at least five new ones in Minneapolis in about as many years—the patio seems almost passe. So last week, two girlfriends and I went downtown to hit every roof deck between Loring Park and Block E. The plan was to evaluate each in terms of food, drink, ambiance, and views, and then proclaim one "tops."
In planning our itinerary, I set high standards. I ruled out the second-floor deck above the patio at Sneaky Pete's because A) it's tiny and looks out over a nasty parking lot, B) the raw plywood underside didn't give me confidence in its structural integrity, and C) the place shares a wall with Dreamgirls. I also nixed the perches at Drink and Stella's in Uptown, despite their amazing views. I wanted to keep the crawl within walking distance, and besides, I didn't care to subject anyone to Night of the Living Frat Guys—those places are a total broverload, if you know what I mean.
First stop, Joe's Garage, whose second-story rooftop patio has been a Loring Park landmark since 1996. The enclosed section in front provides shelter from the elements and offers the best views of the park—though it sadly blocks the vista for diners on the patio. Still, the place is as comfortable as a backyard barbecue, with its plastic chairs, umbrella-topped tables, and strings of white lights. And it draws all types: white-haired ladies' groups, male-male couples clad in flip-flops and shorts, and even the occasional lap dog.
The crowd doesn't mingle much at Joe's, as it's more of a happy-hour and dinner place. The kitchen is best known for its funky burger menu—patties made with lamb, Asian-style spicy pork, or "Scandahoovian" salmon, topped with cucumbers and dill sour cream. It's also one of the rare places that offers a mashed potato bar, a goofy concept that actually tastes pretty good.
While Joe's is a great place to start the evening, the scene seems stuck in second gear. Sure, the bar serves a drink called the Sleazytini, but could we really let loose in the Basilica of St. Mary's shadow?
So we made our way to Brit's Pub, which has been pouring pints on Nicollet Mall for nearly two decades. With its flapping Union Jacks, red telephone box, and showpiece lawn-bowling green, the two-tiered rooftop looks so English the servers' Midwestern accents seem jarring. The crowd at Brit's tends toward guys in suits and women dolled up in summery skirts and heels. A corporate ID badge is as necessary an accessory as a big designer bag and oversized sunglasses.
We nursed a few Tetley's, a flat, bitter ale with a creamy head, and stayed as long as we could stave off our hunger. Brit's fare doesn't do much to dismiss the idea that the English aren't known for their cuisine. The fish 'n' chips pairs a flavorless fillet with too-thick fries, and the bangers and mash are as bland as the side of peas—just like they serve 'em in nursing homes. The thing to order—stay with me, now—are the Scotch eggs: hard-boiled eggs encased in sausage and breadcrumbs, and fried. Cut in half, they look like something you'd eat in preschool. While most of Brit's female clientele wouldn't dare let the eggs or their gloppy mayonnaise sauce so much as touch their lacquered lips, my friends and I threw caution to the wind and enjoyed every last bite.
Five stories above Hennepin Avenue, the rooftop at Solera feels as gritty and urban as a fire escape, albeit one furnished with wire tables and designer plastic chairs and blaring funky music. It also offers the rare opportunity to examine the inner workings of the Powerball billboard, which doubles as a screen for Monday and Tuesday movie nights, when films are paired with drink specials (buckets of beer for Borat, vodka Red Bulls for Fight Club, champagne cocktails for Wedding Crashers).
To me, the sangria at Solera has always seemed weak on the fruit flavor, little more than watery wine. But the $29 tapas-for-two, geared toward the mostly coupled-up crowd, is a tasty little bargain. The dishes arrive in quick succession: potato wedges served with a spicy tomato sauce and aioli; a tangy bread salad with tomatoes and capers; short ribs with harissa, sliced as thin as jerky; fried shrimp with garlicky romesco sauce; mini chorizo burgers dripping with creamy remoulade.
My only gripe with Solera is this: If the kitchen makes tapas-for-two, but you can't get someone to serve it to you, are you really in a restaurant? Can the tapas exist if the staff doesn't realize you do? My girlfriends and I stood near the bar for more than 20 minutes, until we left without ever being acknowledged. (On a second trip, I snagged the last empty table, and, after several servers flitted past without so much as eye contact, was finally able to get one to take my order.)
Across the street, the glass-encased fifth-floor lounge at the Chambers looks like a spaceship landed on top of the hotel. Its wraparound balcony offers a panoramic view of the Hennepin Avenue strip: the Orpheum's bright lights, the Powerball, the hunky foursome on the side of the Saloon, a peek inside the YMCA swimming pool. Despite having the best scenery of any roof deck we'd seen, I was surprised how few people were enjoying it. Inside, too, just two couples took advantage of the dance floor.
The lounge has shortened its hours since the hotel opened a couple of years ago—it's only open Thursday through Saturday, after 9 p.m.—and the crowds have died down since the early days. Sitting at the bar, snacking on a plate of orange-infused ribs, I couldn't help but wonder what else people wanted, between the pretty surroundings and the mouthwatering snacks from Jean George's kitchen—chicken samosas, Vietnamese spring rolls—washed down, perhaps, with a pineapple mojito. I suppose that's the hazard of trendiness: The fickle crowds move on as quickly as they thronged the place. Too bad, I thought, as I popped a bite of the Ovaltine kulfi. The chocolaty caramel-like dessert, cutely topped with a piece of caramel popcorn, would remain one of the city's best-kept secrets—as the most appetizing way to spend a dollar.
After hiking up four flights of stairs, we found where the cool crowd had migrated to: the new rooftop lounge above the R. Norman and 7 Sushi complex up the street. The deck is so large that even with half of it closed for a private party, it still seemed luxuriously spacious. We parked ourselves on one of the cushy red couches, between a large group and a few canoodling couples.
The staff takes service seriously, using headsets and walkie-talkies to manage the crowd as professionally as event coordinators. Except for the guy in man-sandals and a visor, whom we thought we'd ditched back at Solera, the crowd tends to dress sharp and with a little flair. While food may be ordered from the full steak and sushi menus, most people stick to snacks, like pork dumplings or onion rings. And the drink list features fancy martinis mixed with things like ginger or sake that seem far too luxurious for their plastic glassware.
As the sky grew dark, seemingly everyone around us began lighting up cigars, as if congratulating themselves for discovering the best roof deck in town. A silver fox rested a confident hand on his ladyfriend's thigh. Another woman reclined on a section of the couch, extending her legs as if it were a beach chair. They would stay as long as the staff would let them. Or until an even cooler roof deck opened up.
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