Admittedly, this hasn't been the best summer for outdoor wining and dining. Yet despite first the constant downpours and then the heat wave, there's something that draws crowds out onto Twin Cities patios like packs of beached seals. Maybe smokers and nonsmokers can finally coexist in harmony. Maybe it just seems criminal to sit inside after a long day at the office. Maybe once you've knocked back a couple of drinks, A/C deprivation really isn't all that bad. Any or all of these factors may help explain why there are so many great outdoor bars and pubs in and around the Twin Cities. Who hasn't whiled away a few dog days at Brit's Pub, Café Lurcat, or W.A. Frost?
Well, we're here to suggest that there are plenty of equally worthy, if less well-known, choices. Smaller places people can walk to from the office or their homes. What follows is a roundup not of all of the great outdoor bars out there, but some of the too-often-overlooked, but still popular, heroes of the outdoor cocktails and dining world.
PSYCHO SUZI'S MOTOR LOUNGE
The website for Psycho Suzi's states that the patio is open year-round, and while I doubt that anyone actually dines out there when the thermometer hits -10 degrees, the hordes of people that cram themselves onto the terrace during the summer months are surely a testament to its awesomeness. Part tiki bar, part refurbished A&W stand, Pyscho Suzi's is quite possibly the ultimate place to get your trashy freak on; it's as if a restaurant in an amusement park was transported to Nordeast and somehow became a neighborhood bar. Step outside onto the multilevel patio that is part wooden deck, part concrete, and part grass and pick a seat (wicker or plastic) under a straw-covered umbrella. Pick and choose from the pizza, deli, and State Fair-inspired menu (complete with State Fair-inspired prices, but thankfully bigger portions).
Truly, any place that strives to serve people a variety of beer-battered items (cheese curds, onion rings, mini-wieners), deviled eggs, and fries (which have entered a 50/50 contract with the cheese they are topped with), is certainly admirable. Even more admirable is the fact that you can order these items until 2:00 a.m. throughout the week.
A pink neon sign over the bar proclaims the location the "Mender of Broken Dreams." While drinking probably won't fix your woes, it's at least a pleasant Band-Aid. From the cocktail list comes a variety of strong rum-based froufrou drinks with kitschy names like Tropical Eruption and Walking Dead, all served up in clay glasses shaped like coconuts, skulls, and one-eyed pirates. Pay a little extra and you can keep the mug for your collection.
Also, while I at first thought that the view was a bit lacking (from most seats you can either stare at a tall wooden fence or the parking lot), upon further contemplation I decided that it's probably best that I couldn't see the liquor store or the vaguely factory-looking structures that surround the place. Thanks, Psycho Suzi's! PSYCHO SUZI'S MOTOR LOUNGE ; 2519 Marshall St. NE, Minneapolis; 612.788.9069 ; www.psychosuzis.com
The main restaurant of the Liffey is located on the first floor of the Holiday Inn at downtown St. Paul's Seven Corners junction. From the outside, it appears as though the hotel is growing a tumor in the shape of an old-fashioned railcar diner. On the inside is a classic Irish bar, complete with dark woodwork and brass railing. Thanks to recent additions to the hotel, there's a new outdoor terrace and parking ramp. Located on the second level of the building, the multilevel patio area is quite spacious--although the sturdy glass tables and large cloth umbrellas are situated for maximum seating capacity, much like at the Xcel Energy Center across the street. The view is exceptional, especially at night when strings of lights and a translucent white awning on the building's side are lit, with the St. Paul Cathedral glowing in the distance. But really the view is great any time of the day, with some spots especially primo for bird's-eye people-watching.
As for what to drink at the Liffey--you're sort of missing the point if you order anything other than a nice Scotch or a beer on tap. I recommend a Black and Tan--like the mullet, it's the best of both worlds--chocolaty, filling Guinness on top; light, refreshing Bass Ale or Harp (depending on the bar or your request) on the bottom. Tasty menu items include classic Irish pub fare--bangers and mash, fish and chips, lamb stew, shepherd's pie--as well as light salads. Appetizers such as fries with curry dip, breaded olives, and mini-burgers with fried onions are great for sharing and are served up for $4.99 from 2:00 p.m. until midnight, Monday through Friday. Happy hour specials include discounts on some drinks from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. THE LIFFEY; 175 West Seventh St., St. Paul; 651.556.1416; www.theliffey.com
SWEENEY'S SALOON AND CAFÉ
Located in a residential neighborhood of St. Paul, Sweeney's Saloon and Café manages to utilize every inch of space it has. Which is to say that if it's a crowded night, you might risk feeling cramped if you are the claustrophobic type. But frankly, after that first drink is in your system you're probably not going to notice, and may even benefit from the close proximity shared with friendly neighboring tables if you're on the prowl. Furthermore, the boxlike nature of the patio is conducive to trapping cool summer breezes. If you want a natural view, you can always gaze up at the stars through the strings of white lights that make up the patio "roof."
Beers are best when ordered by the pitcher and served in plastic cups in true outdoor tradition. Though the drink selection from the outdoor bar isn't very challenging, it is consistent and solid: From the on-tap list you can choose from no-brainers like Leinenkugel's, Summit, and Schell. There are other varieties that are popular but not necessarily a common tap-pour: Blue Moon White Ale, Woodchuck Amber Cider, and Newcastle. As for food, the standout appetizer on the menu is the nachos, a giant mound of chips with a protective outer shell of cheddar. Also not to be missed is the Hour of Power, which, thankfully, isn't a restaurant binge-drinking game but a daily happy hour from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., when drinks and appetizers are $1 off and super-yummy burgers become more affordable than a ham sandwich from Super America (usually in the scandalously low $1.54 to $3.65 range). SWEENEY'S SALOON AND CAFÉ ; 96 N. Dale St., St. Paul; 651.221.9157; www.sweeneyssaloon.com
BILLY'S ON GRAND
Billy's is quite possibly the princess of patio dining on St. Paul's Grand Avenue drag. It's so much an outdoor hot spot that many people I know have never actually been inside the restaurant. The outdoor patio is casual and has all of the amenities one would expect: plastic chairs and tables topped with umbrellas, little white lights strung from the roof and treetops, friendly clusters of people who probably walked from their homes about three blocks away. The patio itself is concrete and open-air, and lined with potted plants in large holders no taller than the average five-year-old. This means that the view of Grand Avenue is unobstructed, making it ideal for people-watching--both those cruising and walking through the casual nightlife-friendly Victorian Village.
The food is standard patio-dining fare--nothing too dodgy or freaky. If you like burgers, buffalo wings, salads, bar sandwiches, and beer, you'll be leaving sated. There is some sort of happy hour every day. There are drinks specials and half-off selected appetizers from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Billy's on Grand; 857 Grand Ave, St. Paul; 651.292.1316; www.billysongrand.com
Solera features two lovely outdoor patios--one on the second level and another on the rooftop. Both maintain the colorful Spanish decor of this funky tapas restaurant's inside dining rooms, albeit more subdued. The menu features a huge list of both warm and cold small plates in the $5 to $10 range, making ordering a handful and sharing them with friends ideal. The goat cheese fritters with honey, fried calamari, and Spanish olives in Cava vinegar are all tasty selections--though you could probably order five items a day for a week and still have others to try that sound good.
The drink menu includes an alarmingly wide selection of sherry, wine, beer, and sangria (be sure to ask them to be light on the ice to get your money's worth). Since Solera is located in the theater hub of downtown Minneapolis, it's great for those in search of a light snack before a show, though certainly it's more versatile than simply a side mission to a main event. The rooftop is open until 2:00 a.m. nightly and sports a sound system and movie screen, so it's easy to make an evening out of the place alone. Generally there are live DJs Tuesday through Saturday, and movie screenings this summer are free and take place at dusk Sundays and Mondays. Related drink specials accompany the movie: This coming Sunday, July 31, Amaretto sours will accompany a screening of High Fidelity. Monday, August 1, Newcastle beer will be poured during Love Actually. SOLERA; 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.338.0062; www.solera-restaurant.com
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