Let's face it: The party's over and the hangover has begun. In these dire times, as incomes become less stable while gloomy, frigid days continue to brutalize us post-holidays, it's important not to be too hard on ourselves. In a festive New Year's Eve mood, you might have found a shred of optimism, spontaneously declared a desire for personal betterment, and, in your enthusiasm, overreached. "I think, after tonight, I'll quit drinking for a while," such madness often begins. "Till summer, maybe, or at least for a month...."
But it's time to rethink the wisdom of depriving ourselves of one of life's few current joys. As the frequently sloshed Lord Byron put it: "Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication." Fits of artificial virtue miss this point, so how about we let ourselves off the hook?
Keeping in mind both our honorable intentions and their inevitable failure, following are a few suggestions for places to break resolutions but not the bank, to enjoy without going overboard (and that includes food; renounce those strict-diet vows now!).
The financial outlook may be bleak, but hey, the party's not completely over. There'll be an inauguration to celebrate soon, the days are slowly getting longer, and, well, presumably you can think of another reason to lift a glass. Bottoms up—just don't go making more big promises anytime soon.
237 Sixth St. E., St. Paul
The scene: The third and latest in the popular Bulldog chain, following south and northeast Minneapolis locations, this 'Dog is the nicest yet, with big, roomy booths, a large center bar, and views of lovely Mears Park across the street. The bar has been packing in a mixed crowd of downtown workers, couples, partiers, and sports fans since opening in late October, providing something that's been sadly rare: a downtown St. Paul bar that's regularly full even when the Xcel is dark.
Recommended resolution-breakers (intoxicating): The Bulldog's emphasis on craft beer continues at this new outpost. Beer flights provide great value for those just exiting the wagon: Sampling five different beers for about the price of one not only multiplies that first-sip pleasure but adds an aura of class and education to your drinking. There are flights tailored to connoisseurs and to those just getting started with this "beer" stuff (one flight includes PBR). Or go the locavore route with the well-rounded Midwest Flight, including beers from Surly, Flat Earth, Rush River, and more for only five bucks.
Recommended resolution-breakers (edible): The Lowertown burger, made from grass-fed beef, stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and basil, and served on a ciabatta bun, is reminiscent of the nearby farmers' market in summer. Its piquant seasoning plays nicely against the accompanying peppery, skin-on fries, making for an immensely satisfying meal. Or eat cheaper, with several appetizers for five bucks or less (and half-price during happy hour, 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday). And you can't go wrong with the Bulldog's original signature menu item, the hot dog. There are nine varieties on offer in Lowertown, including the Stinky Dog with blue cheese and roasted garlic.
1225 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
The scene: The vibe is low-key at this longstanding edge-of-downtown watering hole, housed in a sturdy old stone building and providing a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere. It's nice, but the decor—soft lighting, abstract art, paper napkins—could never be accused of stuffiness.
Recommended resolution-breakers (intoxicating): Specialty cocktails at Eli's are priced low for downtown, and from 3 to 7 p.m. everything's a dollar off. The Peach2 and Raspberry2 combine Stoli and a fruit-puree of their respective flavors, plus club soda, making for a vibrant, wistfully summer-evoking beverage. Don't worry if that sounds way too tame for you; bartenders here know how to pour a classic stiff drink, too.
Recommended resolution-breakers (edible): Check the creative specials, which rotate weekly. Pastas are pretty solid (and the very affordable half-sizes are plenty big for most appetites), such as the Eli's Pasta with peppers, garlic, and white-wine sauce and a recent special with pork, onion, mushroom, basil, and Parmesan that was salty, sweet, meaty, gratifying goodness.
800 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul
The scene: College students, young professionals, and neighborhood families brought together by their shared love for old video games enjoy retro decor and tasty bar food at the second Chatterbox. The menu here includes selections for Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, and classic Nintendo—and even board games for those so old that their nostalgic childhood memories don't include electronics. Two large rooms with old stuffed furniture, retro lamps, and soft blue walls displaying garage-sale art provide plenty of space to stretch out, and all the game-playing makes for an upbeat mood. It's bigger and less cozy, though almost as comfortable, as the original location on East 35th Street in Minneapolis. A third Chatterbox just opened in Linden Hills.
Recommended resolution-breakers (intoxicating): Ease back into the imbibing lifestyle at the Chatterbox, where there is no hard liquor but the bar goes to the trouble of making specialty drinks anyway. There's a sake bloody Mary, or on the (much) sweeter side, the strawberry-lemonade mimosa. The wine list is affordable, and house-brewed beers, like the malty Chatterbox lager, are pretty good.
Recommended resolution-breakers (edible): If your return to the drinking world coincides with the start of your day, this Chatterbox has your breakfast craving covered. The roast beef hash with bacon and onions is a good indulgence with nicely crispy potatoes. Sandwiches such as the fried catfish are done well, and the dipping sauces that accompany many fried snacks are homemade and showcase creative combinations.
1201 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
The scene: Ex-jocks and U of M students congregate in this classier-than-average sports bar near the Metrodome. Brick walls and a high, pressed-tin ceiling add a bit of sophistication, and a large, eerily beautiful black-and-white photo hanging behind the bar shows Maxwell's after a fire last February, encased in a thick coating of ice. Maxwell's reopened in September.
Recommended resolution-breakers (intoxicating): Whatever's on special. Maxwell's has an array of deals appealing to the broke and/or frugal among us, including frequent discounts on the not-bad selection of beers on tap, and $3 mixed drinks every night after 10.
Recommended resolution-breakers (edible): In addition to cheap nightly specials, all appetizers are half-price during happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. The steak bites, with sautéed red onion and garlic, diced tomato, and a horseradish sauce, are tender and flavorful, satisfying without breaking the caloric bank; the sliced, battered, and fried portobello mushrooms with avocado ranch sauce deliver the gluttonous bliss that only the deep-fried can provide.
1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis
The scene: The spacious bar in this D'Amico establishment, adjacent to the fancy dining room that's Café Lurçat, exudes stylishness, with low, angular furniture and sparkling chandeliers. Well-turned-out patrons, often fresh from a visit to the Walker Art Center, sip martinis and converse loudly. A bunch of young creatives might gesture wildly over a rousing story at one table, while high-maintenance housewives sit stiffly at the next. Giant potted palms hint subtly at the old, plant-filled, ragtag, super-hip Loring Bar, whose ghost still attempts to haunt its old digs.
Recommended resolution-breakers (intoxicating): There's a perfect winter drink on offer here: a variation of the hot toddy called the Bourbon Street. The well-balanced combination of Jim Beam, Amaretto, orange bitters, and hot cider immediately floods the lucky recipient with warm feelings. This kind of enjoyment is what drinking's supposed to be about. But if that doesn't sound like your thing, Lurcat is a great place to drink just about anything. There's an extensive, well-chosen wine list, including dessert wines and ports, plus all the top-shelf temptations you'd want to blow your cash and short bout of sobriety on.
Recommended resolution-breakers (edible): Bar snacks are pretty affordable relative to the surroundings, and usually agreeable, such as the duck pot stickers—thick, chewy wrappers encase a very rich meat filling and come with a sweet, slightly spicy kumquat-soy dipping sauce. For dessert, try the warm cinnamon-sugar doughnuts, as reminiscent of the State Fair as you'd hope.
2520 26th Ave. S., Minneapolis
The scene: Though it isn't considered as cool as the Bryant-Lake Bowl, or even Elsie's (boy, this town is rich in value-added bowling alleys!), Memory Lanes is the only local alley that parks a live-music stage on the lanes a couple nights a week. So music fans often join the usual bowling-alley crowds.
Recommended resolution-breakers (intoxicating): Nothing fancy. Mixed drinks and beer are both pretty cheap, and service is friendly at both the bar and the lanes. Grain Belt Premium is cheaper than the Millers and Buds on tap, Summit and Schell's options go for a reasonable $4.50 a pint, and a can of Hamm's is $1.85.
Recommended resolution-breakers (edible): Mini corndogs, cooked in a thick but not heavy batter and served with a chipotle dipping sauce, are surprisingly tasty. Eat a few extra, since you're burning all those calories bowling. By now your ill-conceived resolutions should be but a faint memory.