Night Life: Best Bars 2009
Thirsty? Got something to celebrate? Need a place to gab with the girls or a spot that’ll dazzle the boss? Then raise a glass to our first-ever guide to the Twin Cities’ best watering holes—from wine bars and microbreweries to Irish pubs and sake saloons. Plus 10 not-to-miss happy hours!
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LA BELLE VIE
Best for Living large
What to drink Anything on the latest cocktail menu
What to Eat Truffled crêpes, pappardelle, foie gras
It’s perhaps too much of a burden to call any person or venue perfect. But there’s a case to be made that the lounge at La Belle Vie is, in fact, the region’s most perfect drinking spot. The room, of course, is fit for your best Armani suit, though the tattooed rockabilly chicks at the corner banquette look just right, too. The lounge menu is perfect as well, cooked with the exacting skill that the James Beard Award–winning chef Tim McKee and his team deploy in the La Belle Vie dining room. But here, in the bar, those five-star techniques are applied to simpler comforts, like a basic French crêpe filled with truffled ham and Brie de Meaux. The savory assemblage is topped with a trembling, creamy poached egg, which dissolves at the poke of a fork into a sauce, elevating the crêpe to something sublime and soul-stirring. And the cocktails! Bartender-of-the-decade Johnny Michaels is as creative as an auditorium full of MCAD students. One night it’s a fresh cherry-and-lemon smash made with gin that seems like it should be served up during a summer lawn-tennis game in paradise. Another time it’s a high-concept bourbon old-fashioned flavored with house-made tobacco bitters and garnished with a dried beef stick in such a way that it instantly evokes north-woods-supper-club brunches and makes you understand something you never grasped before about the meatiness of bourbon. And even with all this high-brow perfection the place never forgets it’s a watering hole: A trio of friends can share a fancy Belgian 750-milliliter beer like a Triple Karmeliet (served on ice in a silvery champagne bucket, naturally) and get out the door for little more than they’d pay at one of those bars that smells like a perfect dishrag. 510 Groveland Ave., Mpls., 612-874-6440, labellevie.us
Best for Patio-partying
What to drink Anything that ends with “–tini”
What to Eat Sushi rolls, bananas Foster
Seven doesn’t do anything small—it’s got three levels, four bars, and enough square footage to feel you’ve left the city limits just by crossing the floor. The pecs are a little bigger here, the necklines a little lower. It’s seven, apparently, on a scale of five. Walk up from the steak house, past the Sushi Ultralounge, to the Sky Bar, and you’ll find yourself on a roof that might as well have goalposts and bleachers, where salesmen sip martinis from plastic cups amid the flicker of a stone fire pit. It would all feel McMansion-like if it weren’t for the setting. Kick back on one of the canopied, Cancun-style couches that line the roof like confessionals for hedonists, and then enjoy the view: At no other Twin Cities bar can you sense this sweep of urban grandeur. Suddenly, the place doesn’t feel like overkill at all—it feels like the center of the city. 700 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-238-7777, 7mpls.com
Best for Sipping sake
What to drink Sake (duh)
What to Eat Fresh pork buns, five-spice doughnuts
Upon ordering Moto-i’s signature flight of three sake drinks, you’re presented with a place mat containing charts, diagrams, and explanations of the sake-brewing process, as if you were flying to the moon and this was somehow essential to your return. Moto-i is proud of its status as the first sake brewery outside Japan—not like a snob, but like a geek who’s passionate about his off-beat hobby. You may not know your nama from your nigori, but it doesn’t matter here: This place isn’t about attitude, but, rather, aptitude. Modeled after the low-key pubs in Japan called izakaya, Moto-i keeps the stereo quiet and the mood mature. Sake is a sipping drink, after all, despite the shot-glass serving size. Though brewed like beer, it’s more like Scotch in complexity, with the strength of wine. Do as the Tokyoites do and slow down and recharge, on the rooftop patio or at the sleek bar below, before heading back into the clamor of life’s great party. 2940 Lyndale Ave., Mpls., 612-821-6262, moto-i.com
TOWN TALK DINER
Best for Bellying up to the bar
What to drink The “adult” malts
What to Eat Cheese curds and Frickles—fried dill-pickle slices
The Town Talk Diner has a perfectly respectable dining room, from which you can’t help noticing that the art-deco bar on the other side of the wall always sounds like a barrel of monkeys. Maybe it’s the retro stools, the color of candy Red Hots. Maybe it’s the proximity—the bar couldn’t get any smaller without everyone sipping from the same glass. Maybe it’s the “adult malts” that the jocular bartenders blend like hip soda-fountain jerks: the Monkey Business, for example, which fuses chocolate, banana liqueur, peanut butter, and bourbon. Yeah, it’s probably those drinks. How else to explain that everyone seems to know each other, yet it’s never the same mix of people? That kind of instant community can only come from plunking yourself down at the bar and calling for a Panty Dropper (sorbet and sparkling wine). Once you’ve lost that inhibition, the party will follow. 2707 ½ Lake St. E., Mpls., 612-722-1312, towntalkdiner.com
ST. PAUL GRILL
Best for Finishing off a business deal
What to drink The $750-a-glass Macallan
What to Eat Burgers, steaks, fries
Single-malt-scotch drinkers tend to be solitary types: They’re measured, exacting seekers of nuance and lovers of complexity. They speak in full sentences, though far more rarely than beer lovers do. They don’t suffer fools lightly. In Minnesota, you will find these exacting souls in particular preponderance in one place: the St. Paul Grill, the home of the region’s best single-malt-scotch selection. With dozens of choices ranging from the rarest of the rare and the priciest of the pricey (millionaire scotch aficionados are directed to Macallan from 1949, for $750 a glass) to the smokiest of the smokey (16-year-old Lagavulin, $13) and the smoothest of the smooth (Dalwhinnie, 15 years in the making, $11), the St. Paul Grill gives single-malt-scotch drinkers exactly what they want: fireworks, but presented decorously, in the quiet confines of a glass. Want to know what it’s like to be a member of the club? Grab a seat at the grand old wooden bar in this landmark hotel, summon a scotch as well as a steak (or one of the best burgers in town) from the grill’s estimable kitchen, and experience the joy of serious drinking. 350 Market St., St. Paul, 651-224-7455, stpaulgrill.com
HALL OF FAME
Nightspots that have stood the test of time
Stella’s Fish Cafe, Mpls.
Joe’s Garage, Mpls.
The Liffey, St. Paul
|Hipster Scenes |
Café Lurcat, Mpls.
Chino Latino, Mpls.
|Wine Bars |
The Riverview, Mpls.
Heartland, St. Paul
|Dive Bars |
The C.C. Club, Mpls.
Dubliner Pub, St. Paul
Half Time Rec, St. Paul
|Sports Bars |
Alary’s, St. Paul
Majors, Golden Valley
Joe Senser’s, Plymouth
|Old-Money Hangouts |
The Monte Carlo, Mpls.
Lord Fletcher’s, Spring Park
MY FAVORITE HAUNT
Robyne Robinson, KMSP news anchor, art collector
“My favorite bars tend to be inside restaurants, where dinner isn’t just liquid: Barbette for a nice glass or two of wine in my Uptown ’hood. But I also like Saffron, the hidden jewel of downtown Minneapolis, where you can pair your drink with exotic Mediterranean tapas, a comfortable lounge setting, and conversation.” Barbette, 1600 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-827-5710, barbette.com. Saffron, 123 N. Third St., Mpls., 612-746-5533, saffronmpls.com
Sarah Hicks, assistant conductor, Minnesota Orchestra
“If I’m suffering from post-concert hunger pangs, I opt for 112 Eatery so I can have lamb scottadito and cauliflower fritters with my martini. They have a great wine list, too, but conducting makes me thirsty for vodka. Wherever I go, though, I often end with a nightcap at Brit’s, especially if Freddie [octogenarian employee and customer favorite Freddie Manton] is there.” 112 Eatery, 112 N. Third St., Mpls., 612-343-7696, 112eatery.com; Brit’s Pub, 1110 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-332-3908, britspub.com