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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!

Night Life: Best Bars 2009
Photo by Jeff Johnson

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IKE'S FOOD & COCKTAILS

 MSP International Airport

Best for Waiting out a delayed flight
What to drink The boozy ice-cream drinks
What to Eat Deviled eggs, the filet Oscar

We like Ike—whoever he is. Why? Because the guy runs one of the classiest joints in town, a place where the waiters wear monkey jackets and the chefs sport toques, the kind of establishment where the paneling is dark, the lighting is low, and the sidecars and gimlets are always on the strong side. What’s more, the food isn’t dainty (we suggest the deviled eggs, an iceberg wedge, and the filet Oscar—and for chrissakes don’t hold the blue cheese). So what could be better? Here’s what: an Ike’s at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport, an island of calm in a sea of TSA-induced frenzy, a place where you can escape Fox News, cell-phone chatter, and women in track suits and men in Zubaz. The airport location has all the assets of Ike’s downtown Minneapolis establishment: smartly dressed servers, classic food, tap beers, a fulsome wine list, and a Kahlua-drenched dessert called the MSP Sundae, made with Sebastian Joe’s ice cream. Chili’s it ain’t. So, Ike, here’s to you. MSP International Airport, 612-355-4642
 

CAFE MAUDE

Minneapolis

Best for Convivial conversation
What to drink The Black Bunny mojito
What to Eat House-cut fries with truffle-fontina fondue

So you’ve made plans with your significant other/dear friends/favorite neighbors and have no idea where to go. You want a cozy bar that’s festive enough for a Friday night, but informal enough for a Tuesday happy hour. You don’t want anything too cheap or too expensive, too crowded or too hushed. There should be intriguing cocktails, a nice wine list, and a handful of microbrews. There shouldn’t be crying babies or bachelorette parties, but a little live music would be nice—as long as it’s not too loud. Sound familiar? Sounds like Café Maude. The popular south Minneapolis bistro keeps bar, too, and does so with the same convivial qualities that make dining here such a draw. Namely, attentive service, stellar drinks and small plates, and a familiar feeling, as if this is the place you had in mind all along. 5411 Penn Ave. S., Mpls., 612-822-5411, cafemaude.com
 

BARLEY JOHN'S

 New Brighton

Best for Handcrafted brews
What to drink The wild-rice triple-fermented ale
What to Eat “Pizza N” with hot sausage

 Brewpubs are where beer nuts go to see how real beer is made—or they should be. Too many corporate brewpubs offer beer that’s little better than you’d find in the local convenience store. Not so at Barley John’s, the most ambitious brewpub in Minnesota. How ambitious are they? Visitors can sample highly technical, complex beers like their Rosie’s Old Ale, a triple-fermented ale made from a wild-rice base that is aged in wooden bourbon barrels for two years. No, that’s not a typo—two years. Aging a beer both makes it more concentrated (evaporation through the barrel is slow but steady; in two years a 55-gallon barrel of beer might lose five gallons of water) and creates intense flavors of coffee, Madeira, roses, and buckwheat. Think you’ll find a two-year-old wild-rice-based beer anywhere else on earth? Nope. Which is why beer nuts from all over the state make regular pilgrimages to Barley John’s, a little New Brighton spot (with very good pizza!) that is as ambitious as it is accomplished. 781 Old Hwy. 8 SW, New Brighton, 651-636-4670, barleyjohns.com

BRADSTREET CRAFTSHOUSE

Minneapolis

Best for Classic cocktails
What to drink The old-fashioned
What to Eat The lamb sliders

You don’t have to be a cocktail connoisseur to appreciate Bradstreet, but it will significantly enhance the experience if you are. Here, in the golden glow of this downtown hideaway, mixologists meticulously craft classic cocktails with avant-garde twists. Twists like hand-pressed juices, house-made infusions, and specially molded pieces of ice that maximize chilling and minimize dilution. Bradstreet’s cocktails are designed, not dumped in a glass. They’re usually stirred—not shaken—until perfectly balanced and blended. It sounds terribly complicated, but the effect is quite simple: After an old-fashioned made with Demerara syrup, black-walnut liqueur, and house orange bitters, everything else is just a drink. 601 First Ave. N., Mpls., 612-312-1821, bradstreetcraftshouse.com

BARRIO TEQUILA BAR

Minneapolis

Best for An urban adventure
What to drink The El Toro
What to Eat Sweet corn soup, guaca-mole, tacos, churros

On the surface, Barrio couldn’t seem more un-Minnesotan. It’s dark. It’s sexy. It’s loud. And you’ll find people eating dinner there after 9 p.m.—on a Tuesday. Yet look a little deeper and you’ll see that Barrio, despite being a tequila bar, isn’t that exotic. It’s simply the manifestation of something that’s as Minnesotan as the state fair and Summit beer—the need to, every once in a while, throw off our Midwestern reserve, let go, get weird, and have a shot (or two) of tequila. Of course, usually we go to Cancun or Vegas to have such adventures. Now, thanks to Barrio, you can go cray-zee closer to home. 925 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-333-9953, barriotequila.com
 

JAKE O'CONNOR'S PUBLIC HOUSE

Excelsior

Best for Ruminating on your luck
What to drink Guinness or Jameson
What to Eat Fish and chips, laddie!

Take a seat at the far end of the bar at Jake O’Connor’s. Wait for the Guinness to settle and marvel at the way the panes of warped glass filter light, turning afternoon into night and softening the bright cold glare of reality. The bar here is hand-carved, the work of men in Ireland, shipped over in pieces. The food is mostly traditional: lamb stew, fish and chips, and that oddly comforting dish known as shepherd’s pie. Most nights, there’s plenty of Jameson to go around. But the best thing about a good Irish bar is always the gloom. For an hour or two, you can drop the façade, the sunny American disposition. Go ahead: Worry, be unhappy. Drink slowly, then order a second round—or a third—and puzzle a bit over what Yeats said: “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” 200 Water St., Excelsior, 952-908-9650, jakeoconnors.com
 

TOAST WINE BAR & CAFE

Minneapolis

Best for Re-acquainting with an old pal
What to drink An Italian varietal
What to Eat Cheese, charcuterie, pizza

Toast is that rarest find among wine-drinking spots, one that delights people who love drinking obscure wines but also isn’t off-putting to those who know nothing about wine. Wine newbies love the place for the paper-thin-crust pizzas, loaded with zesty toppings; for the exactingly sourced antipasto platters; for the ample glass-pour list; and for the chic subterranean space that reads like a bit of lower Manhattan but reveals Minneapolis’s soaring skyline. Wine professionals love the place for its dedication to the unsung wine varietals from obscure corners of the world, as the list is stocked with bottles from places like Sicily, Mallorca, and Salento (the heel of Italy’s boot). 415 N. First St., Mpls., 612-333-4305, toastwinebarandcafe.com
 

THE LEXINGTON

St. Paul

Best for Keeping it real in the 651
What to drink A martini straight up
What to Eat Burgers at lunch, prime rib at dinner

It seems that every week St. Paul grows to resemble its twin, Minneapolis, just a little more—not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you haven’t noticed it yourself, you’re obviously not a restaurant hound: The big news in St. Paul restaurants lately has been almost entirely about Minneapolis restaurants opening offshoots in the eastern metro—like Pop!, Barrio, Brasa, Salut, and the Bulldog. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We will say, however, that the creeping Minneapolis-itization of St. Paul makes us appreciate the grande dame of St. Paul restaurants, the Lexington, all the more. Enter the Kennedy Camelot-era fortress on the corner of Lexington and Grand any afternoon and you’ll immediately know you’re nowhere but here: The very specific Betsy-Ross-by-way-of-JFK brand of Americana décor, fellow bar guests who know Ayd Mill Road like the back of their hand, and, of course, steaks that are to steaks as Jackie O.’s pearls were to pearls—bigger, better, and now iconic. (Note: The chicken potpies are the best in town.) Find a bar stool, order an old-fashioned or a martini and revel in the essential St. Paul–ness of it all. And please note: There’s something very right with that. 1096 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-222-5878, the-lexington.com



MY FAVORITE HAUNT

Bill DeVille, deejay, 89.3 The Current
First Avenue is like the Wrigley Field of rock clubs. They’ve only made a few improvements over the years, knocking down walls and opening things up—they’ve even cleaned the 30 years of fuzz from the ceiling—but it’s just always given me the best concert experience. I’ve seen more great shows at First Avenue than at any other Twin Cities club.” First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Mpls., 612-332-1775, first-avenue.com

Joe Duffy, chairman, Duffy & Partners

“The ingredients for a great bar experience are pretty straightforward: knowledgeable staff, great food and drink, and (if I do say so myself) smartly designed interiors. On that score, I’d have to name Rick Webb as the best restaurateur/saloon keeper in the Twin Cities. Webb has developed three great spots, but Ciao Bella is still my favorite. My wife, Patsy, and I go there often and enjoy our favorite drink, Herradura tequila with Cointreau and fresh lime.” Ciao Bella, 3501 Minnesota Dr., Bloomington, 952-841-1000, ciaobellamn.com
 


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