Recently, I was out with a group of girlfriends who live in my neighborhood. We had walked a few magically snowy blocks to nearby restaurant. Unfortunately, after a less-than-stellar experience, we wandered back into the night poorer, hanging our heads and shuffling our feet through the snow. It had been a while since I’d had someone come out of the kitchen to yell at me. I’m sure there are plenty who would like to—and I no doubt have earned plenty of criticism lobbed in my direction. But these ladies deserved better. This was supposed to be a night of fun and comfort, but flawed service and one piece of woefully undercooked fish had led to a really uncomfortable confrontation with the restaurant management. Apparently, medium rare is the exact temperature at which a walleye should be prepared. What did we know?
Trying to rally what was fast becoming a late weeknight, I cajoled a few to join me for one more one-more.
Part of my professional eating strategy is to have a few gems tucked into every neighborhood around the metro area where I can stop after a disappointing night and know that not only will the staff take extraordinary care of me, the food will always be top notch.
Revival St. Paul: This is where we ended up after The Incident. Inside, all the wines are always stellar and the fried chicken is so crispy and seasoned, it’s not a bad idea to bank an extra piece for your fridge at home. As good as it is hot, it’s even better cold the next day. This bigger St. Paul location offers a little more elbow room and is a secret spot for getting terrific bourbon drinks after the dinner rush thins out (usually around 8:30).
Red Wagon Pizza: Owner Pete Campbell is clearly a man living his dream, and he wants to share the good times with anyone who walks through these doors. Not only is the pizza incredible (the banh mi is my current obsession), he also has an extraordinary wine list. Because of the way he prices it, you can find high-end bottles and pours just dollars above retail price.
Saint Dinette: First of all, there is that burger: butter ground into the meat, covered in that otherworldly cheese sauce—and don’t even get me started on how much I love their drinks. But what I really walk away with, every single time I visit this restaurant, is a deep appreciation of the people who work here.
Brunson’s Pub: I love a dive bar, and this is a dive bar with deep soul. The room is historic, but the menu is just modern enough, and excellently done. The No Payne burger is topped with pulled bacon—something I thought sounded like a gimmick until I tried it. Shreds of crispy pork belly, huge beef, a mix of sweet and salty American and blue cheese with a tangy jam—that burger is no joke. Plus, the bartenders are quick with a pour and a friendly word. This is Cheers for the modern era.
Grand Cafe: Sometimes I want to feel fancy. When days are frazzled, this four-star establishment makes all the edges smooth and elegant. Jamie Malone’s French fare is the kind that catches national headlines, but the service deserves applause as well. Polished without being stiff, friendly without being too informal—they just get it. This restaurant is ground zero for romance, even if your romantic evening calls for a table of one.
Bar Brigade: Basically, I’ll go anyplace where chef JD Fratzke is cooking. He’s a soulful chef, and his dedication has been on the plate since way back when he was working at Muffuletta, through the Strip Club years, and now, by extension, through his staff at Bar Brigade. This intimate little spot has fantastically affordable wine, cocktails, and little noshy bites that are perfect for sharing (although the bar and window perches are where I love to land when dining solo).
Spoon and Stable: Yeah, it goes without saying that a fancy-pants place that pulls in all the visiting big shots would have good service, but this is just next-level attentiveness. This is top-shelf dining without intimidating austerity. While reservations are still hard to snag during prime time, the bar is always first come, first served. Food is all good, but whatever the cocktail of the day is, order it. The crew behind this bar are amazing at what they do.
Bardo: This restaurant is still relatively new, but it has two fail-safes for triage dining: They are open Mondays, and there is a late-night bar menu. Beyond that, the service has smoothed out the awkwardness of being new on the job. Now, the staff seems to genuinely delight in their day-to-day, welcoming customers into this gorgeous room. The few bar seats are the most coveted perches in Northeast.
Have you had wonderful dining somewhere recently? Tell me! I’d love to grow this list. Tweet me at @JoyEstelle OR come say hi at the Minnesota Monthly Food & Wine Experience this weekend. I’ll be there Saturday. Tickets are still available and you can get 25 percent off by using promo code JOYFW25