The Best of MN: 2021

The future looks bright this year, and these personalities, trends, and events lead the way
Love You Cookie
Among this year’s best desserts: Love You Cookie (keep scrolling to read more)

Provided

Food & Drink

New Sports Bar

Let’s admit it: We have an awful sports bar scene in the Twin Cities. But the Clover in Rosemount is trying to change the game. Created by the same ownership group behind Pajarito, the Clover offers a fun vibe with pull tabs and bingo and friendly service that makes you want to linger and watch another game. This new bar also sports some excellent food, especially its riffs on the roast beef sandwich. You deserve this, south metro. –JD

Vegetarian Fast Casual

If you doubted Steele Smiley when he opened a boutique fitness center or launched the salad restaurant chain Crisp & Green, you were proven wrong. So don’t bet against his latest entrepreneurial venture, Stalk & Spade. For years, we’ve been hearing that this would be the year of the vegetable, and it finally seems true. Stalk & Spade offers 100% plant-based dishes, from crispy “chick’n” sandwiches to delicious dairy-free shakes that may convince even hardcore carnivores to go meat-free for a meal. –JD

Chef Daniel del Prado
Chef Daniel del Prado

Provided

Chef

Minnesota’s most prolific restaurateur, Daniel del Prado, only opens hits. Just this last year, he has created drool-worthy pizza at Josefina in Wayzata, successfully married Japanese and Italian flavors at Sanjusan in the North Loop, and conquered Lowry Hill with his new Cardamom restaurant at the Walker Art Center. This trio of excellent locales joins his Martina and Colita restaurants to make us think del Prado is just getting started. –JD

New Chicken Restaurant

If you don’t have fried chicken on your menu in some form, are you even a new restaurant in 2021? But we’re here for it. Celeb chef Justin Sutherland built the menu for the new Side Chick in Lyn-Lake with an eye toward expanding nationally—and to prove the chicken tender doesn’t only belong on the kids’ menu. –JD

Cheesecake Funk
Cheesecake Funk

Ope! Brands

Desserts

Out of crisis comes cheesecake. Vanessa Drews, owner of Cheesecake Funk, left her job as a paralegal in 2019 just before the pandemic hit to focus full-time on her business and then made the decision to step on the gas and grind her way through. What a gift for us: Her turtle cheesecake is a thing of beauty with its chocolate, chopped pecans, and caramel drizzle. Sahr and Sarah Brima also created Love You Cookie while the world was shutting down to bring a little hope,  joy, and chocolate. If we’re going to eat our feelings, at least we’re eating well. –JD

Tono Pizzeria
Tono Pizzeria

Photo by Kevin Kramer

New Pizza Places

This has been the year of pizza. The ultimate takeout comfort food has gotten many of us through lockdown and then the slow re-openings. We loved the Chicago-style deep dish at Lulu’s in Wayzata; Tono Pizzeria and Cheesesteak’s terrific cheesesteaks and equally excellent pepperoni in three new locations; and ElMar’s New York Pizza in Plymouth with its unique water-flavoring system that recreates New York City tap water for an authentic slice. –JD

We also recommend south Minneapolis’ Northern Fires Pizza, whose locally sourced ingredients include sweet corn, oyster mushrooms, and summer squash. Also, Good Times Pizza in Kingfield offers bar-style crusts, meaning the cheese caramelizes right at the edge. The pepperoni and pickle is not to be missed. –BL

Saturday Dumpling Club
Saturday Dumpling Club

Provided

Cottage Kitchens

You can’t deny the energy and excitement around the explosion of home cooks selling their food to go. From self-taught bakers like Morgan Dachis, whose Morgan’s Broth & Buns have me craving challah and chicken noodle soup, to dumpling maestros Peter Bian and Linda Cao’s Saturday Dumpling Club, which sells out as soon as they open up orders, cottage kitchens are catching on. –JD

Sociable Cider Werks
Sociable Cider Werks

Provided

Local Hard Seltzer

Local breweries have offered up a bouquet of options following the hard seltzer trend, but the hands-down best-tasting option comes from Sociable Cider Werks. The joyfully named “Squoze” (past tense of “squeeze”) offers a citrus flavor that evokes the feeling of floating down a lazy river on a hot summer day. –BL

Takeout to Make You Sweat

Legendary Spice, nestled in Dinkytown’s Stadium Village, is the Chinese takeout spot you need to add to your list, stat. Its Legendary Dry Chili Chicken is filled with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Coconut Thai on Grand Avenue in St. Paul offers the spicy curry of your dreams, as well as a Laab salad featuring all the flavorful herbs you can handle. –BL

Sunisa Lee
Among the year’s most gripping homespun stories: the Olympic gold of Sunisa Lee

USA Gymnastics/John Cheng

Arts & Culture

Outdoor Art

Seeing Moira Villiard’s video projections, Madweyaashkaa, at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River was a transcendent experience. The animated project was timed with an original score by musician Lyz Jaakola and featured Villiard’s swirling imagery set against the backdrop of the Minneapolis downtown skyline. A story told from an Anishinaabe perspective of family, resilience, connection to culture, and love, the project was a glimmering bright spot in the
cold winter. –SR

Holiday

This year marked the first year of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, ushering in a new era of hope in more ways than one. Celebrations were held in parks and neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis, St. Paul, and surrounding towns. While Minnesota was the fourth state to recognize the holiday back in 1996, national recognition of the day Black Americans were freed is a small but important step forward. –EW

Blackness Is... Festival
Blackness Is… Festival

Maija García

Spotlight

The Guthrie Theater celebrated the return of the performing arts with its 2021-22 season announcement (did someone say a new Christmas Carol?), but before things started opening up, the theater kept busy by collaborating with local Black performers. As part of its anti-racism work after George Floyd’s murder, the Guthrie co-created, commissioned, or supported virtual performances, including Antonio Duke’s Missing Mississippi Moons and Dining with the Ancestors, which was conceived by Regina Marie Williams. The effort culminated in MN Black Theatre Circle’s three-day festival Blackness Is…, but hopefully that won’t be the last we see of the Guthrie’s allyship. –LM

"Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America"
“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Courtesy of MSP Film Festival

Films on George Floyd

The 40th Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival was going to include at least one film related to George Floyd’s murder. It was a given. Still, the selections were far more than a gratuitous nod: Three Floyd-specific short documentaries focused on justice seekers and next-generation activists, while feature films included Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, which won SXSW’s 2021 documentary spotlight audience award, and After America, in which the director asked Minneapolis’ criminal justice de-escalators to express the failures they saw in daily life through performance. –LM

Olympians

Gable Steveson
Gable Steveson

Photo by Kelly Hangenson/University of Minnesota

After Simone Biles took a step back to protect her mental health, St. Paul’s own Sunisa Lee walked right into the spotlight. Watching her nab the gold in the gymnastics all-around was awe-inducing, but seeing her Hmong American family and community cry at her win truly struck the heartstrings. Also becoming a legend this year was Apple Valley’s Gable Steveson, whose buzzer-beating move against a three-time world champion brought in the wrestling gold. –BL

Memorial Art

A year after civil unrest in Minneapolis prompted business owners to cover their windows with plywood, those boards became canvases for social justice art and were featured in an outdoor exhibition at Phelps Park titled Justice for George: Messages from the People. Organized by Leesa Kelly, of Memorialize the Movement, and Kenda Zellner-Smith, of Save the Boards, along with the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery, the project presented the preserved street art with beautiful simplicity and reverence. –SR

"Nicole and Seth and their daughter (and daughter to be), in the kitchen" by Leslie Barlow
“Nicole and Seth and their daughter (and daughter to be), in the kitchen” by Leslie Barlow

Courtesy of artist Leslie Barlow

Up-and-Coming Painter

Leslie Barlow paints vivid portraits of people and families that feel both hyperrealistic and surreal. Her precise detailing is rivaled by her vibrant colors, and each portrait exudes a strong sense of empathy. Her mission is to “reimagine our relationship to our racial identities through healing our collective understanding of belonging and what it means to be family.” She’s also the director of Studio 400, a fellowship winner, a community activist, and a teacher. –BL

Up-and-Coming Designers

Francine A. Thompson’s style spans dreamy inspiration and retro simplicity. When she’s not designing or styling for big brands, she’s focusing her services on Black and POC-owned clients. Ry Macarayan, a Minnesotan by way of Hawaii, continually produces colorful, joyful illustrations focused on food, home, and emotional support. Their editorial style can be found on everything from calendars to kids’ clothes to packaging. –BL

Lora Hlavsa in her studio
Lora Hlavsa in her studio

Photo by Yasmin Yassin

Up-and-Coming Illustrator

With lush patterns and editorial portraiture, Lora Hlavsa’s illustrations combine her Filipina and American roots to evoke the layered human experience. Her People’s Pantry collaborative series celebrates the staple food items that immigrants and refugees take comfort in and may miss in their new destinations. She calls herself a “professional dabbler,” but she’s clearly up to big things. –BL

Local Writer

There’s no simple way to describe the writing and observations of Safy-Hallan Farah. She penned a vulnerable, incisive first-person narrative for Vanity Fair after the murder of George Floyd, reviews music for Pitchfork, and theorizes on Vox about why “cool” is dead. Filmmaker Miranda July ranks among her biggest fans, and that list is growing every day. –BL

"Papier" at the American Swedish Institute
“Papier” at the American Swedish Institute

Photo by John Dahlin

Indoor Art

Glamour met fine art at Papier, a gorgeous exhibit at the American Swedish Institute. The show spotlighted wearable art created by Swedish designer Bea Szefeld, who has made clothes for Lady Gaga and Björk. Her collaborator was Swedish illustrator Stina Wirsén, who created interpretations on paper of Szefeld’s flamboyant designs. Also featured was an installation by Szefeld called Grief, layered with love, longing, and loss. –SR

The White Squirrel
The White Squirrel

Provided

New Neighborhood Bar/Live Music Venue

The White Squirrel along St. Paul’s West Seventh Street is the sort of bar you want in your residential neighborhood—an easy walk down the street to catch some live music, meet friends on the back patio, and watch as the bartenders mix your drink with aged liquor from actual wooden barrels. Co-owner Jarret Oulman is known for supporting musicians at his other much-larger establishments, the 331 Club in Minneapolis and Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul, so it’s no surprise live local bands and weekday DJs are part of the scene here. –AN

Hilal Ibrahim of Henna & Hijabs
Hilal Ibrahim of Henna & Hijabs

Provided

Shopping & Services

Overdue Partnership

When Henna & Hijabs announced in June that it was creating Nordstrom’s first line of hijabs, we wondered how this wasn’t already a thing. Still, we couldn’t have been more excited to see Hilal Ibrahim’s designs roll out (our favorite is the bronze and lapis paisley on silk), and her own site has even more colors like blue mint and butter pecan. Ibrahim, who started her brand fresh out of high school in 2017, has also helped out the health industry, designing and donating specific scarves during the pandemic. Hopefully next year we’ll see more hijab love—maybe for athletic brand Asiya? –LM

Little Luxuries Nail Lounge
Little Luxuries Nail Lounge

Provided

Nail Salon

The artists at Little Luxuries Nail Lounge create fingernail masterpieces, but the look that made them famous is the square white nail with Olympic rings that Sunisa Lee wore in Tokyo, first when she won women’s all-around and then when she took home bronze in the uneven bars. Blue and red waves were originally on Lee’s left hand as a tribute to her Hmong heritage—a heritage salon owner Amy Vang also shares—but they had to be removed because they were too distracting. While Lee only recently started visiting the nail lounge, people have loved the Uptown salon’s artistry since it opened in 2018. –LM

Gianna Schiller
Gianna Schiller

Provided

Body Advocate

While Taylor Hage is Minnesota’s TikTok fashion queen, actor and model Gianna Schiller has carved out her own space by being one of the state’s most popular body activists. Her TikToks and Instagram posts are full of sass, confidence, and tons of glam looks, but she also talks about why it’s OK to show yourself love with a chocolate croissant and how “You’re not fat, you’re gorgeous” misses the point. After scrolling her accounts, you’ll want to spend some more time online planning your next shopping spree at shops like Cake Plus-Size Resale, Melody and Ralph, and Hazel and Rose. –LM

Lyss Made This
Lyss Made This

Provided

Jewelry

If you ever need a pick-me-up, try earrings by Alyssa Almond, creator of Lyss Made This. While this was only Almond’s second year in business, she started off with a bang, creating in-your-face earrings of hands holding used and unused feminine hygiene products. The collection, called “Helping Hands. Period.”, challenged menstruation stigma, and a portion of proceeds went to Days for Girls International. –LM

Como Harbor
Como Harbor

Provided

Things to Do

Upgrade

Sparky and her seal and sea lion friends have a new home at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul. Featuring a large, outdoor saltwater pool for year-round swimming, a shaded amphitheater for live shows, and an underwater viewing area, Como Harbor brings new life to one of the most beloved traditions at the capital-city zoo. After a few months getting settled, the Sparky Show resumed to great fanfare this fall. –EW

New Park

At less than 3 acres, Minneapolis’ newest park artfully uses every inch of its small footprint. Water Works at Mill Ruins Park opened in May across from St. Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge, a sacred place for Native Americans who first inhabited this land. Featuring an outdoor play area, terraced green spaces, and a beautiful brick pavilion, Water Works honors its past with Dakota art, Indigenous plants, and the long-awaited Owamni restaurant. –EW

Northeast Tea House
Northeast Tea House

Photo by Kevin Kramer

Buzzed Beverages

Before opening Northeast Tea House in late 2020, owner Simon Parish found just one other place nationwide with its own matcha mill—a COVID-shuttered spot in New York. Now, Northeast Minneapolis has one: an imposing granite leaf-grinding machine like the kind used in Japanese factories, Parish says. Since testing out “a few hundred” teas, he has devised a menu of up to 50 sourced from China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The pu’er labeled “tea drunk” made me feel just that: giddy, floaty, zonked. Other recommendations? Crossed legs at the chabudai table, meditative intent with the gongfu style of tea prep, and serene screenlessness beside a meticulously kept fish tank. –ET

Rand Tower Hotel
Rand Tower Hotel

Provided

New Hotel

Housed in what was once Minneapolis’ tallest building, the Rand Tower Hotel opened at a time when very few people were traveling in the winter of 2020. But the stunning $110 million renovation beckons guests with its marble floors, gilded design elements, spiral staircase, and rooftop bar with retractable roof. Named for Minnesota aviator and war hero Rufus Rand Jr., the Tribute by Marriott hotel leans on the past while setting the stage for downtown’s future. –EW

Winter Spectacle

In the absence of many of our standard winter celebrations, a caveman encased in a block of (fake) ice mysteriously appeared in Minneapolis’ Theodore Wirth Park last winter. His female companion, Zarah, turned up along a trail at Crosby Farm Park in St. Paul
shortly thereafter. Discreetly installed by artist Zach Schumack, the cave couple did what they were intended to do: spark joy in an otherwise dark winter season. –EW

Redhead Mountain Bike Park
Redhead Mountain Bike Park

Minnesota Discovery Center

New Mountain Biking Trail

Redhead Mountain Bike Park is the newest addition to the Iron Range’s quadfecta of purpose-built mountain biking destinations, which also includes Cuyuna, Tioga near Grand Rapids, and Giants Ridge in Biwabik. The trails are carved into a former mining pit next to the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm, and park amenities include food from the Rustic Pig, a bike shop, a summer concert series, and paddleboard and kayak rentals at the mine lake below. –EW

Sports Team

The Vikings, Twins, and Timberwolves didn’t give us much to cheer about this year, but one Minnesota pro team made it all the way to the final game. The Minnesota Whitecaps of the professional women’s ice hockey league shut out the Connecticut Whale 7-0 in the semifinal of the 2021 Isobel Cup, which featured a hat trick from forward (and elementary school gym teacher) Audra Richards, now Audra Morrison. The puck drops at TRIA Rink for the new NWHL season November 20. –EW

Voyageurs Wolf Project
Voyageurs Wolf Project

Provided

Dogstagram

“First-Ever Wild Wolf Collar Camera Shows What They Really Do All Day Long.” This recent HuffPost headline captures the gen-pop appeal of what the Voyageurs Wolf Project has been up to since 2015. Online, viewers get the POV of wolves lunging through forests, gnawing on deer bones, plucking fish from streams—plus candid footage of wolf pups. But University of Minnesota researchers put GPS collars and cameras on these canines of northern Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park for a reason: to study their lesser-known summer behaviors and aid wildlife management. Social media has the updates: @VoyageursWolfProject (Facebook), @VoyaWolfProject (Twitter), @voyageurswolfproject (Instagram). –ET

Facebook Comments

Jason DeRusha is Minnesota Monthly’s food critic and editor. He was a James Beard Foundation Award finalist for his TV work covering food and is also WCCO-TV’s morning news anchor. Follow him on Instagram, @DeRushaJ, and Twitter, @DeRushaEats.
Lianna Matt McLernon is a Minnesota-based writer. She enjoys writing about travel, style, and arts and culture, but her favorite topic (not-so-secretly) is theater.
As editor of Minnesota Monthly, Amy works collaboratively with a team of writers, designers, photographers, and digital producers to create impactful, surprising, timely and insightful content that reflects the Spirit of Minnesota. An award-winning newspaper and magazine editor based in the Twin Cities, Amy has decades of experience guiding coverage of luxury living, arts and culture, style and travel topics across multiple platforms. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Prince to Roger Goodell and has stories to tell.
Erik Tormoen is an Associate Editor of Minnesota Monthly. etormoen@greenspring.com