American Bistros (Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN)

  • Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
  • The Rake
  • March 2002

Thanks to the rise of the neighborhood bistro in the Twin Cities, great eating and wonderful atmosphere may be right around the corner.

There’s a new dining movement in this country: the small, upscale, funky, limited-but-interesting menu, wine-friendly, neighborhood restaurant. Even though they’re generally called cafes, we think of them as American bistros. Minneapolis and St. Paul are lousy with them. And if you’re lucky, it’s a great meal within walking distance.

It may look like a basement rec room, but the kitchen at the 128 Cafe turns out dish after dish of fabulous food. The barbecued pork ribs have a spicy orange flavor which the roasted garlic mashed potatoes complement beautifully. The chicken breast comes with couscous and a lemon, garlic, and caper sauce. Start with an arugula salad or an appetizer of roasted garlic bulbs and apple-raisin chutney, and you’ve got yourself a great meal.

This is a trend in full flower. Marimar, First Course, 3 Muses, and N.E. Thyme all opened in 2001. Others like Zander, the 128 Cafe, Modern, and Mildred Pierce Cafe have been around a bit longer.

Of course, neighborhood restaurants are old hat, at least in cities with real walk-around neighborhoods, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. These new restaurants are not the greasy spoon mom-and-pop family restaurants of old. You dropped into that kind of restaurant because it was there, it was cheap, and you were hungry. They didn’t take reservations, and the menu changed nearly every decade. For a truly special night out, you drove to your family’s particular enclave. (Lowell Inn on Grandma’s birthday, anyone?) But now a new generation owns the field. Chefs—often the owners—are experienced and innovative. The food doesn’t follow the old salad-meat-starch formula; it’s complex and interesting. And while the menu may not have a wide selection, it changes regularly. Heck, you can even get a nice bottle of wine with dinner.

At N.E. Thyme, the menu changes every week. The last time we were there we had a choice of five entrees, two of them vegetarian. The mahi mahi was covered with cilantro pesto and pineapple-mango salsa, and came with lemony potatoes and delicate haricots vert. And the chicken breast came rolled up with proscuitto, truffle cheese, and spinach.

Let’s invent a name for this kind of cooking, shall we? American Melting Pot. Not fusion cooking, which conjures up lemongrass ravioli and other unfortunate collisions, but a clever and stylish blend of several cuisines and ingredients.

One of the things we like about these places is that you can go in for a quick bite or make an evening of it. The appetizers are filling; the salads interesting. You can even go just for dessert; Modern’s chocolate crème brulee is worth a trip.

At First Course, we loved the barbecued chicken quesadilla and the minestrone soup, and had mixed success with the entrees. Best is probably the meatless lasagna stew. It’s called ‘open-faced lasagna’ on the menu, which is a funny way of saying that it doesn’t hold together like a real lasagna does.

Mildred Pierce Cafe also shakes up comfort food. Try the BLT with white truffle aioli, pork chops with sun-dried tomatoes and pistachios, and delicious variants of club and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Modern serves pot roast with a horseradish cream sauce.

That’s what you get at an American bistro: traditional favorites with a twist, and new and interesting dishes. Sometimes the kitchen’s reach exceeds its grasp, but that’s part of the fun.

It’s wise to remember that you’re not here for the decor. Modern looks like a grubby diner right out of the 1940s; Zander like the 1950s. 128 Cafe looks like the neighbor’s family room, and 3 Muses turns funky into an affectation. And service can be spotty; we won’t mention that one visit to First Course.

Nothing has brought the Twin Cities restaurant scene into the 21st century faster than the well-chosen and reasonably priced wine list. What works is a good selection of wines that go well with the food, with lots of by-the-glass options. At 3 Muses, most bottles are under $30. N.E. Thyme offers thirteen choices by the glass. Marimar prices its bottles at around $20, half-priced on Mondays. You can bring your own wine to First Course—they don’t have corkage, so you won’t be socked for an extra $20.

These American bistros are not cheap, but they’re a wonderful value. Entrees run north of $15; appetizers $7–$8. We plan on spending $30 a person total: each having an entree and a glass of wine, and sharing an appetizer and dessert. Sure, that’s a yuppie food coupon and a half, but you don’t have to order three courses. $20 will get you a smaller meal and change. Sure, you’ll spend less at Curran’s. But the point is fresh, interesting food in a pleasant little place right in the neighborhood.

5001 34th Ave S, Minneapolis, 612-728-1123
First Course
5607 Chicago Ave, Minneapolis, 612-825-6900
Mildred Pierce Cafe
786 Randolph Ave, St. Paul, 651-222-7430
Modern Cafe
337 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis, 612-378-9882
NE Thyme Cafe
4257 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, 612-822-5155
The 128 Cafe
128 Cleveland Ave N, St. Paul, 651-645-4128
3 Muses
2817 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis, 612-870-0339
Zander Café
523 Selby Ave, St. Paul, 651-222-5224

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.