It started decades ago when my 80-year-old Nana took me to Matt’s Bar—before it was, you know, MATT’S BAR! Since then, I’ve been on the hunt for the little unsung gems of local eats. Spelunking strip malls for secretly good ethnic food joints is a favorite hobby (you just need a willing spirit and an iron stomach). And if you read this column, you know about my penchant for road-tripping to find the best outstate disc golf courses and burger dives. Of course, I’m all about celebrating the fine efforts of our top restaurants, but I get just as tweaked about finding perfectly crispy waffle fries coated in housemade hot sauce at some tavern that people regularly drive right by. It’s like Christmas morning—with beer! There are some things I don’t share, because in this social media era of “Look, I found this cool thing first,” it’s sometimes good to just enjoy a small private moment with your charred chicken or puffy taco. But if you ask, I probably won’t be able to keep it hidden for long.
I have a ton of little bits of intel that I’m not really sure what to do with. I just don’t know if it matters to everyone that the refillable popcorn at the Excelsior Dock movie theater is made with tons of real butter, as it should be. Or that the giant garlic beef sandwich at Mayslack’s is worth suffering through any lousy band for. And when you order a Fender (Surly Furious mixed with Bender), the whole crew at Travail calls out, “FENDER HERE!” When my daughter worked at Punch Pizza back in the day, we’d dine on Nutella Paninis, which are still available off-menu—you just have to ask.
Some places are hidden in plain sight, like the Café’ine Thai Café nestled in the Maplewood Library. It has some surprisingly spicy curries and addictive golden fried rice topped with a lovely omelet, which is exactly what you want after secretly checking out Twilight. Or consider that there’s a whole back room with seating at France 44 Cheese Shop where you can take your sandwich, your meat and cheese board, and a beer and hang for hours. It’s leagues above any coffee shop session you might plan. There’s also the open-to-the-public Life Cafés at Life Time Fitness, which offer healthy and generous portions of quinoa, smoothies, and salads. Saunter into the one at the Target Center on your way home and grab a quick bowl of good eating—no breaking of sweat or membership card required.
Then there’s the category of not-so-obvious special seats and tables at obvious places. The kitchen table at Cosmos, for one, is still rocking after all these years, tucked in the kitchen with Tim Fischer as your guide. Icehouse has a big chef’s table for eight nestled next to the kitchen, where chef Matt Bickford will plan your meal. And don’t forget you can always hide away in a tatami room at Fuji-Ya or at the basement bar at W.A. Frost in St. Paul, a super cozy spot pictured on page 42. But the true ballers know about the secret bar room in the basement of Butcher & The Boar and the upstairs mezzanine at Restaurant Alma (yes, there’s an upstairs at Alma!).
For me, though, the best hidden hangs are metaphorically off the grid, away from the hot spots, and likely involve a seat at the bar. Often, your best bet for that is hunkering down at a hotel lobby bar. Though I never stay for dinner, sitting on the lounge chairs at the swanky Bank lounge in the Westin is always cushy and relaxing. I find myself at the SIX15 Room in The Grand Hotel Minneapolis quite often, thanks to its plush, modern, white bar stools. The opposite experience can be found in the old and ornate lobby bar at Hotel 340 in St. Paul, a great place to hide and drink scotch. Though it’s not really “hidden” the way these others are, Constantine at Hotel Ivy may be the best dark basement bar in the city right now, and there’s valet.
I could go on, thrilling you with stories of hand pies sold at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Minneapolis, or the dirty revelation that is the deep-fried Girl Scout cookies at a slip of a shop on University called Deep Fried Goodness, but I’m curious about your favorite secret spots. So sally forth, intrepid guts! Dig into your city and send your best finds to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll do our best to sprinkle them in the magazine all year long.