03 April 2015

#AWP15: A Minneapolis Guide From an Actual Local

Hello there, Literary People. Welcome to Minneapolis.

You may be wondering: Will I meet Prince? Will I have to get around via sled dog? Do all the local restaurants serve Jell-O or just most of them? Will I spot Prince riding a dogsled and eating purple Jell-O and maybe some raspberry sorbet (pun!)? Because that's totally an essay I want to write for The Awl.

Well. I’m Doug. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I have answers and guidance for you. 

(Also, while I have your attention, please come to a reading that I’m doing, along with eight other travel writers, at a bar called Honey on Saturday at 4pm. More details below.)

General Things to Keep in Mind

  • The weather's gonna change in five minutes. The forecast calls for temps ranging from the upper 20s to the mid-70s so . . . yeah, that’s how it goes. Welcome. Be prepared for anything.
  • Minnesotans are friendly, so don’t hesitate to ask anyone for directions and such.
  • We’re also not yokels and though we can joke about eating Jell-O and living in igloos, we'd rather you didn't make Flyover Country quips or, worse, express astonishment that there's diversity and culture and even ONE OF THE BEST MODERN ART MUSEUMS IN THE WORLD OUT HERE IN THE HINTERLANDS, WOW! Seriously, if anyone says anything like that, I swear to God we'll . . . scowl imperceptibly as we give you directions and welcome you to our city and tell you about last night's hockey game. 
  • We're also quite passive-aggressive. 
  • The best way to see the city is on a bike. (See "Getting Around," below.)
  • Know the key phrases:
    • Saint Paul is, to hear most Minneapolitans describe it, a mythical land at the edge of the known universe, rumored to hold such enchantments as the state capitol, professional hockey, and unicorns. I can verify that, in fact, Saint Paul is both real and wonderful. You should take the time to head east and explore Minneapolis's twin city (see "Other Things to See and Do). 
    • Nicollet Mall is the main downtown eating/shopping street, near the Convention Center. Say it the local, definitely-not-French way: "NICK-o-lit" or "NICK-uh-lit."
    • A Jucy (or Juicy) Lucy is the local contribution to the culinary universe. Basically, a cheeseburger with the cheese inside. Do eat one, even if you're a hard-core granola-and-sprouts type. They're greasy manna. Don't make the rookie mistake of biting into it immediately after it arrives, unless you want third-degree burns on your tongue. Wait a minute. 
    • Nordeast is the area just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. 
    • Uptown is actually south of downtown by a few miles. I know, New Yorkers. Hush. 
    • The River is the Mississippi. It's a great place to go and brood and calm your neurotic, bookish mind. 
    • "That's interesting" or "That's different" are our passive-aggressive ways of saying, basically, WTF. These are both strong, negative reactions, though only when said with a particular flat tone or a big, fake smile. If it's a genuine smile, we probably mean it's actually interesting or different. Good luck trying to discern between the two. 

And now, a brief interlude in which a local sage named Slug explains Minneapolitans' low-key pride in their city:

Getting Around

  • We've got buses and light rail (see Metrotransit.org for schedules). Buses require exact change (or rather, they don’t GIVE change, so if all you’ve got is a fiver, it’ll be an expensive trip). Each light rail stop has ticket kiosks that accept credit cards. Once you've paid for a ride, you're good for unlimited rides on all buses and trains for two and a half hours. 
  • You tend to find cabs only at designated taxi stands, e.g. at hotels. Finding one downtown is easy. Anywhere else, you'll probably have to make a phone call.
  • Get on a bike. The Nice Ride bike-sharing program just reopened for the season. We’ve got a (really, truly) world-class system of parks and parkways and trails, so it’s a great town for two-wheeled exploring, especially outside the downtown core.
  • Get in the skyways. If you're on foot and if it’s cold or rainy or you just feel like a trippy and Very Minneapolis experience, you can see much of downtown via the skyways, a sort of hamster Habitrail for humans, with shops and restaurants and such. The geography of the skyways is haphazard and confusing and your phone map probably won’t help you, but there are large maps posted all over the place or you can use the SkywayMyWay app. The skyways connect to the Convention Center and are open 6:30am-10:00pm.

Eating & Drinking

To eat like a local, you'll need to have a Jucy Lucy and drink one of our many fine local beers (e.g. Surly or Summit). 

The Convention Center area, like its counterparts across the globe, is surrounded by overpriced and largely mediocre restaurants. But there are some good options within walking distance:
  • Hell's Kitchen  serves up some local specialties like bison burgers and walleye and . . . kangaroo sliders. They're best known for their breakfast and brunch. Also: excellent happy hour deals. Their sibling, Angel Food Bakery, is a nice spot for a buttery, sugary midday snack. 
  • Vincent A Restaurant is French and fancy and expensive, but their bar is French and fancy  and reasonably priced, and offers the very best gourmet Juicy Lucy in town ($8 during happy hour). And at $13.50, their two-course lunch is a hell of a deal for what you get.
  • Barrio is kinda loud and crowded but worth it for the food. If it's warm, their outside seating area is one of the best in town, right on Nicollet Mall. Another good happy hour spot.
  • For cheaper eats, head to the food trucks along Marquette Avenue at lunch, or to the myriad restaurants along Nicollet Avenue south of Grant Street (e.g. Salsa a la Salsa and Market Barbecue). My favorite food truck, Velee Deli, just opened Real Shop in the skyway. 
Farther afield, the best places to sample the full culinary wealth of Minneapolis is the Midtown Global Market, which has tons of food stands, with solid representation from the city's large Mexican, Vietnamese, Somali, and Indian communities. (True fact: Anthony Bourdain says we have the best Vietnamese food in the USA.)

Nicollet Avenue south of downtown, all the way to Lake Street, is known as "Eat Street" and also has a long, long roster of restaurants. Hop on the 18 bus on Nicollet. Try Quang or Jasmine 26 for Vietnamese, or Harry Singh's Original Caribbean Restaurant (get the roti) or Glam Doll Donuts.

Or head across the river to East Hennepin Avenue (via buses 10 or 17), where you can go old-school at Kramarczuck's Eastern European deli or drink at a time-warp of a bar, Nye's Polonaise Room (named Esquire's "Best Bar in America" a few years back and closing this year after a long, long run; cozy up to the piano bar while you can). My own favorite restaurant in town, Brasa (Caribbean comfort food by a Beard-Award-winning chef) is also over there.

UPDATE: If you're vegan, Glam Doll Donuts and Brasa (noted above) are two excellent options, as are Pizza Luce and French Meadow. Thanks to Susan for adding this in the comments.

Juicy Lucy. The specific grease alchemy going on here actually makes it
good for you. True. Kim via Wikimedia Commons

Other Things to See and Do

  • Nicollet Island, which looks like a twee little village hidden in the shadow (almost literally) of downtown Minneapolis. Most locals don't even know about it. (Here's a thing I wrote about it.
  • Make a pilgrimage to Open Book, the heart of the Minneapolis literary scene, housing The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Editions, and Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, which has a small but superb gift shop with all manner of artistic books and book-making supplies and generally Really Effing Cool Stuff for any literary types.
  • Check out the lakes (south of downtown) or the downtown riverfront, with its old mills and the landmark Stone Arch Bridge.
  • The Mill City Museum is right along the riverfront, in the ruin of an General Mills "A" Mill, which was once the largest flour mill in the world. A genuinely fascinating and well-curated sort of place, it tells the history of Minneapolis, the history of milling, and how those two histories are intertwined. Also, they have a baking lab, where you get to sample the end result of the milling process: cookies.
  • The Walker Art Museum, at the very edge of downtown (walkable from the Convention Center if you're up for some exercise) is the aforementioned One of the Finest Modern Art Museums in the World; its free Sculpture Garden is also a marvel of a public space.
  • The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is . . . honestly, not that different from other big-city museums. Greek statues, European Master paintings, some American stuff. World-class, don't get me wrong, but not necessarily more exciting than other museums you've seen. But, ahem, admission is totally free. And the Prairie School design section shows off our iconic homegrown aesthetic. So there's that.
  • First Ave, the club that Prince made famous, is in downtown Minneapolis. You should probably go take a gander. 
  • UPDATE: Go to Saint Paul. I left this off the first time around, because it's actually not that easy to get from the Convention Center area to the most interesting parts of Saint Paul if you don't have a car. But then Nick Coleman (a longtime local newspaper columnist I've long admired and who I honestly can't believe saw this post) commented below and ... Well, he's right, you should make time for Saint Paul. Best thing to do, if you have a few hours and want to explore our twin to the east, is to hop on the light rail Green Line and head down University Avenue. For an offbeat experience, get off at Snelling and go to Ax-Man Surplus Store, purveyors of all manner of odd and wonderful and just plain confusing stuff. It's like Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore crossed with a Radio Shack crossed with some sort of surrealist toy store. Also: lots of delicious food nearby, like On's Kitchen Thai Cuisine.

Also . . .

I'm reading with eight other travel writers, and you should come! Free and open to the public, at a sweet subterranean bar called Honey--drink a cocktail, hear some tales from across the globe. It'll be a grand ol' time. Saturday, April 11th, 4-6pm. More details on the Facebook event page.

Honey is across the street from Nye's Polonaise Room, so come hear some travel stories and then head across the street to drink and polka with a cross-section of Minneapolis. (Map/directions.)

click to enlarge

Want to know how to get Twins tickets, where to find the best Jucy Lucy, or why you must never, ever utter the word "casserole"? The comments are open; ask away!