The big news of the season is Nicollet Mall. After what felt like a half-century of construction, downtown Minneapolis’ de facto Main Street is back in business. Say what you will about the redesign, one of its most successful elements is its ability to make room for sidewalk cafes.
The bulk are huddled around 9th Street. McCormick & Schmick’s (800 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-338-3300, mccormickandschmicks.com), home to one of the area’s biggest bargain happy hours (3 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, 4 to 6:30 p.m. weekends and 9 p.m. to close daily), has a comfortable stretch of seats. Ditto its across-the street neighbor Zelo (831 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-333-7000, zelomn.com), a source for uncomplicated, Italian-inspired fare, including some of downtown’s most impressive pizzas.
Newcomer Haskell’s Wine Bar (901 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-638-0926, haskellswinebar.com) sits outside what is arguably the mall’s most distinguished and Instagramable backdrop, the Young Quinlan building.
On the same block, there’s a lively collection of tables at the triple threat that is Randle’s, a glossy sports bar that also sports an impressive rooftop patio (921 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-351-1234, johnrandles.com); Barrio, home to first-rate tacos and tequila (925 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-333-9953, barriotequila.com); and the jovial Irish pub and restaurant that is the Local (931 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-904-1000, the-local.com). To add to the festivities, there’s a long, skinny patio across the street, outside the All-American News Room (990 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-343-0073, thenewsroommpls.com).
One floor up
There are plenty of rooftops worth exploring, from the unexpected hideaway at Moto-I (2940 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-821-6262, moto-i.com), which specializes in ramen and house-brewed sake, to the Loring Park views (and Southern-accented seafood) at 4 Bells (1610 Harmon Place, Mpls., 612-904-1163, 4bells.com). One worth watching is the mammoth setup at Seven (700 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-238-7770, 7mpls.com), if only to sample the changes (for the better) from new chef Sameh Wadi.
Is there anything more charming than the secluded garden at Jax Cafe (1928 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-7297, jaxcafe.com), with its gurgling trout stream and canopy-covered patio? Or the enormous patio at W.A. Frost & Co. (374 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-224-5715, wafrost.com), a standard-setter for decades, with its one-of-a-kind mix of historic urban architecture and leafy canopy?
Although the patio at Esker Grove (723 Vineland Place, Mpls., 612-375-7542, eskergrove.com) is only in its second summer, the Walker Art Center has a long and distinguished outdoor dining history, going back to its Gallery 8 days. Today, the museum’s outdoor dining venue is the place to impress out-of-towners, with its views of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and downtown skyline, and chefs Doug Flicker’s and Dennis Leaf-Smith’s sophisticated but approachable cooking.
On the subject of views, the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union (300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls., 612-626-7788, campusclubumn.org) uses the summer months to open up its terrace to the general public during weekday happy hour (4 to 7 p.m., through Aug. 31), offering affordable libations and small plates. The extraordinary vistas are free.
The winner of the Most Urbane Sidewalk Cafe award surely belongs to Meritage (410 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-222-5670, meritage-stpaul.com), given the architectural riches (Landmark Center, the St. Paul Hotel, the Hamm Building) in every direction. A close runner-up are the tables that Brenda Langton sets out in front of her Spoonriver (750 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-436-2236, spoonriver.com), which really come alive during brunch on Saturday mornings when the adjacent Mill City Farmers Market is in full swing.
When restaurateurs also own nurseries, beautiful patios are a natural outcome. That’s certainly the case at the locavore-minded Wise Acre Eatery (5401 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-2577, wiseacreeatery.com), which is the inspiring work of Tangletown Gardens co-owners Scott Endres and Dean Engelmann.
And while it’s also a relative newcomer, there’s an instant-classic aura surrounding “The Danger,” the state’s only Ferris wheel/vertically revolving patio, at the fun-loving Betty Danger’s Country Club (2501 NE. Marshall St., Mpls., 612-315-4997, bettydangers.com).
The dramatic solar panels that hover over (and shelter) the patio at Tiny Diner (1024 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-767-3322, tinydiner.com) are definite conversation-starters. Ditto the well-tended working garden that surrounds the place.
On the screen porch front, nothing tops the Mad Hatter Restaurant & Tea House (1632 S. Ferry St., Anoka, 763-422-4160, madhatteranoka.com) and its parklike setting.
Keep in mind
What may be the outdoor venue of the moment is the sprawling patio — complete with a fetching indoor/outdoor bar — at the exciting new Hai Hai (2121 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-223-8640, haihaimpls.com), where the kitchen and the bar emphasize Southeast Asian flavors and traditions.
If the atmospheric alley patio at Cafe Lurcat (1624 Harmon Place, Mpls., 612-486-5500, lurcatminneapolis.com) doesn’t inject romance into your evening, then your relationship is doomed. And yes, there’s a patio at the otherwise hermetically sealed Mall of America. It’s the (pleasant) patio at the (pleasant) Cedar + Stone, Urban Table (2141 Lindau Lane, Bloomington, 612-615-0124, marriott.com) in the J.W. Marriott Hotel.
On (or near) the water
There’s a new tenant in the refectory on the northeast corner of Bde Maka Ska (formerly known as Lake Calhoun) that was long occupied by Tin Fish, and Lola on the Lake (3001 E. Lake Calhoun Pkwy., Mpls., lolascafemn.com) is all about smoked chicken wings, rib tips, tacos, sandwiches and beer.
One of the many reasons to appreciate Bread & Pickle (4135 W. Lake Harriet Pkwy., Mpls., 612-767-9009, breadandpickle.com) is the starts-at-7 a.m. breakfast menu (egg-Cheddar sandwich, bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese, green onion scrambles), excellent a.m. fortification for those making the lake’s nearly three-mile walk.
Two other Minneapolis park restaurants also boast enviable waterside real estate. Super-popular, seafood-focused Sea Salt Eatery (4825 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls., 612-721-8990, seasalteatery.wordpress.com) is so close to Minnehaha Falls that the cataract’s rushing waters can be heard from the restaurant’s patio, and Sandcastle (4955 W. Lake Nokomis Pkwy., 612-722-5550, sandcastlempls.com) is so conveniently close to the public beach that the lifeguard stand could feature a menu board.
Lake Minnetonka has its share of notable lakeside venues, but the real standout, in terms of both setting and food, is 6 Smith (294 E. Grove Lane, Wayzata, 952-698-7900, 6smith.com), which boasts not one but two outdoor venues: a patio on a marina (with slips for boats), and a rooftop terrace with sweeping lake views.
Two others in the western ’burbs: the roomy deck at Lola’s Lakehouse (318 E. Lake St., Waconia, 952-442-4954, lolaslakehouse.com) is always busy for a reason, as it gives diners front-and-center seating to the marina (with docking privileges) on ultra-scenic Lake Waconia. Birch’s on the Lake (1310 Wayzata Blvd., Long Lake, 952-473-7373, birchsonthelake.com) combines modern-day supper club fare with house-brewed beer, all served on a (pet-friendly) deck overlooking Long Lake.
Sure, it’s not exactly a navigable body of water, but there’s a splashing fountain in the pond outside the great-looking terraces at the crowd-pleasing Vivo Kitchen (15435 Founders Lane, Apple Valley, 952-891-8808, vivomn.com).
There’s proximity if not outright Mississippi River views from the string of patios and decks along SE. Main Street in Minneapolis, which includes a newcomer, the Hideaway Burger Bar (219 SE. Main St., Mpls., 612-379-4404, hideawayburgerbar.com). And don’t overlook the outdoor tables at Sea Change (806 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-225-6499, seachangempls.com), the Guthrie Theater’s mammoth street-level restaurant.
In St. Paul, restaurateur Matty O’Reilly and chef J.D. Fratzke are quietly dialing up the quality level in the city’s casual dining scene. Two of their efforts involve family-friendly, close-to-the-water venues. Spring Cafe (1360 N. Lexington Pkwy., St. Paul, springcafestp.com) is their cheery, something-for-everyone effort in the historic (and gorgeous) lakeside pavilion in Como Park, and Red River Kitchen at City House (258 Mill St., St. Paul, redriverkitchen.com) serves a steady stream of eclectic food-truck fare in priceless, right-on-the-Mississippi River surroundings.
Farther east, Stillwater has its share of on-the-St. Croix spots. My favorite? The leafy patio at the Dock Cafe (425 Nelson St., Stillwater, 651-430-3770, dockcafe.com), because doesn’t the name say it all? Meanwhile, 30-year-old P.D. Pappy’s (422 E. Mulberry St., Stillwater, 651-430-1147, pdpappysonline.com) offers a different kind of experience — part roadhouse, part music venue — that’s so close to the St. Croix that its two dockside patios can, during periods of high water, actually be in the river.
Aptly named Acqua serves its classic Italian fare at two lakeside locations, one on the southwest corner of White Bear Lake (4453 Lake Av. S., White Bear Lake, 651-407-7317, acqua-restaurants.com), the other from the north shore of Forest Lake (8241 North Shore Trail N., Forest Lake, 651-464-6130, acqua-restaurants.com). The former is dinner-only, the latter also serves Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch.
Beer, and more
Yes, the mega complex that is the Surly Brewing Co. (520 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., 763-999-4040, surlybrewing.com) boasts not one but two impressive patios, and both overlook the brewery’s massive beer garden.
But Surly isn’t the only beer-making, food-serving, patio-forward gig in town. Northbound Smokehouse & Brewpub (2716 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-208-1450, northboundbrewpub.com) has a sweet little patio that’s ideal for brewer Joel Scott’s hop-forward ales and chef Jason Foster’s beer-friendly (and smoke-infused) cooking.
The patio outside Fulton Brewing Co. (414 6th Av. N., Mpls., 612-333-3208, fultonbeer.com) boasts one of the all-time-great food trucks, a meticulously restored 1968 Airstream trailer that’s all about well-made Midwestern classics, from porchetta sandwiches to walleye rolls. And the shaded patio at Urban Growler Brewing Co. (2325 Endicott St., St. Paul, 651-340-5793, urbangrowlerbrewing.com) is made for savoring brewer Deb Loch’s signature Cowbell Cream Ale with burgers, fried chicken sandwiches and brownies infused with the house-brewered porter.
Start the day
Minnesota summer mornings can’t be beat, which is why it’s such a pleasure to encounter restaurants with both first-rate breakfast menus and well-appointed open-air dining venues. The Blue Plate Restaurant Co. has made something of a specialty out of this combination at its Longfellow Grill (2990 West River Pkwy., Mpls., 612-721-2711, longfellowgrill.com), Freehouse (701 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-339-7011, freehousempls.com) and 3 Squares (12690 Arbor Lakes Pkwy., Maple Grove, 763-425-3330, 3squaresrestaurant.com) outlets.
It’s easy to relax in the tranquil, semi-hidden garden (and carb-load on biscuits and gravy) at the Day by Day Cafe (477 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-227-0654, daybyday.comcastbiz.net). Catch some morning sun — and people-watch, always a worthy North Loop pastime — on the sidewalk outside easygoing, affordable Moose & Sadie’s (212 3rd Av. N., Mpls., 612-371-0464, mooseandsadies.com). And the sheltered tables outside Wilde Cafe & Spirits (65 SE. Main St.., Mpls., 612-331-4544, wildecafe.com) is the place for Tater Tot breakfast hot dish, egg-white/asparagus frittatas and hearty multigrain pancakes with blueberries.
Holman’s Table (644 Bayfield St., St. Paul, 612-800-5298, holmanstable.com) sports the most idiosyncratic patio setting, ever, overlooking the runway at St. Paul Downtown Airport; how’s that for a wake-up call? Breakfast (an egg-topped farro-vegetable bowl, brioche French toast) begins at 8 a.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. weekends.
My go-to is the flower-filled sidewalk outside the Birchwood Cafe (3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., 612-722-4474, birchwoodcafe.com), for the sunshine, the sunny staff and chef Marshall Paulsen’s crazy-good savory waffles.