Minneapolis Stories and Tips

Where to Eat - Or Not to Eat – Lunch

Ole and Lena got married. On their honeymoon trip they were nearing Minneapolis when Ole put his hand on Lena's knee.

Giggling, Lena said, "Ole, you can go farther if you vant to." So Ole drove to Duluth.

I’m pretty good about bringing a bag lunch to work when I’m home, but when I’m on the road, it just isn’t possible. So lunch in downtown Minneapolis became my own personal nightmare - particularly in the summertime, when office buildings empty out between 11am and 1pm. Everyone and their mother seemed to have plenty of time for a leisurely lunch outside. That is, everyone but me. In two months of looking, I only found one place where I could get a really good sit-down lunch for under $10 without waiting on line. That’d be D’Amico & Sons – but I’ll share the results of my search so you can get a sense of the places that didn’t meet all four of my requirements (cheap, fast, tasty, with chairs.)

D’Amico and Sons
555 Nicollet Mall
The D’Amico brothers have a lock on fine Italian cuisine in the Minneapolis area with their upscale D’Amico Cucina restaurant. Those who can’t afford or don’t work near Cucina can dine on beautiful pizzas, exquisite sandwiches, or sumptuous pasta salads with gourmet details like strips of fresh basil and toasted pignolia nuts at cafeteria-style "D’Amico & Sons" in any of their 11 metro locations. I found one on Nicollet Mall and was delighted at the quality and quantity of food I could get for fewer than ten dollars. It’s fast, it’s air-conditioned (not that anyone cares in winter!), there are always tables free, and the food is truly a cut above.

Various Locations
The problem with Chipotle is it’s too popular. The line starts forming around 11:15am and by the time you are actually in the mood for a massive overstuffed burrito around noon or so, the line has snaked throughout the restaurant, out the door, through the outdoor seating, and is impeding pedestrian traffic on Nicollet Mall. Dinner is another story – you will have no more than a few minutes to contemplate the relative merits of hot tomatillo red chili salsa versus the medium roasted chili-corn salsa before you have to decide what to put in your custom-made 20oz burrito. Top it off with an ice-cold Corona for a low-cost spicy feast! At lunch or at dinner, Chipotle offers reasonably priced semi-authentic Mexican staples to a spice-deprived population. It’s no wonder their 19 locations are jam-packed at lunch. Vegetarians should be sure to ask for the vegetarian black beans – the pinto beans are made with meat. (all entrees are under $6 and some under $5)

D. Brians
Various Locations
D.Brians is a self-proclaimed "remarkable" deli. After three weeks of regularly lunching there I am still not sure just exactly what they think is so remarkable, except perhaps the exorbitant prices they charge for a tasty but tiny Styrofoam cup of soup that dares to declare itself "large'. Think of them as an upscale cafeteria. They have a respectable variety of foods, and their downtown locations are conveniently located on the skyway level of several office buildings. Vegetarians won't starve here, because several of their soups are not meat-based, including a very tasty vegetarian vegetable with beans, which is also low fat and low sodium (not that you’d notice). They also have delicious oversized cookies. Another plus is their ever-present Rice Krispie treats (Minnesotans are obsessed with these) which are made fresh every morning. But the real reason to lunch at D. Brian’s is that you are almost guaranteed a place to sit. Even groups of 4-5 can find a table without much hassle.

McCormick and Schmicks
800 Nicollet Mall
A client tricked me into taking him to lunch at McCormick & Schmicks by scheduling a noon meeting, then declaring how hungry he was when I arrived. I’m glad he did, because it’s a great place to hold a business lunch. In the summertime, diners at the outdoor tables are often serenaded by street musicians equipped with steel drums or a saxophone. But I prefer to sit inside, where a long row of comfortable booths can be closed off with thick green velvet curtains for maximum privacy. Only the waiter may interrupt, bearing tall glasses of iced tea, or a basket filled with warm sourdough bread. The menu is printed daily on oversized paper and lists more daily fresh seafood options than I could count, originating from locations from Long Island to Hawaii. At lunch, salads were crisp and generous, sandwiches were piled high, and all was right with the world.

I thought I had a real find on my hands and mentioned that I might bring the whole team there for a dinner. My client warned me that dinner wasn’t as good as lunch. I couldn’t imagine why - the ambiance was charming, wait staff even more so, and the food was great! So I ignored his warning and brought everyone back for dinner. Big mistake! The once-warm bread was cold, the busboys seemed to be gone for the night, and the food was more tired than our waitress, whose only reliable trait was her uncanny ability to forget what we had ordered. My co-workers are still haunted by the oyster stew (all of three oysters sitting in an undrinkable mixture of salt water and milk), a Hawaiian spearfish in a vile coconut curry sauce, and a dubious paella.

The only one at the table smiling was the boss, a seasoned traveler who never orders fish when in a land-locked state. He ordered and devoured a budget-busting 14oz steak. Me, I tried to order the same meal I’d had at lunch, a fantastic Caesar salad with grilled artichokes, but the grilled artichokes were not an option at dinner, so I had to settle for a soggy version of "the usual".

Now my boss might not have been aware that Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, but his advice still holds. I checked the menu - none of the fishes on the "fresh list" actually hailed from Lake Superior on the day we dined there. And when I submitted my expense receipts the following week, I noticed that no one had ordered fish at our delicious lunch. A fish joint that serves lousy fish? Don’t ask me, I’m a vegetarian!

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