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MSP hounds: standard recs for the unadventurous (help me, please)

so: friends & family ask me & dh for restaurant recs all the time. usually for a birthday or anniversary dinner or other special event.

once the question is asked, dh & i are apt to start talking about restaurants new & old, chefs and who's working here or just got hired there, specific dishes, cooking techniques, seasonal ingredients, blah blah blah. . . and then fifteen minutes later we realize that the two of us are talking about some obscure farmstead cheese from somewhere outside sheboygan and how it's suddenly available to restaurants a, b, & c because sheila the farmer's daughter just turned 16 and can drive it down once a month-- but not when there's too much snow on the ground because it makes her mom nervous. . .

and we'll look over and the person who just innocently asked where to have a birthday dinner is looking at us as if we are, indeed, truly bonkers. --well.

i don't expect everybody to be food-obsessed. i don't think that everyone's meal ideal corresponds to my own. when i rec a restaurant to a family member who just doesn't care so much about food, i do try to match them to a well-executed cuisine that matches up with their expectations of what a good meal should be. so--i'm not sending construction workers to the small-plates place or forcing elderly lutherans to dine on gomtang. these folks go out once or twice a year for a special occasion, they got a sitter, made special plans. they set aside money for this meal, not an unreasonable amount of money for dinner, mind you, they work hard for the money-- but enough for a nice meal with a 15% tip. they expect to leave the restaurant full and happy, and if applicable, in a romantic mood, having gotten good value for their dollar and with something to talk about with co-workers in a couple days. it shouldn't be too hard to please these folks, and if i do my job right, they'll have tried one or two new and exciting to them items and/or had the best-executed (steak, fish, salad, cheesecake, whatever) as far as they are concerned.

but lately i've been striking out. some of my "great-for meat & potatoes types," "just edgy enoughs," and "classics" have not taken off. the in-laws didn't love the place we rec-ed for their last anniversary, even though we thought the place (w.a. frost) was a sure all-around pleaser. i need input from my fellow hounds on sure-fire winning recs for less-experienced diners, and i fear i'm losing touch about what average diners want re: ambiance, service, food!

i'm also interested in good choices for first timers to a new cuisine-- i.e. where in msp would you bring someone to eat japanese food, or pho, or german sausages, or whatever-- not for the best food experience, but as a comfortable entry point for someone trying an unfamiliar cuisine for the very first time in their lives? i am really not trying to be snobby at all, just incrementally improve the quality of my family & friends' dining lives in ways that are-- for them; both comfortable and exciting. i feel that by giving bad recs, i'm failing them. please help!!!

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  1. Hmmm...hard question, partly because I feel like my answers would be your answers already. But, for Japanese food... Tanpopo.

    I think the recs we gave in the other birthday thread Craftsman, Jay's, Signature Cafe, Downtower are all good for meat and potatoes types... Have you experienced the opposite (should I not be recommending them to the M&P types?)

    Aside from that, I think ambiance is important to people. So, Tea House II and Ngon Bistro because they are lovely, I think, would be good entry points. Also, they have table service instead of say, Jun Bo, where they bring the carts (which can be intimidating) and you don't have to share a table like you do at some of the pho places... I think Khyber Pass is lovely and their menu pretty unintimidating. Kramaczuk's is good because people can see what there is, point, ask questions, etc. People seem to love Mai Village--I would still take them to Ngon Bistro first...

    Midtown Global Market I think is fun to take people to because they can see a lot of stuff and maybe sample things a little. Mexican food has become pretty familiar to people, so maybe Taqueria La Hacienda on Lake Street. Nice and clean and open. Maybe the new Taqueria Los Ocampo across from MGMkt...

    I hope I'm helping...

    ~TDQ

    2 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      I think Taquerial Los Ocampo is a great introduction for people to "real" Mexican food. There are pictures and explanations in English and Spanish. And it is really damn good.

      Craftsman is also a good recommendation. If they want to go to an old stand by, they can always order a burger- which are really good.

      On the Minneapolis side, the new Jasmine 26 is a really great introduction to Vietnamese. It is swanky, pretty, and the menu is straight forward. Everyone sits at their own table and it works like a nice suburban restaurant. The food is pretty good too, but not the best by any means.

      I think Heartland is pretty easy too. They have the great fauna and flora menus, which makes ordering very easy, but it isn't a standard tasting menu with can be hard. And the food is outstanding and a great introduction to local foods.

      My parents really like Hoolihans...

      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        I think Ngon Bistro is a brilliant suggestion as an intro point. The atmosphere is inviting and some of the food seems like a bit of a meld between asian and western. So it seems a little more familiar. Excellent quality and reasonably priced. I do agree with KTFoley that you have to consider the impression you get as you get out of the car, depending on your diners, and that may be a problem for some there.

        And in thinking about down home, standard, traditional dining, the Lexington was the first place that came to my mind.

      2. Applebees? Can Applebees be an answer? They have miniature ribs called Riblets there. Did they not like WA Frost because they hate fireplaces or because they thought the food was too daring?

        Some safe bets that can satisfy both the semi-adventurous and the chicken caeser salad palates are:

        Palomino
        Mission
        Zelo
        Lurcat
        The Modern
        Erte
        Stella's
        Campiello
        Craftsman
        One of the ____ Grill places
        TGI Chilibees

        1. Nicollet Island Inn.

          For first timers to new cuisines:

          Mandarin Kitchen
          Kramarczuk's
          El Burrito Mercado (you can see the food before you choose it)
          The Russian Tea House
          Moscow on the Hill
          Puerta Azul
          Pad Thai on Grand
          Ichiban or Saji Ya or Benihana or anywhere you can get teppanyaki and a sushi sampler

          1 Reply
          1. re: MSPD

            Great suggestions!

            Yes! Puerta Azul--that was on the tip of my tongue (or the tip of my fingertips, but I couldn't quite pull it off.)

            Also, the bakery at El Burrito Mercado is very appealing.

            And at Russian Tea House, they will explain every single item on the menu for you. And it's in a house, so you feel right at home.

            ~TDQ

          2. my go to "crowd pleaser" recommendations include Zelo and the Lexington.

            Never had a bad meal at either. Good service, menus with something for everyone...etc.

            And they both have full bars.

            3 Replies
            1. re: St Paul Susie

              I second the Zelo recommendation. I took my grandparents-in-law there - our PopPop is, I kid you not, the pickiest eater still alive in his 80s. He has food habits of a fussy toddler (and God bless Grandmom for preparing food for him for decades). But I digress. PopPop thought Zelo was great - we were there ~1 year ago, he ordered a shrimp and pasta dish (shrimp with tomato sauce but no garlic or onions). He was very pleased with his dinner. The rest of us liked our meals, too - husband and grandmom are relatively conservative eaters, and I'm more of a 'hound, but we all enjoyed ourselves.

              1. re: St Paul Susie

                "And they both have full bars."

                :-D Susie, you are a champ! i mean that!!! thanks for thinking of our family harmony & my own and dh's state of mind and serenity of spirit. sometimes there is nothing like a good stiff cocktail to keep everybody on an even keel during the soupkitten family gatherings (& the teetotalers don't need to know). . .LOL!

                1. re: soupkitten

                  At the lexington the give you HUGE glasses - FYI. a standard pour of wine there can easily be = to 2 glasses elsewhere.

              2. Oh, how I empathise! Most of my in-laws are extremely unadventurous eaters. They're very suspicious of "new-fangled" ingredients or almost anything that could be considered ethnic. My theory is that their tastebuds were ossified in the early 60's (even those who were born later).

                I quite understand your in-laws not liking W.A. Frost - mine wouldn't either. They would think the food is "weird" - I mean, Tuna sashimi? Duck confit? Goat cheese risotto? Rapini? Olive oil cake? They would be intimidated by those unfamiliar things on the menu and wouldn't be at all comfortable at the restaurant.

                Since I hate eating at chain places and I don't like steak, it's a bit of a challenge to find a place that we all like, especially for special occasions.

                Here's a list of places that are OK with my relatives:

                - Jax
                We all love this place, though it's a bit pricy. Their steaks are good (when I do eat steak, this is where I have it), and the trout is divine. The burgers are great, too. But don't let them see the one new-fangled appetizer on the menu: Fried Asparagus with Sriracha Aioli (!!!)

                - Moscow on the Hill
                It's rather exotic for some, but our dinner there went over pretty well. They even tried the mixed appetizer plate! Or maybe they were just being polite because we were there. :-)

                - The Lexington
                Actually, I've never taken them here, but they would have no trouble with the menu. Me, I prefer Jax over the Lex.

                - Kafe 421
                I haven't sent them here yet, but I think they'd be OK with most of the menu choices.

                - The Sample Room
                My more adventurous rels like it, but the stodgier ones find it "weird" (and too expensive - even though it's no pricier than the Cheesecake Factory, which they like).

                - Carol's Restaurant in Blaine
                Not at all fancy, but it's the best place in town for traditional American diner food (you know, the kind of food that's served at Key's).

                - A first-wave Vietnamese restaurant with solid Chinese-style dishes, like Vina II, Que Viet, or Kimson. Mai Village might be OK, too, but would feel extremely exotic to them. I wouldn't dream of sending them to a place like Quang, Jasmine, Pho Tau Bay, Hoa Bien, or Saigon. Same for the more upscale (and wonderful) Ngon.

                - Bon Xai
                This one is quite iffy - the name (and location) might frighten my family. And there are some "scary" dishes that could distract them from the pork chops (very tasty), the BLT, and the steaks. But if I was there to help guide them (and to keep them from running away before they ordered), they'd probably really like the food.

                Good luck,
                Anne

                P.S. See this thread for more ideas:

                Where to take a picky out-of-towner (Minneapolis)
                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/342751

                3 Replies
                1. re: AnneInMpls

                  Anne, you hit a good point -- people who are looking forward to a nice evening out are going to see some of our neighborhoods with a different eye than we would. Parking on the street on University Ave doesn't bother me, but other folks will not see it the same way. So one of the ways that I try to narrow down choices is to think whether the place would feel special to them when they step out of the car, before they even get to the hostess stand.

                  Zelo works on that level and so many others.
                  St. Paul Grill does the same, but at a different price point.
                  I think that the Nicollet Island Inn and Lake Elmo Inn know the value of such specialness even if the kitchen doesn't wow us all, and Downtowner Woodfire Grill can make lots of eaters happy in the same way.

                  And to harken back to an ages-old discussion with TDQ, The Longfellow Grill might not be the best of the best but it IS a place where everyone can find something on the menu they'd like. Not necessarily a special-occasion place, but very reliable for families.

                  1. re: KTFoley

                    On the lines of the Longfellow Grill.. if you take them to the Edina Grill instead you have a parking ramp (free) adjacent + you can follow it up with some birthday ice cream at the Edina Cremery across the street or a movie.. during the daytime you can walk down to Wuollets and get some cake (I prefer Lunds across the parking lot.. awesome desserts!)..

                  2. re: AnneInMpls

                    Anne-- that's a great thread that i totally forgot about!

                    i am going to check out carol's in blaine for myself, it sounds great! also bon xai for myself. thanks for the thoughtful recs.

                  3. With respect to German sausages specifically-The Black Forest Inn makes all of theirs...
                    www.blackforestinnmpls.com

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Josie

                      I do second Carol's in Blaine - all food is homemade, it's got your diner/neighbor was cooking a Sunday meal feel, and it is priced right. However, if this is for anniversaries/birthdays, I'm not sure I would go there first. It's reasonably priced so that even the hardest earned dollar could go there once or twice a month for less than $15 a person.

                      For special occasions, I like Nicollet Island Inn - outstanding service, great quality of food and presentation, and of course, a nice ambience. I'll also say 112 Eatery - it's definitely small and loud, but the entrees are carefully chosen and well executed.

                      Finally, I'll put out Kozlaks. I don't know why this place doesn't get a bit more attention. It's family owned - they actually have really great food -at the correct price point for what they serve, the service has always been pleasing, the presentation is a little more the average, and what is even better-is that they have their twilight menu from 4:00-5:45, where a decent sized list including beef medallions, chicken supreme (which is actually pretty decent); jumbo shrimp, real walleye (no zander) done two ways, etc. for $17.00. Their bar area is nice and separate from the dining area and they have a decent HH for a suburb - and it's got a pleasing ambience....fit for special occasions. People might think it's just an average menu with your basic foods- and true, there is nothing overly WOWIE about the items they serve- but what they serve, they serve well. There is a reason why places like that have been in business for 31 years.

                      1. re: snoboardbabe77

                        snoboardbabe, Kozlak's isn't on my radar at all. Where is it?

                        Someday, I'm going to make to Carol's in Blaine (once I figure out where Blaine is, ha! Still learning my way around the Twin Cities...). It sounds so delicious.

                        ~TDQ

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          Carol's is almost a trip out of town for a St. Paul resident, but it's worth the drive at least once. I recommend saving up some refined-starch points for Carol's - their stuffing is fabulous, but is definitely is made from white-flour bread.

                          Oh, now I'm craving their hot-turkey sandwich, but I don't have time for the drive. Dang!

                          Anne

                    2. Signature Cafe is good, Pot roast on the menu! not a foam or terrine in sight!

                      http://www.signaturecafe.net

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: 67.p.car

                        Kozlaks is owned by the same family (a whole bunch of families) as Jax Cafe. It is in Shoreview MN off Hodgson Road - by the North Oaks area. The outside of the building is not much to talk about -but there is ample free parking and it's been around awhile so the restaurant is worn a little bit. There is a carport cover thing that people can drive up to when letting their guests out.

                        www.kozlaks.com

                        Not only does it provide the twilight dinner, it offers specials on other occasions, it talks about what they do for the environment; and they have the Sunday Jazz Brunch, which I have never been too - (it's a bit expensive). They have a salad bar too that can added to a meal (I am not a salad bar fan myself, but friends have gotten it and there's some good little additions in there-certain salads, etc.

                        )

                        Check it out.

                        Now, remember, TDQ, you and I seem to share the adventurous side for great meals - cheap or expensive, and this is your standard good fair for steak, chicken, fish, etc. It's like a Lexington comparable.

                        It's been open since 1977.

                        Check out the website.

                        It also caters weddings, banquets, etc.

                        1. re: snoboardbabe77

                          I've never been to Kozlak's but what about Mancini's? Classic fare, simple menu, supper club like atmosphere and the lounge for a drink afterwards.

                      2. thanks everyone for all the great & insightful replies. i have had good meals with mixed family groups at tanpopo, ngon, craftsman, mancinis, jax, nicollet is. inn, & some of the others mentioned, and will make a go at these other recs, i have more to pick from than i thought!

                        i've tended to lean toward the classic supper-club type places in the past, when trying to pick a restaurant to please my late father (as he was often the one picking up the tab for the group). nowadays i have the problem that the family members i'm dining with are often not as food-savvy as they think they are-- they think jax and mancini's (both of which i *love*) are a little stodgy, plus we've had many meals there. dh's dad is a steak&potatoes guy who doesn't know how to use chopsticks (omg!!!) but his current wife's ex is a chef so she's actually quite adventurous; bil & sil (late 20's) want to believe that we'd send them to a place with hip cutting edge food, but. . . they wouldn't like it/know what it was, if we did. :) for their b-day & anniversary events i'll be drawing on the good recs of the sample room, zelo, modern, etc. thanks so very much!

                        thanks for the ethnic entry recs, especially for the mexican recs, i know i will come back to those, & i will also perhaps stop taking folks to quang first, jasmine 2nd, and when in doubt do it the other way around!

                        i admit that i've gotta make it to many of these places myself, so i'll be able to look forward to family events for black-hearted, selfish, greedy reasons, too! :) you guys rock & please keep recs coming if anyone can think of other options!

                        1. How about Broders' ? They could be as adventurous as they wanted to with the various pasta dishes, etc.