Dinner For Small Group of College Students?
My niece is about to turn 20. She's going to Hamline U in St.Paul (she grew up in Minneapolis) and I thought it would be fun to send her and 2-3 friends for a night out somewhere in the Twin Cities. The food should be good, of course, but not weird or challenging, and the atmosphere should be amenable to a group of college students. I live in NY, so I need suggestions!
Cafe Biaggio on University Avenue. It's about four or five miles from the Hamline campus (I'm from the class of 98 BTW). It's country Italian, not red sauce cheap Italian. The menu usually has something for everyone. I personally love their Carbonara. I think it is one of the underrated restaurants in town. I think a group of college kids would enjoy it because it's a step up from a chain, but not white linen/fine-dining uncomfortable. Here is a link to their website: http://www.caffebiaggio.com/
I'm going to sort of ignore the face value of "weird or challenging" and recommend Fasika, a very good Ethiopian restaurant just a few blocks south of campus (walkable).
When it comes right down to it, Ethiopian food isn't really all that "strange" aside from the tradition of eating it with your hands (not a requirement) by scooping it up with the injera.
Fasika's menu is easily navigated by the non-"foodie", separated by beef, lamb, chicken, fish and combinations and also offers very thoughtful and interesting options for vegetarians. In fact their "vege sampler" is one of their most popular dishes and, in my experience, a great introduction to a lot of brilliant and diverse flavors.
The menu descriptions are thorough and helpful to the novice Chowhound and the staff there are friendly and helpful, including adapting flavor profiles to different palates. The atmosphere is casual.
Frankly, I find it one of the more interesting restaurants in the Twin Cities for any level of Chowhound. Even though I wasn't as adventurous an eater when I went to Hamline (couple years in the early 90s) I would have loved to be taken here (as well as Mirror of Korea which is a good restaurant just off the south side of the Hamline campus).
I don't know...I think "human fresh-like injera" isn't appreciably different from eating a crepe or a spongy pancake. It's not like it has any distinctive flavor or objectionable texture. It isn't exactly lutefisk or foie gras.
Besides, the injera isn't necessarily the star of Ethiopian food. You could conceivably skip eating it entirely and it wouldn't make THAT much difference in the context of the entire meal. I love it (as part of the food, but also the manner in which it's eaten), but it's not mandatory.
If they are the kind of gals who like to have good conversation and can hear themselves talk, these are all very cozy, intimate places with pretty straight-forward food.
Joan's in the Park in St. Paul? http://www.joansinthepark.com/
Signature Cafe (though, I'll admit, it's been awhile since I've been there)
Cafe Levain (another place I haven't been to in a million years)
On the less cozy side, I think Spoonriver in Minneapolis is a lovely spot for a group of women:
Even less cozy, but way more acclaimed, Bar La Grassa:
re: The Dairy Queen
+1 on Bar La Grassa That was going to be my suggestion. It's got a bit of a hipster vibe that 20-year-olds would love. It can be a little loud, but I think it'd totally be up their alley and somewhere a poor college student probably afford on their own, whereas they could probably afford Fasika and other University places. Not saying Fasika is bad - just probably not right for this.
The other place I'd recommend is the newly opened Borough which is really close to Bar La Grassa. You can see my review of it on here. Total hipster vibe, again that 20-year-olds would love. Some pretty straightforward food, but some stuff that would let them venture out a bit if they wanted to and totally doable for 3 people at $200.
re: The Dairy Queen
I also like the Bar La Grassa idea. I was also thinking Meritage in downtown St. Paul would be fun (and would be easy to keep in the budget for 3 people - for a party of 4 it could be done without too much trouble, but would require a little more careful ordering). My 20 year old self would have liked these as a girls night out just as much as I do now...
re: The Dairy Queen
+1 on Cafe Levain. Haven't been to Joan's in the Park yet, though heard great things.
also +1 on Bar La Grassa. Great food, enough on menu for both mainstream and those that want to try something a bit different. The only possible quibble is that it can get a bit loud (very minor quibble given the quality of the food), but might not matter for 20 y.o.
Perhaps along the same line of BLG hippness (but not acclaim) would be Masu Sushi and Robata (http://masusushiandrobata.com/). I don't think it's "wierd or challenging", though it's outside the standard Western style food. The ramen are excellent, the robata is great. There are enough choices on the menu that will satisfy mainstream tastes, and enough choices if those tastes want to wander or be challenged a bit. It's a very hip setting that 20 y.o. women would enjoy (I think; it's a long time since I've been 20, and I'm not a woman). Can get loud, but might not be an issue for 20 y.o. It's also in a cool part of town, so depending on the time of dinner, there good be some shopping involved (even if only window shopping) at some of the shops on the block.
I think Bar la Grassa is a great rec. I'd also recommend Zelo. Not the same league as BLG, but still really good and nice atmosphere.
Lurcat or Cafe Maude would be a couple other choices. Lurcat is a little fancier, but not stuffy. Great food at both and I love the view of Loring Park.