Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My trip to the Twin Cities

I'm back from my weekend in the Twin Cities - lots of good food, good sightseeing, good theatre and of course, good friends. I met new people, got my first look at the Mississippi River, toured a restaurant kitchen and - I know this sounds hard to believe - walked a dog for the very first time in my life. In fact, at one point, I was walking two dogs!

I've always been partial to cities. Sure, the suburbs and the country have their attractions. I've been to many places with great natural beauty - the Scottish highlands and Yorkshire dales, Yosemite National Park and Sedona, Arizona. I've enjoyed all of them and there's lots more I'd love to see. But when it comes to travel, exploring a new city is at the top of my favorite things.

As I wrote last week, I haven't really spent much time in the Midwest and I've always wanted to see more of it. Here's a little bit of what I learned and saw during my whirlwind weekend in Minneapolis-St. Paul, thanks to my two wonderful tour guides.

It's pretty big - 3.2 million people live in the metropolitan area, which includes part of Wisconsin - and kind of flat. Also, despite the state's motto, there are apparently more than 10,000 lakes. And despite the Twin Cities nickname, Minneapolis and St. Paul have very different histories and cultures. Here's an interesting article that delves into the sibling rivalry between the two cities.

As a history buff, what I found really fascinating is that St. Paul is considered the last city of the East and Minneapolis the first city of the West. It's based in part on architecture - St. Paul's narrow streets and Victorian houses, versus the more modern look of Minneapolis. While St. Paul grew up haphazardly from its start as a fur-trading post known as Pig's Eye, Minneapolis was a planned city from the start whose base was in industry - lumber and flour mills.

And Minneapolis seems like a very livable city. It's big enough so that there's a lot to do but not so big that you constantly feel crowded. It's clean, it has some great restaurants, a big but walkable downtown with enclosed walkways for those bitterly cold winter months, lots of cultural attractions, green spaces and diverse neighborhoods. (I saw 2 of the 10,000 lakes - Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun).

Downtowns in America have been pretty beaten up over the past 25 years or so, with department stores closing and manufacturing folding up shop and residents leaving for the suburbs. Like a lot of cities, older buildings in Minneapolis are being renovated and turned into hotels and condos, breathing new life into downtown. And I think it's great that the new stadium for the Minnesota Twins is being built downtown.

I had to take in some sights from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I saw the 8-foot bronze statue erected in 2002 at the spot on downtown's Nicollet Mall where Mary tossed her tam into the air in the opening credits. Mary Tyler Moore appeared at the dedication, where the crowd sang the show's theme song and had a group tam toss. And we drove by the house whose exterior was used for Mary's apartment. I didn't recognize it at first, because it's been repainted. It's a private home, at 2104 Kenwood Parkway, located on a quiet, leafy street in a very nice residential neighborhood. Now when I pop in a dvd from the tv series, I can say, "I've been there!"

We also stopped in Uptown to pick up a cake at the Twin Cities' famous Wuollet Bakery. (It was delicious!) From what I saw, it seems like a great neighborhood for browsing and strolling on a weekend, with a mix of quirky local shops, some national chains, ethnic restaurants, a movie theatre and a big bookstore. And the sign for the underground Walker Library, whose location is marked by large metal letters that spell out L-I-B-R-A-R-Y, made me smile.

And this was a total surprise for me - we went to Lakewood Cemetery, where I had a chance to visit the grave of one of Minneapolis' favorite sons, former vice president and senator Hubert H. Humphrey. I met Senator Humphrey in 1976, when I was a high school student on my first trip to Washington, D.C. I still remember how gracious he was in calling me by my first name (I was wearing my name tag from the Close Up program) and introducing me to his wife, Muriel. I'm glad that I had a chance to pay my respects and I'm glad I have a very thoughtful friend who knew how much it would mean to me.

I was also very excited about seeing the Mississippi River for the first time. The Guthrie Theater's cantilevered lobby, known as the Endless Bridge, offers a terrific view of the river and the old flour mills that once drove the city's economy. From its northern end the river seems so peaceful and calm. Hard to believe it's the same body of water that can lead to so much death and destruction at its southern end during hurricane season.

And the Guthrie itself, which opened in its new location overlooking the river in 2006, is beautiful. I saw Little House on the Prairie in the McGuire Proscenium Stage - the interior is draped in a deep red, with plush comfy seats and good sight lines and acoustics. I like the fact that it's a multipurpose building - you can see a show, (and there's often more than one going on at the same time) take a class or a tour, eat in the restaurants or just enjoy the view.

Food is a key element of a visit to any new city, and I had some great meals. Plus, Minneapolis and St. Paul have some of the friendliest, most engaging and talkative waiters I've ever met. In fact, one waiter spent so much time talking to us, I was certain my dining companions knew him. And another arranged a tour of the kitchen, which was a first for me!

On Friday night, we dined in St. Paul, which still had a few signs as reminders that the Republican National Convention had been there. We ate at Pazzaluna, where I had the house specialty gnocchi, with a tomato basil sauce, which went very nicely with some Banfi Chianti. I also got a lesson in the correct pronunciation of the tasty little potato dumplings. Believe me, I was in carbohydrate heaven.

On Saturday night, we ate at the 112 Eatery in Minneapolis, which got a nice mention last month in The New York Times. The restaurant is small and cozy, with a kind of old fashioned bar and grill feel. I had roasted halibut with marinated tomatoes. If you're not careful, white fish can come out a bit rubbery, but this was perfect - moist and tender and flaky. Accompanied by a bottle of Argentinian wine, bibb lettuce salad, spicy broccolini, cauliflower fritters and great conversation, it was a memorable meal.

Then for Sunday brunch, we went to Manny's Steak House, newly relocated at a new hotel, the W Minneapolis - The Foshay. Of course I had my favorite brunch beverage - a refreshing and sparkling mimosa, along with French toast with blueberries and part of a huge piece of chocolate brownie cake topped with whipped cream and ice cream - it truly was a sight to behold.

The hotel is in the 32-story art deco Foshay Tower, built by utilities magnate Wilbur Foshay in 1929 and modeled after the Washington Monument. It was a big deal when it opened - John Philip Sousa was commissioned to compose a march for the occasion. I'd never heard of the building, or Wilbur Foshay, but a small museum takes you through his career and the building's history. Plus, there's a great view from the open-air observation deck.

Of course, there was one final stop I had to make on my way to the airport - the Mall of America in suburban Bloomington. It's the most visited shopping mall in the world, with more than 40 million visitors every year to its 2.5 million square feet of retail space. Who am I to argue with that!

I only saw a small portion - it would take hours to walk through the entire place. The Mall of America has many of the same stores as any other enclosed shopping center - just more of them. It's like a mall on steroids. It's also the only mall I've been in that has its own amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel and roller coaster, an aquarium and a miniature golf course.

So, would I go back to Minnesota? You betcha!


Amanda said...

I'm glad you had a fun time. Jason and i got to visit the twin cities once when we lived in Wisconsin. We made the drive up in March of 2002 with our then-17-month old son. I was 5 months pregnant. We only got to stay over the weekend,but we noticed a lot fo the same things you mention, particularly about the friendliness in the restaurants. We actually had a really funny incident in one. We'd decided to get Russian food, and looked for an authetic place. When we finally found it, we walked in and realized we were in way over our heads. Everyone there spoke Russian and knew each other, and we were the weirdos who sat in the corner with our baby dancing to the Russian pop music. I think they might have been having a wedding rehearsal celebration going on, except the restaurant was still open to the public. Despite the fact that everyone was giving us weird looks, the waitress was really nice, and asked us where we were staying while in town. We told her, and she said her sister-in-law worked there. It was like everyone knew everyone else, like a huge small town. I loved it up there.

Dan Kennedy said...

You're making me hungry!

Esther said...

Hey Dan,
Thanks for reading! We ate very well in some very great restaurants. But I think I burned off a few calories the couple times I went with my friend to walk the dogs.

Esther said...

Great story, Amanda. And I have to commend you and Jason for being so adventurous in your dining!

Vance said...

I fell in love with the city when I first visited and since then, I've had this secret inkling to just move there (thats how much I loved it)... now I just have to figure out what I could do there for work...

glad you enjoyed your visit too!

and yah. isn't that mall mega?

Erika said...

I enjoyed your write-up of your visit to our fair city. I'm glad you had a good time!

Esther said...

Vance, there's even rail service that runs directly between the mall and the airport, in case you want to fly in for a day of shopping. I'd read about the Mall of America for years, so it was great to finally see it. A man-made wonder! Although I think the West Edmonton mall is bigger, so you have us beat in Canada!

Esther said...

Hey Erika, thanks for the comment. I'm so glad you liked my write-up. And I had a wonderful time!

Coaster Punchman said...

It is a wonderful place, and I consider Minnesota my spiritual home. (I lived there between the ages of 18 and 26. Basically college + four years of early slacking/professional life.)

I am impressed with the detailed level of your exploration of the cities. If I paid that much attention to every new place I visited I'd probably be much smarter!

And I'm jealous; I never ate at Manny's. All the other eateries you mention are post-CP since I left in 1992.

Esther said...

Thanks for reading, Coaster Punchman. Maybe it's time to make a return visit to the Twin Cities. You can show Poor George all of your old haunts and some new ones! I haven't spent much time in the Midwest, so I really enjoyed it. Plus, my friends are wonderful and their two little dogs are such bundles of cuteness like you wouldn't believe! Oh, I could go on and on.