While it’s hardly a definitive reckoning, here are 10 independently owned reasons — from Elk River to Crystal and points in between — to look (and eat) beyond the chains that dominate the northwest suburban dining landscape.
Surrounded by a mind-numbing selection of corporate names and on the edge of what once was Brookdale Mall, the 50’s Grill stands out not only for its indie status but also because owners Jack and Lynn Schubert embrace what so few restaurants in the area do: namely, a cooking-from-scratch mentality. Blue plate-style dinners are the draw, served in truck stop-esque portions, including a terrific chicken pot pie and a rib-sticking hot turkey sandwich. The burgers are similarly first-rate, as are the thick malts, which arrive at the table in a frosty can. The busy bakery turns out all manner of sweets, most notably an impressive selection of gorgeous lattice-top fruit pies and lavish cream pies. No wonder the restaurant has prospered for more than a quarter-century.
5524 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Center, 763-560-4947, www.50sgrill.com
A Peruvian gem
Ceviche palace Uchu, a Peruvian gem, has to be one of the 763’s best-kept dining-out secrets. Chef/owner Jorge Armando Sarmiento and his family are hospitable to the nth degree, and the pretense-free menu is a treat, whether he’s demonstrating his mastery for slow-cooked beans (well-seasoned perfection), mussels (garnished with tender corn and a splash of lime), ceviche (preparing it four exciting ways) or shrimp smothered in a richly savory pepper sauce. Sarmiento’s triumph is a stunner of a rice-shrimp stew crowned by a dainty crayfish. It’s a meal for two, and at $15 it’s a spot-on example of how he deftly melds originality, skill and value.
4130 Berkshire Lane N., Plymouth, 763-577-3744, www.uchuperu.com
Maple Grove residents should thank their lucky etoiles that Frenchman Arnaud de Rambures chose their fair municipality to create the initial iteration of Chez Arnaud, the smile-inducing bakery that now sports three metro-area locations. Half the fun of dropping in on this sunny strip-mall shop is watching the pastry crew hard at work (baking in French-made ovens, naturellement) behind a long stretch of show-and-tell windows. The other half? Why, eating, of course, through a belt-bursting array that includes divinely buttery pain au chocolat, eye-catching tarts, delicate charlottes, color-soaked almond macaroons, decadent cream-filled éclairs and mouth-melting meringues. There’s also a pleasant selection of breads, which serve as a base for a host of grab-and-go sandwiches that put Subway and its ilk to shame.
13332 Bass Lake Road, Maple Grove, 763-568-7756, www.myfrenchbakery.net
Sometimes it seems as if half of New Hope has crowded into Fat Nat’s Eggs for breakfast, which is all about short-order cooking, minus the shortcuts. Whether it’s the velvety Hollandaise (there are six Benedicts), the salsas (the verde is two-alarm hot), the slow-roasted pulled pork (fall-apart tender) or the sausage gravy (hearty and flavorful), each monster portion tastes fresh and vibrant, a far cry from so many straight-from-the-freezer breakfast joints. And yes, there is a Nat. He’s owner Jeff Nat, “although he’s lost a ton of weight,” noted my faster-than-lightning server. When Nat chose to expand — his business, not his waistline — he kept true to his north-metro roots, opening similarly popular outposts in Brooklyn Park and St. Anthony. Lunch, too.
3540 Winnetka Av. N., New Hope, 763-540-0234; 8587 Edinburgh Centre Dr., Brooklyn Park, 763-425-0117; and 2700 39th Av. NE., St. Anthony, 612-545-5764, www.fatnatseggs.com
Add two Parasole vets (owner Michael Larson, chef Jeff Anderson), the sprawling footprint of a former sports bar and a clientele hungry for something new and different and the happy results are Eat Shop Kitchen & Bar. Instead of making the trek to Uptown, western suburbanites can stay close to home for their dose of an eclectic, covers-the-bases menu that swings from an excellent slaw-topped pork sandwich and clever swordfish tacos to rigatoni tossed with tender duck confit, earthy mushrooms and plenty of sage and polenta topped with sauteed greens and a poached egg. Three other pluses: The bar knows what it’s doing, the patio is a looker and weekend brunch is a treat.
16605 Cty. Rd. 24 (Hwy. 55), Plymouth, 763-270-5929, www.theeatshop.com
The three words that will forever be associated with Valley Pastries are raised glazed doughnuts. Because they’ve been in the business since for more than a half century, including 27 years at their present location — owners Judy and Bernie Postuma clearly know what they’re doing, but they really excel at their tender, airy, high-rising yeasted doughnuts, coated in a thick, wonderfully sticky, yes, finger-licking-good glaze. As for the apple fritters? In a word, awesome. Here’s how ultra-fresh the Postema’s doughnuts are: The shop closes for the day at 11 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. — yes, that’s nine o’clock — on Sunday.
2570 Hillsboro Av. N., Golden Valley, 763-541-1535
Thank you, Francine Weber, for demonstrating that the cozy drop-in destination that thrives all over both Minneapolis and St. Paul can also find an audience in suburban ZIP codes. Her Milton’s is exactly the kind of newcomer we all hope would move into the neighborhood, a great-looking and uncomplicated place to gather over a lengthy beer selection and a mountainous plate of pulled pork-topped nachos or meaty chicken wings. Weber wisely sticks to what she knows best, which means her modest, value-priced menu also features a well-embellished burger, appealing salads, a fine rendition of jerk chicken, a homey mac-and-cheese and just-like-Mom-bakes Bundt cakes. Oh, and the nicest people, truly, many of whom are members of Weber’s extended family.
3545 Douglas Dr. N., Crystal, 763-535-9373
Main Street standout
At Nectar, chef/owner Kevin Nordeen squeezes a lot into an oddball assortment of storefront spaces, including a romantic slip of a bar and a pair of dining rooms. His brief, changes-frequently menu is also a reliable haven for locals in search of creative, well-prepared fare, perhaps a Creole take on double-cut pork chops, Greek-inspired grilled lamb or grilled trout with pleasing Asian accents. Oh, and the intoxicatingly fragrant spice shop in the same building? It’s Ethnic Foods Co. (763-593-3000, www.ethnicfoodsco.com), stocked floor to ceiling with an around-the-world selection of spices (including many house-mixed blends), herbs, grains, lentils and condiments.
204 Central Av., Osseo, 763-657-7231, www.nectarbistro.com
For their first foray into the suburbs — OK, the second, but does 50th and France in Edina really count? — the ever-expanding Blue Plate Restaurant Co. really got it right when it turned its considerable talents to over-chained Maple Grove and came up with 3 Squares. The restaurant follows the breakfast-lunch-dinner formula without feeling formulaic. Yes, the menu covers the basics, but does it with an anti-Perkins twist, enthusiastically jumping into the offbeat with such memorable items as a walleye-shrimp cake Benedict, a fantastic turkey burger and Cheddar-stuffed pierogies finished with a blazing horseradish garnish. The roomy patio is reason enough to become a regular, along with the full bar and its 20 tap beers.
12690 Arbor Lakes Pkwy., Maple Grove, 763-425-3330, www.3squaresrestaurant.com