Although it may appear otherwise, the Minneapolis skyway system hasn't been entirely overrun by fast-food chains. Here are a few indie-operated dining ideas, no winter coat required.
After 20 years of working nights and weekends in restaurant and nightclub kitchens, Bob (Torby) Torbenson decided it was time to make a change, one that involved daytime hours, skyway denizens and an uncomplicated eat-and-run product. Three months ago he launched Torby's Pizza, feeding whole pies and slices to downtowners during banker's hours. Now he and his bride can spend evenings together, and time-pressed office workers can enjoy the fruits of his labor.
The skyway system is no stranger to slice shops, but Torbenson's stands out for its chewy, gently singed crust and for its generously applied toppings. Order a slice of pepperoni and you get plenty of robust, thin-sliced salami covering a full-bodied tomato sauce and finished with just enough decent-quality cheese (produced by Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Grantsburg, Wis.) to make an impact.
The sausage actually has a spicy kick -- that doesn't happen all that often in Secondfloorland -- and the basil on the Margherita is fresh and plentiful. Prices are slightly higher than at some of Torbenson's competitors, but the adage of getting what you pay for holds true; this pizza is worth the extra pocket change. Quarters are tight, just a stand-up counter with a few stools, and service is definitely with a smile.Street food on the Mall
Alain Lenne also spent 2008 in a career-busting mode. After lending his charming presence to the dining rooms of others (A Rebours, cafe un deux trois, among others), the French ex-pat decided to become his own boss. Add one broom closet-size storefront, a pair of crêpe irons and a lot of sweat equity, and Lenne launched La Belle Crêpe.
Lenne and his polite crew turn out carefully filled crêpes to order, both savory (I like the smoked salmon-fennel-chèvre version at lunch and the salmon-dill-hollandaise at breakfast) and sweet (caramel-apple, Nutella-banana). Portions are more than hefty, basic prices fall in the $4 to $7 range -- not bad -- and if the uninspired surroundings aren't particularly uplifting, remember this: In no time at all we'll be enjoying Lenne's street-food handiwork in its intended venue, perched on the sidewalk, watching our corner of the world going by. I, for one, can't wait.Hell moves downstairs
Now firmly settled in its new location, Hell's Kitchen finally has the components it has been missing all these years: cocktails, dinner service, great looks and a skyway connection. But it lost something in translation: sunlight. I'll admit that it's a little tough to enjoy breakfast in the windowless basement formerly known as Rossi's, even one so handsomely tricked out.
That limitation aside, chef/co-owner Mitch Omer is rocking out the place, with the crowds to prove it. His lemon-ricotta hotcakes are as dreamy as ever, as is the wild rice-hazelnut-blueberry porridge, the scrambled eggs topped with poached lobster and salmon roe and the bizarre-sounding but entirely addictive toast made with a bison sausage-currant-walnut bread, all items from the restaurant's commendable breakfast-all-day pledge. Think what a better world this would be if others would take a similar pancakes-for-dinner oath.Getta cuppa
The coffee chains have a thing for downtown Minneapolis: Dunn Bros. has six locations, Starbucks counts nine and Caribou Coffee leads the pack with 13. But what about tea drinkers? Not so much, at least until Sandy Nelson recently stepped up and moved her Northern Lights Tea Co. from a low-profile address on St. Paul's Grand Avenue to a busy skyway berth between Macy's and the YMCA.
Unlike the aforementioned java joints, the Northern Lights isn't a linger-and-sip kind of spot. It's more of a low-key gift shop with a to-go counter, one that features almost 150 varieties of loose-leaf teas -- many in the organic/fair trade realm -- nicely stored in eye-catching stainless steel containers. Nelson chooses three daily specials and prices them at $2; all others go for $2.79. That's flirting with steep, no pun intended, but it's not outrageous given the inventory that Nelson is developing. Or the personal service. Nelson can talk tea ("I'm such a tea nut," she told me), and that enthusiasm goes a long way toward fostering a tea habit among the skywayscenti.Don't forget
A number of the city's top chefs labor within skyway connectivity, including Jack Riebel at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant (1010 Nicollet Mall, 612-332-1010, dakotacooks.com) and Stephen Trojahn and Hakan Lundberg at Cosmos (601 1st Av. N., 312-1168, cosmosrestaurant.com). For a fast and satisfying sweet, I often find myself mulling over the dozen choices in the scoop case at the Izzy's Ice Cream counter at Macy's (700 Nicollet Mall, 612-375-2200, izzysicecream.com), although who am I kidding? It's a jumbo serving of Coffee Break (coffee ice cream with crushed Oreos), every time.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757