Q: We’re on the lookout for a downtown Minneapolis happy hour, with an emphasis on inexpensive. Thoughts?

A: My first one goes to Il Foro (36 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-238-2300, il-foro.com), where chef Joe Rolle cranks out a half-dozen $3 to $5 snacks (don’t miss the meatball sliders, or the insanely addictive garlicky cheese toast) and the bar pours $5 Negronis. Another draw is, of course, the giddy art deco interior, a priceless treasure hidden in the bowels of cheerless City Center. Happy hour is available weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m.

A true bargain happens every Wednesday at McCormick & Schmick’s (800 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-338-3300, mccormickandschmicks.com). The bar always serves a whopper of a happy hour, but on Hump Day, diners can snack on $1 shrimp and $1 oysters. Plan ahead: This deal-of-deals runs from 5 to 6:30 p.m.


Q: A lot of restaurants offer those holiday gift card offers, where if you buy a certain amount you also receive a free bonus gift card. Are there any that really stand out?

A: Nearly all fall in the 20 to 25 percent range — you know, buy $100, get an extra $20 or $25 — and that’s a pretty sweet setup. There are dozens from which to choose.

Still, the one from newcomer Lela (5601 W. 78th St., Bloomington, 952-656-5980, lelarestaurant.com) is a real doozy. Purchase (through Dec. 26) a gift card valued at $100 or more and receive a complimentary one-night stay, sometime in 2016 (Thursday through Sunday, based upon availability), at the adjacent Sheraton Bloomington Hotel.


Q: Where can we dine and get into the Christmas spirit?

A: You might consider the Lake Elmo Inn (3442 Lake Elmo Av. N., Lake Elmo, 651-777-8495, lakeelmoinn.com), which hauls out enough holiday trimmings to decorate Southdale, Rosedale and Ridgedale combined. The bar has a fantastic tradition: Bring an ornament to hang from the ceiling — there are thousands of them — and you’ll get a free nonalcoholic beverage.

You might consider making a reservation for chef/owner John Schlitz’s annual Santa buffet brunch, set for Dec. 12 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. As with all LEI brunches, it’s going to be the spread to end all spreads, featuring freshly carved prime rib, fried chicken with mashed potatoes, shrimp cocktail, eggs Benedict, French toast, made-to-order omelets, bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, salads and more, plus the busy pastry kitchen’s caramel rolls and mini-desserts. Phew. Cost is $24.95 for adults, $16.95 for ages 3 to 11.

Or you could wear your decorations. Ever festive Jax Cafe (1928 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-7297, jaxcafe.com) is hosting what it’s billing as its first annual Ugly Holiday Sweater Party on Dec. 11, from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Twenty bucks buys appetizers and a pair of beers from Fulton Brewery, 612 Brew and/or Indeed Brewing Co.; there’s live music and contests (who will win the Ugliest Dressed Couple competition?), and the event benefits the Fighting Chances Boxing Club.


Q: Whether in restaurants or bars, the tax on alcoholic beverages seems to vary widely. Why?

A: It’s all based upon the Realtor axiom of “location, location, location.” In Minnesota, alcoholic beverages served in restaurants and bars are subject to the state’s general sales tax (6.875 percent) plus an additional 2.5 percent liquor gross receipts tax, plus any applicable local sales taxes.

In Hennepin County, that means an additional 0.15 percent tax that funds Target Field. Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties have an additional 0.25 percent transit tax. Minneapolis tacks on an additional 0.5 percent sales tax. And in downtown Minneapolis, there’s an additional 3 percent tax.


Q: In the old days (the 1950s) we (now 86 and 91 years old) would go to a nice restaurant, have a small filet, a baked potato with sour cream and a salad with blue cheese dressing for a reasonable sum, probably about $10 each. Is there anyplace in the Twin Cities area where we could get such a meal? Of course, we know the price would be about quadruple what we paid in those days.

A: Not surprisingly, it’s 69-year-old Murray’s (26 S. 6th St., Mpls., 612-339-0909, murraysrestaurant.com) to the rescue! The downtown Minneapolis classic offers a three-course early dinner special (available 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday) that includes a Caesar or mixed green salad, a sirloin steak or broiled salmon (with a choice of potato or vegetable) and dessert (bread pudding or creme brulee), for $30. The restaurant’s garlic toast is also included, gratis.

At value-conscious Lindey’s Prime Steak House (3600 N. Snelling Av., Arden Hills, 651-633-9813, theplaceforsteak.com), $31.95 buys a sirloin steak and family-style servings of salad, hash browns and garlic bread, all served in knotty-pined, lake cabin-style surroundings that appear charmingly unchanged since 1961.


Q: I love pancakes. Do you have a top five list?

A: Do I ever. I’ve been loving the thin, nutmeg-brown pancakes at tiny Al’s Breakfast (413 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-331-9991) since I was an undergraduate, most especially the Wally Blues, peppered with walnuts and blueberries. Be sure to ask for the real maple syrup; it’s worth the splurge.

Count me a fan of the light, tangy, yeast-driven Flappers at the Colossal Cafe (1340 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-414-0543; 2315 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-797-4027; 1839 E. 42nd St., Mpls., 612-729-2377; colossalcafe.com).

At Blackbird (3800 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-823-4790, blackbirdmpls.com), chef/co-owner Chris Stevens fully embraces the Swedish pancake thing, with winningly delicate, crepe-like results. Kudos to the finishing touches: ricotta and a colorful cranberry-blueberry compote.

Hell’s Kitchen (89 S. 10th St., Mpls., 612-332-4700, hellskitcheninc.com) is the place for light, elegant hot cakes enriched with whole-milk ricotta and lemon zest.

Those with pancakes-for-dinner cravings should head to neo-diner Nighthawks (3753 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-248-8111, nighthawksmpls.com), where chef/owner Landon Schoenefeld demonstrates his skill with (and affection for) buttermilk flapjacks, served straight-up with butter and maple syrup but also done up in all kinds of seemingly random (but utterly delicious) combinations, whether it’s lime-pineapple-coconut or pork-onions-kimchi.


Q: I follow your Burger Friday blog and was wondering if you’ve recently encountered any must-eats.

A: Plenty, including the sauerkraut-topped monster at Co-op Creamery Cafe (2601 E. Franklin Av., Mpls., 612-230-5575, coopcreamery.com) and the bacon-topped bison burger at Eastside (305 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-208-1638, eastsidempls.com); read all about them at startribune.com/tabletalk. But may I go back for a moment, and revisit a favorite from two years ago?

With Vincent (1100 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-630-1189, vincentarestaurant.com) closing at the end of the month, I highly encourage burger hounds to get in at least one final stab at chef/owner Vincent Francoual’s justifiably famous Vincent Burger. It’s kind of a high-class Jucy Lucy, a bruiser of a beef patty filled with slow-braised short ribs and smoked Gouda.

“This is the stuffed burger that all others are measured against,” I wrote in October 2013, and my opinion holds today. The fries — served with a side of the kitchen’s sublime béarnaise — are similarly fine. It’s $16 at lunch and dinner, but get this: during happy hour (4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday), it’s a steal at $8.


Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib