To an infrequent visitor, the streets of downtown Minneapolis can seem cold and sterile. Where any other city’s core would be filled with the bustle of crowds on the sidewalks and in the crosswalks, Minneapolis’ downtown looks suspiciously like the set of “I Am Legend.” This, we contend, is simply because the casual visitor does not yet know how to walk the downtown skyways.
Inside the skyways are a multitude of shops, restaurants, and, most of all, people—downtown workers (and residents) going about their day with all the energy one expects of the downtown zone of a major American city. Originally developed by architect Leslie Park in the 1950s, the skyways were designed as a means of competing with suburban corporate sprawl (General Mills had just moved its headquarters to Golden Valley) and suburban commercial sprawl (Southdale Center had just opened in Edina). The skyways were also meant to connect downtown buildings to their neighbors without anyone having to face the brutal Minnesota winter (or indeed the brief but still uncomfortable height of the Minnesota summer). Soon enough, they grew into a sprawling patchwork network allowing one to walk from 100 Washington Avenue on the northeast end of downtown to the Convention Center in the southwest corner—a mile-long expanse able to be traversed without ever touching the ground.
The skyways are a world unto themselves, and in that world, people must—of course—eat. There are many excellent dining options to be found in the skyways, primarily for lunch. But the wayfinding is poor and it’s often difficult to figure out how to get from one building to the next, much less getting two or three buildings down. This challenge makes it forgivable (but still sad) for folks to line up for a mega-chain burrito, even when there’s an amazing taqueria a couple buildings over.
While we like the subway-in-the-sky-style map provided at random intersections that emphasizes relationships between buildings and clear pathways over strict adherence to scale and direction, ultimately the only way to learn to walk the skyways is to knuckle down and explore them until their strange logic is ingrained in your subconscious. While you’re learning, look to this guide to help you seek out these worthy destinations for new, tastier lunch options.
The famous “triangle of expectations” dictates that any given thing can be fast, good, or cheap, but not all three. Sushi Takatsu in the Baker Center somehow defies expectations. Takatsu offers standard lunchtime sushi fare such as Spicy Tuna Rolls ($6.25) and California Rolls ($5), as well as rectangular oshizushi (most varieties $6.25 or under), which has a slightly higher rice-to-fish ratio than nigiri and isn’t quite as pretty, but still scratches that nigiri itch.
The unsung hero of Takatsu is their rice and udon bowls. Our go-to, the Gyu-Meshi ($6), is thin-sliced beef and onions braised in sake and soy sauce served over rice with a side of pickled daikon and dressed with toasted sesame seeds. It is simultaneously deep and rich while being substantially lighter and fresher tasting than anything primarily made of beef and onion has a right to be.
Located in the Baker Center (733 S. Marquette Ave., on the orange and navy lines of the skyway map); 612-339-5981
Green + The Grain
“You don’t make friends with salad!”, goes Homer Simpson’s famous anti-vegetable cha-cha. If referring to the typical limp, one-note restaurant salad, that sentiment is understandable. However, an excellently crafted salad is a marvelous thing—something Green + The Grain understands deeply. The spectacle of watching a small army of salad makers assemble lunches in giant bowls out of massive bins of greens and deftly toss everything together with tongs makes for a delightful pre-lunch show. Don’t fret the lines: the Green + The Grain saladiers got us through in under seven minutes.
The last time we were there, we got the Apple + Pear ($9 for a small / $11 for a large) containing spinach, chicken, craisins, and blue cheese crumbles in addition to its title ingredients, and it was delightful. Now that winter has set in and cabbage season is in full swing, we recommend the Thai Beef ($11 for a small / $13 for a large), with napa cabbage, green onion, red pepper, pickled carrot, and fresh basil and cilantro.
Located in US Bank Plaza (200 S. 6th St., on the pink and black lines of the skyway map), Baker Center (733 Marquette Ave., on the orange and navy lines of the skyway map), the Oracle Center (900 2nd Ave. S., on the orange and black lines of the skyway map), and LaSalle Plaza (800 LaSalle Ave., on the red and burgundy lines of the skyway map); 612-341-9000
While some Minnesota food personalities might say that ubiquitous Chinese-American food is “horse****”, we say it scratches an itch that nothing else quite can. While having an admittedly silly name, Orient Express stands out from other skyway Chinese-American joints for both its skill in execution and its slightly left-of-center selections. Looking for a dish with some beef and broccoli as well as some shrimp with garlic, all with steamed rice? You can absolutely get a well-executed version of exactly that for $6.58 here.
If you want to go for something slightly different, we recommend the roasted duck, char siu bbq pork, or pork belly vermicelli salads ($11, $8, and $8 respectively). The salad is both fresh and filling, and the proteins are delicious and marvelously different than most selections at many Chinese-American skyway spots (or anywhere, honestly).
Located in 6 Quebec In the North Star Plaza (601 Marquette Ave., on the green and orange lines of the skyway map); 612-341-3313
Bếp Eatery is a Vietnamese lunch spot that offers little in the way of innovative cuisine, but does offer a wonderfully novel “duh, why didn’t I think of that” model of service. Diners select from a cold noodle salad bowl, a trio of oversized fresh spring rolls, a bowl with phở broth, or a bánh mì, and then add whichever proteins and fresh ingredients they desire. The proportions are perfect for a lunch-sized meal no matter which vessel one chooses. Want a tofu phở with pickled carrots? Go nuts! Want a shrimp bánh mì with pineapple and hoisin sauce? Why not? You do you!
We went with the Steak Phở with standard jalapeño, sprouts, Thai basil, sweet onions, and green onions ($8.80), because sometimes we’re basic. It was perfect for warming up on a cold winter day, offering just enough soup to be deeply satisfying but not so much to feel bloated and unable to go back to work.
Located in Fifth Street Towers (100 S. 5th St., on the orange line of the skyway map), 612-338-5189; and LaSalle Plaza (800 LaSalle Ave., on the red and burgundy lines of the skyway map), 612-338-2000
The Brothers Deli
There are a number of small factors that differentiate a regular old sandwich shop from a real, true blue, New York-style delicatessen, and The Brothers Deli nails every last one of them. While having an impressively massive sandwich menu is important, it is equally important that those in the know only get Sid Hartman’s Favorite Sandwich (pastrami on rye, $5.50 for a half sandwich / $8.50 for a large sandwich / $12 for “New York” style with double the pastrami). Best enjoyed on the spot with any one of the four different kinds of mustard available at every table. The house-made potato chips are delicious, but largely unnecessary as each sandwich includes all the pickled beets, potato salad, pickled herring, dill spears, and bread pudding one could want (or handle).
Located at 50 S. 6th St. (on the burgundy and pink lines of the skyway map); 612-341-8007
Fusion cuisine is often silliness that’s pursued for novelty’s sake. A plate of cheese grits with shrimp might taste different with the addition of Sichuan peppercorns, but is it really better? One of the few instances of fusion that actually resulted in something greater than the sum of its parts was when Angelino chef Roy Choi started selling Korean Tacos out of his food trucks 10 years ago. Sadly, no Roy Choi trucks have yet parked on Marquette Avenue during the lunch hour, but we do have Vellee. While the Korean BBQ Burrito ($10.25) commits the cardinal sin of putting lettuce on a burrito, it makes up for it with the deep umami bomb of well-executed Korean-style short ribs, paired with the tart funk of kimchi and the deep roasty flavors of salsa roja. The BPT Tacos ($7.50) offer the perfect balance of rich and fatty, tart and crisp with grilled pork with aioli and do chua pickles and slaw. Vellee also serves both the Minnesota spice-phobic and spice fiends by spicing everything to order, allowing this writer who practically guzzles hot sauce and his “ketchup is spicy” coworkers to share a meal.
Located in the Baker Center (733 Marquette Ave., on the orange and navy lines of the skyway map); 612-236-4856
Among a host of skyway pizza options, Andrea Pizza stands out. The cheese is plentiful but not so plentiful that it gets too gooey and fatty. There’s just enough sauce to bring some acid and sweetness without making the slice soggy. The crust has just enough give to impart that pizza floppiness but still be perfectly crisp on the underside. The toppings are available in either standard New York slice permutations (pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, peppers, sausage, or some combination of the above) as well as some beautiful nonsense style varieties (gyro, mac ’n cheese, taco). Get a slice ($3.60 for cheese / $4.05 topped) and, even though there is ample seating, we recommend eating it while walking back to one’s office while listening to the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack for a quick New York City vacation.
Located at Capella Tower (225 S. 6th St., on the green and black lines of the skyway map) and LaSalle Plaza (800 LaSalle Ave., on the red and burgundy lines of the skyway map); 612-630-2882
Christmas is just behind us, and it might be tempting to write off January as no longer being prime tamale season. We, however, believe that much like the spirit of generosity and goodwill, tamales transcend Navidad. We especially recommend the chicken Oaxaca-style tamales at La Loma ($3.75 for a tamale / $8.75 for a platter), oversized, flavored with chile verde, and wrapped in a banana leaf rather than the standard corn husk, which is pungent, deeply savory, perfectly moist, and just a tiny bit spicy. All the tamales are delicious (and half-price on Tuesdays!), and if you don’t like tamales for some reason, their enchilada platters, burritos, and quesadillas (all $9) are marvelous as well.
Located in North Star Plaza (608 2nd Ave. S., ground floor level, on the green and orange lines of the skyway map)
Bogart’s Doughnut Co.
While in no way a lunch spot, Bogart’s Doughnut Co. is still noteworthy and worth seeking out. The selection is limited (four different kinds of cake doughnuts, three different raised doughnut rings, and two filled raised doughnuts) if you’re used to the cornucopia of selections that is Glam Doll, and a little pricey ($2.25‒$3.50) if you’re used to the bargain that is A Baker’s Wife. To these objections we counter that there is no such thing as a bad doughnut at Bogart’s, and while pricier than some, the moment one bites into a pillowy brioche filled with real vanilla custard that’s the size of a child’s head, their worth becomes immediately evident. If you’re not picky about when you eat your donut (we contend there is no bad time for donuts), take advantage of the buy-one-get-one afternoon deal: bring a friend or five for a post-lunch doughnut pick-me-up, or perhaps save one for a happy hour snack.
Located in IDS Tower (80 S. 8th St., on the navy and blue lines of the skyway map); 612-259-7700