Food before food: The best restaurants for appetizers

Food before food, Twin Cities Agenda
photo by Adrian Daniel Schramm

Appetizers don’t get a whole lot of love in the food world, and many restaurants often forego calling it an appetizer list altogether. But championed by funnyman Aziz Anzari in “Parks and Rec” when his first question when going out to dinner is, “Can we order apps and zerts?” a great app should never go unnoticed.

Still, it wasn’t until talking with friend and colleague Shawn LaBrasseur of the growing Social Reserve podcast when he asked, “So what restaurants have the best appetizers?” that realized I hadn’t really thought about it.

“I’m not talking about tapas,” he said, “but I do want it to be the top of the menu.”


But it’s true. Sometimes you’re just looking for a few things to snack on while you enjoy a cocktail or glass of beer with friends. Sometimes you’re just looking for a better way to start a meal. Sometimes you’re not looking for bougie “small plates” and just want that excellent basket of fries, loaded nachos, wontons, quesadillas, wings, or any creative variation thereof.

So here they are: The best appetizers in the Twin Cities.

Keep it casual

The Bulldog
237 6th St E
St Paul, MN 55101
(651) 221-0750

There are three places, downtown Minneapolis, Northeast Minneapolis, and Lowertown St. Paul, where you can enjoy these apps until 1 a.m. Not only a great way to soak up selections from the massive beer list before heading home, the excellent tater tots and fries, cheese curds (including a bacon/jalapeno variety), wings, sliders, poutine, deviled eggs, and the sadly-no-longer-on-the-menu battered green beans, have helped redefine greasy, awesome late-night pub food. You’re not going to win any points with your trainer eating these after midnight, but when it’s done like this it’s near impossible to say no.

The Lowbrow
4244 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55409
(612) 208-0720

The munchies at this Kingfield restaurant are sure to make even the most jaded diner smile. Here to remind us that good food can also be fun, the “real jalapeno poppers” are a must, served with a buttermilk sauce, and the bison chili-cheese fries are that dirty-delicious snack you won’t be able to get enough of. Even vegans need not be afraid here, as there is plenty on the menu that is animal-free as well. From tofu tacos topped with guacamole, to fried tofu that proves that it doesn’t have to be animal to be savory and delicious, as well as a hummus platter and, of course, more than decent fries, there’s a little something here for everyone.

Ward 6
858 Payne Ave
St Paul, MN 55130
(651) 348-8181

Every neighborhood should be so lucky as to have a pub like Ward 6. An offering of weekly-changing meatballs and daily-changing meat skewers are often the best thing the accompany your beer, and the Lahmacun, a Turkish flatbread with lamb, goat cheese, and arugula, manages to create something that seems so familiar and yet so new every time. The space in which to enjoy these snacks is great as well; located in a restored bar dating back to the 1880’s, it’s the kind of place that calls for a long evening of snacking and sipping with friends. This is the pub that spurred Payne Avenue’s recent resurgence as food district, with creative, upscale restaurant Tongue in Cheek, and Korean-inspired diner Cook opening soon thereafter.

Smack Shack
603 Washington Ave N
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 259-7288

It’s the lobster-iest app list in Minnesota, with lobster corn dogs and lobster guacamole to get you started before you order more lobster. Seafood in general is put on a pedestal here; oysters, crab cakes, and shrimp cocktail also dominate the list. If you’re really into seafood starters the Shack Tower gives you 12 oysters, 6 jumbo shrimp, 6 mussels, 6 clams, and a sea bass ceviche that is worth it alone. Come here to see how many different ways the ocean can be incorporated into an appetizer. For those who don’t love seafood, there are excellent fried green tomatoes and surprisingly great wings, and further options (like bacon mac and cheese) during happy hour.

The Sample Room
2124 Marshall St NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
(612) 789-0333

You look at the “starters” menu, which looks nice, if limited. And then your eyes continue to the charcuterie (excellent) and cheese (more excellent) listings, and realize you have everything you need to be happy. It should also be noted that vegetarians will also do quite well eating apps here, as you can find cauliflower fritters, Brussels sprouts, and a “daily veg” which will make even the most devout carnivore concede that sometimes veggies can be pretty awesome. And then happy hour. Oh, happy hour. That glorious time after lunch before dinner that seems to be a prerequisite at all Twin Cities’ bars and restaurants. Here you can get blue cheese and bacon nachos, pickle plates, and truffle bacon fat popcorn at low-low prices to go along with your glass of beer, wine, or cocktail.

Go upscale

Bar la Grassa
800 Washington Ave N
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 333-3837

No appetizer list would be complete without the very best antipasti, and Bar La Grassa just might be the very best in a metro teeming with Italian food. Other items on the menu can compete with the likes of Broder’s, Al Vento, or Monello with a dedication to pastas and Italian classics, but the chicken and foie gras polpettone, arancini with duck confit, and crudo make it the number one spot for those (sometimes) shareable starters called antipasti. There’s also an extensive menu of bruschetta, with soft eggs and lobster, marinated pork shoulder, pecorino fresco, and more that make for fantastic beginners as well.

Joan’s in the Park
631 Snelling Ave S
St Paul, MN 55116
(651) 690-3297

It’s a “best kept secret” kind of place in St. Paul’s Highland Park. It’s a tiny restaurant, sure, but they’re doing big things with food. During the summer, the beautiful patio adds a little extra space, and might be one of the better places to enjoy appetizers in St. Paul. This restaurant deserves recognition for its steak tartare (some of the best in the cities), short rib meat balls, and seasonal preparation of pork belly. This is the kind of hearty, flavorful, from-the-land food we love in Minnesota with the sophisticated preparation we associate with some of the best restaurants in the country. There are a few surprises on the app list as well, like poppy seed steamed buns with corned beef tongue, and crab toast that has a serious ghost chili kick.

112 Eatery
112 3rd St N
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 343-7696

On such a short list as this, it might be surprising to some to see two listings from Isaac Becker. But when they’re apps like this, it is impossible to leave them off. The duck terrine & rabbit pate is an appetizer we hope never leaves the menu, and the mussels in guajillo broth set a whole new standard for the seafood classic. The appetizer list in general is an exercise in both land and sea creatures used to create the perfect plate. Sometimes, though, simply indulging in the most basic human need for excellent cheese is necessary, and the fresh ricotta served with white truffle honey never disappoints: light as a cloud, rich but not indulgent, this might just be the perfect appetizer. Bonus: Both 112 and La Grassa serve late, so there’s no need to rush.

The Strip Club Meat & Fish
378 Maria Ave
St Paul, MN 55106
(651) 793-6247

Called “small shares” here, this is the type of restaurant where foregoing entrees to eat these not-always-so-small shares family-style is often the preferred route. Well, getting a steak, as their name implies, is also a must. But getting a group of friends together for apps and sips (this is also one of the best places for cocktails in St. Paul), is one of the better experiences you can have eating in the capital city. The menu changes often; the “meat on a stick” changes nightly and is always worth asking your server about. The foie gras prep is almost always perfect, and you can always find excellent fried veggies which satisfy like french fries but just might be even tastier. Right now, also go for the Tacos de Tinga, with duck confit and green tomato salsa, and the cheese truffles which compete with 112’s ricotta as the best cheese entry on this list.

But you’ll have to hurry: Strip Club is closing its doors for good in July, 2017.