Life’s a beach, they say in summer, and when you’re hungry, life’s a patio.
Minnesotans have discovered what people in warmer climes have known for centuries: Food always tastes better outdoors, and that’s just as true at a restaurant as it is at home, gathered around the family Weber. And drinking is more fun in the open air, too.
Some inventions have come along to make it more comfortable here — propane space heaters, high-tech bug zappers and restaurant walls that open like garage doors, for example. Climate change hasn’t hurt, either; the al fresco dining season is longer now than it used to be.
Before summer gets too far along, a quick review of the best restaurant patios in the area is in order, so here are the Four Stars of Restaurant Patios, where excellent food and refreshing drinks are served en plein air with lots of sun, style and people-watching.
Two patios top just about any fresh-air diner’s list: Zzest Cafe and Bar, which also has the patio with the best view in Rochester, and Twig’s Tavern and Grill, the eclectic restaurant at the Centerstone Plaza Hotel, which has lavish landscaping and a babbling brook. (FYI, the Centerstone Plaza also scored one of the more distinctive URLs in Rochester — they’re at www.soldiersfield.com.)
Zzest has been through some big changes this year, with its gourmet market moving downtown to the First Avenue Food Court. Some may miss the foodie atmosphere and convenience of the market, but the trade off is more tables, people and energy. In summer, though, the patio is where it’s at, and owner LeeAnn Zubay and her team have rigged it up to work in just about any weather, with a roof that slides out when it rains.
Last Saturday, the weather couldn’t have been more mellow and the patio was at its best. The view to the south, through some trees and gardens, is of the South Fork Zumbro River and the low dam that controls the flow through downtown. Pull up a wicker chair on the grass, sip a cool beverage and enjoy the view; even after with the giant new Waters on Mayowood seniors community across the river, it remains a slice of unexpected natural beauty tucked into the city.
Zzest, as always, has one of the most varied and interesting menus around, with a Four Stars-winning cheese and charcuterie board — two dozen cheeses from around the world and a half-dozen meats — wood-fired pizza and entrees ranging from wild boar loin to house-made fettuccine.
The cafe recently won an Open Table award as one of the top 100 best al fresco dining restaurants in the nation. They just squeaked in as No. 100 on the list, which is based on online reviews posted at Opentable.com. That’s quite an accomplishment and puts Zzest in good company with No. 1 patio restaurant 208 Rodeo in Beverly Hills and 98 others in much sunnier places than Rochester.
Twigs is a favorite happy hour patio for a lot of downtown workers, with loungy areas around the fire pit, elaborate gardens, and lots of small plates to choose from. The service on the patio is always good — that can sometimes be issues on patios and decks — and Twigs also has one of more imaginative menus in town, with “hot rock” cooking one of its trademarks, plus all the gluten-free options.
For unadulterated beauty, you won’t do better in our area than the deck at Nosh in Lake City, which overlooks the marina’s forest of sailboat masts, Lake Pepin and the golden-at-dusk Wisconsin shore. For some reason, the sky seems bigger over Pepin, the clouds and twilight are more spectacular — maybe it’s helped along by the extraordinary food and wine list at Nosh.
For the fourth and final pick, there are so many good places with comparable assets — the Loop and the other First Avenue hotspots with sidewalk tables, Chester’s and all the options on the Peace Plaza, the spacious patio at Whistle Binkies on the Lake, with its excellent view of the pond and volleyball courts, the new Broadway buzz at Terza, and the historic depot platform at El Loro, the Mexican restaurant on Fourth Street.
But my favorite for now? The sidewalk tables at Grand Rounds Brewing Co. along Historic Third. If you’re looking for zeitgeist in Rochester, this is it. The food (including the edamame and beet salad), the locally made brews, the informality and randomness of the tables at one of Rochester’s liveliest corners, the birds in the trees, the people-watching — it’s tough to beat.
FOUR STARS OF RESTAURANT PATIOS
Zzest Cafe and Bar
1190 16th St. SW, Rochester
Twigs Tavern and Grill
Centerstone Plaza Hotel, Rochester
Nosh Restaurant & Bar
310 1/2 Washington St. S, Lake City
Grand Rounds Brewing Co.
4 Third St. S.W., Rochester