For the most part, Anthony Bourdain’s work is timeless: he explores themes of humanity, the power of travel to open our hearts and minds, and how food connects us all. The destinations differ, the show titles change, but the core tenets remain the same. Sometimes though, Tony’s commentary seems dated – especially considering his work now stretches back some two decades.
One such example is when looking back at the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Minneapolis. Bourdain visited Minneapolis twice: in season 2, episode 6 (2001) of A Cook’s Tour, and in season 6, episode 15 (2009) of No Reservations. At the time, he explored the larger of the two Twin Cities and commented on the rare but delightful opportunities to eat really well – the exceptions to greasy, fried Midwest Americana foods.
Today though, Minneapolis is an entirely different culinary scene. Many of the restaurants Tony visited during his two (filmed) trips to Minneapolis have come and gone, inspiring a new generation – a huge wave, really – of great chefs who’ve taken up the mantle to make Minneapolis, like many Midwest cities, a culinary destination in its own right.
Now, it’s hard to remember a time before you could get good food in the Twin Cities; learning where Bourdain ate in Minneapolis gives a peek into the time before the Foodie Era (which Tony himself helped usher in). Learn about those places – some long-closed, others still serving – visited by Anthony Bourdain in Minneapolis, and plan your own food adventures there.
Where Anthony Bourdain Ate in Minneapolis
Unfortunately, many of the places that Tony ate in Minneapolis are now closed – a testament to the 10-20 years it’s been since he visited these restaurants, and how hard it is for even great, well-reputed restaurants to stay open long-term.
Nevertheless, where I could find them, I searched out new restaurants where the chefs Bourdain met and dined with are cooking now and have noted those places below. It won’t be exactly the same as Tony’s experiences but can give you a flavor of the food that wowed him in Minneapolis – pun intended.
Note: I have listed these shows in the order shown on each episode, starting with A Cook’s Tour and ending with the Minneapolis segment of the U.S. Heartland episode of No Reservations.
1. Minnesota Picnic at the Mall of America (Closed)
Anthony Bourdain starts his visit to Minneapolis in possibly the greatest good-food desert in the Twin Cities (at the time, anyway – I know there are some better restaurants there now): The Mall of America.
Seeking “local” food, he settles on a fast-food joint called Minnesota Picnic and overloads on fatty, deep fried Cheese Curds and Pike on a Stick. Think of it as a sampling of Minnesota State Fair food, and it almost seems like a local food experience.
As far as I can tell, Minnesota Picnic is no longer open, though perhaps that’s for the best!
2. Vincent’s Restaurant (Closed)
Next, Tony visits Vincent’s Restaurant. It closed in 2015 after an impressive 14-year run, which means that Bourdain’s visit in the early 2000s put it on the map for foodies in the Twin Cities. There he tries Tripe Normandy and Gnocchi Parisienne with sauteed Porcini mushrooms and mushroom broth.
3. The Sample Room
Finally – a restaurant that’s still open today! Perhaps due to its wide appeal offering both Minnesota local-favorites and some more creative options, The Sample Room has stood the test of time, still serving 20 years after Bourdain’s visit.
In addition to trying the meatloaf and breaded walleye, Tony also sampled homemade sausage and mustard, as well as pâté and goat cheese.
4. Saigon Restaurant & Bakery*
We all know how much Anthony Bourdain loves Vietnam – he long said it was his favorite country. So is it any surprise that he sought out authentic Vietnamese food in Minneapolis? At Saigon Cafe, he enjoyed Vietnamese Coffee, Spring rolls with mint, rice, roast pork, and shrimp, and Beef Phở – all while opining about how immigrant communities often bring and make great authentic cuisines to help preserve their culture in a new country.
I tried to determine if Saigon Cafe was still open, as it seems like the kind of place that would consistently draw a loyal crowd, but there are no restaurants of its exact name and I’m uncertain if any of the others with similar names are this same restaurant.
*Note: As of July 2022, a reader (thanks, Maria!) has helped me identify this restaurant. While the original Saigon Restaurant & Bakery is closed, the same team has opened a new restaurant called iPho by Saigon in St. Paul. Enjoy!
5. Aquavit (Closed)
Looking back, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the wildly popular and three-Michelin-starred NYC restaurant Aquavit – which focused on Scandinavian dishes – might not land and last in Minneapolis, despite the state’s huge Scandinavian-born and -descended population. Minnesota is better known for its interpretation of Scandinavian (with a love for fresh fish and preserved foods) than the real thing.
Nevertheless, Bourdain visited Aquavit halfway through the restaurant’s four-year run, and tried a menu sampling of smoked salmon, cured salmon, beef brisket & horseradish, bourbon garlic herring, fried Baltic herring. He also tried a number of different styles of the restaurant’s namesake spirit, and a delicious cocktail of Aquavit, champagne, and ginger that I’m keen to try making at home.
6. Piccolo (Closed)
Up until this point, I’ve only shared the restaurants Tony visited during A Cook’s Tour; he visited this final restaurant sometime in the subsequent eight years while book touring across America. (The U.S. Heartland episode in Season 6 of No Reservations was an amalgam of several cities: Ann Arbor, Austin, Columbus, Denver, and Milwaukee were also featured.)
However, Bourdain claims that on this visit, he had the best meal in the entire region at Piccolo. There he tried Parmesan envelope pasta with scrambled duck eggs and pickled pigs feet; rabbit summer sausage with smoked celery, ramp, and mustard; tripe ragu with kale and fried polenta; lamb belly and liver with homemade pinecone syrup with radishes and arugula; and homemade ricotta panna cotta with rhubarb. It seriously sounds like an incredible dining experience but unfortunately closed in 2017.
Luckily, head chef Doug Flicker has kept busy, and now works at both Sandcastle and Bull’s Horn as well as running Yami Ichi Ghost Kitchen which makes take-away ramen bowls you can enjoy at home (which undoubtedly did well during the pandemic!).
While most of the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Minneapolis are closed now, there are surely some new great places he’d probably love! Let me know where you’d recommend in the comments, as well as any questions you have about these places.