Dining in the trendy North Loop? Don’t overlook the places that got it all started.

Photo of the Sapor Cafe sign painted on their window with the reflection of North Loop warehouse buildings on the glass.
Photo of the Sapor Cafe sign painted on their window with the reflection of North Loop warehouse buildings on the glass.

Creating inspired comfort food and serving them in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. That’s Sapor in the North Loop’s Freespirit building.

Living in an emerging neighborhood has its culinary delights.  After settling into the North Loop for a little over a year, we’re sharing a short list of our favorite bites and sips. As the Loop fills with the newest and trendiest spots in the city, I find that I’m drawn to the amazing few that got everything started. These are NOT listed in order of preference, just in order of my thought process.

1. Bar La Grassa: A neighborhood institution, but I was certain there was no place that could replace my favorite St. Paul Selby Avenue hideaway, La Grolla, for quality Italian. Nestled in a cozy table near the window, John and I have enjoyed romantic meals watching the snow fall on Washington Avenue on bitter winter nights.  Best part? The waiter taught us how to split salad and pasta portions to make our dates more affordable, and keep our waistlines in check.

2. Sapor: As the Loop fills up with night life, sports and sushi bars, it’s becoming more difficult to find “adult friendly” dinning. (Adults over the age of 25 that is.) Sapor is relaxing, with fun and inventive food options like handcrafted hot dogs in the summer.  We never feel rushed to leave to make room for the next diner in line, and enjoy getting to know a wait staff who take the time to talk. Friends from our building love to take their two year old there because there’s room for her to move, and the staff is relaxed about kids. Sadly this favorite will be closing in June.

3. Dunn Brothers in the Dock Street Flats: This version of our local franchise has endured change as neighborhood institution and also a move from their former building (now Shinolo) to the new Dock Street Flats apartments across the street. The North Loop DB delivers a solid cup of Joe every time and a pretty darn good crafted espresso drink.  I made a surprising discovery a few weeks ago.  Pressed for time, and hopping between appointments, I stopped by and ordered their tomato basil soup and grilled cheese with bacon.  It was fresh, tasty and a far cry from the packaged sandwiches offered at chain coffee houses. This is now my destination for quick lunch meetings with clients and friends.

4. Freehouse: By the tone of this blog you can probably tell that my husband and I didn’t move to the North Loop to join in the

Free House dinning room with metal beer kegs used as ceiling fixtures and dinning tables set for service.

From breakfast to beer, Free House keeps us coming back for unique entrees and excellent service.

festivities at the local breweries, that said, we can’t get enough of Freehouse.  Newest joint on my list, it has one of the most fun and fresh menus we’ve encountered and the wait staff is quite simply amazing.  Never having partaken of pork belly in a salad before, and salivating over the mere mention of their “Breaky” line up, I periodically also enjoy their hand-crafted brews.  The outdoor patio is fun and relaxing in warm weather.  This place just keeps bringing us back.

Photo of the bar at the Monte Carlo, with a backlit, full wall bottle display and marble counter.

You can almost see the Rat Pack of the Twin Cities, the WCCO television news crew, seated in this room as they were 40 years ago.

5. The Monte Carlo: This midcentury modern fine dining classic deserves an award for simply surviving the bleakest era of the warehouse district, (when the North Loop was known only as the dark corner where Sex World and Dejavu resided) but when you sit down to their crab salad sandwich, order a steak or allow a waitress in an elegant uniform, not seen since the 1960s, fuss over you on the outdoor patio over Sunday brunch, you understand why they’re still here.  With a wealth of vintage Twin City celebrity’s autographed photos on the wall, you know you’ve rediscovered the coolest place in down that nobody knows about.  I simply love imagining that I can still see Dave Moore, Bud Kraehling and the old ‘CCO gang at their table in the back. (If you have to ask who they are, you may not be cool enough to hang at the Monte Carlo.)