A Progressive Dinner Out on the Town

Turn the potluck on its head with multiple-location dining.
The lake area is a perfect place to try out a progressive dinner, with restaurants and activities within walking distance.

A progressive dinner—“safari supper,” if you’re in England—is a dinner party where you mow through a meal, course by course, in various homes. Like a potluck, only you go to the food instead of the other way around. Fun, right? Sure, except for the cooking, dishwashing and tidying parts—ugh.

To give you the experience without the clean-up, we tweaked the progressive dinner concept to exclude the tiresome and accentuate the fun (tasting all kinds of things in different environments in the span of one meal). If you haven’t heard, the “tasting menu” is hot in the dining world. It’s a form of theater.

So meet the love child of the progressive dinner and the tasting menu: a participatory, exciting, housework-free culinary escapade. Don your spiffiest and loosen your belt for a radically tasty adventure—a safari supper indeed, among the wilds and wonders of our lakeshores.

Here’s one way to go . . .


The Warm-up

Slide into the evening’s shenanigans with a leisurely quaff in a beautiful spot. In Minnesota, said beautiful spot is likely to involve a lake. Case in point: Maynard’s perfect deck overlooking the waves of Excelsior Bay, where you can watch the day dwindle. This is a good chance to celebrate Minnesota’s long-awaited microbrew revolution. We love the fresh and cooling Tonka Beer Company’s Big Island Shandy ($5), an unfiltered ale that goes down all citrusy and ambrosial, with a bonus: Tonka’s proceeds go to preserve our wonderful waterways. For an honest-to-goodness thirst quencher, only a Grain Belt Premium ($3) will do. It’s not a microbrew, but it’s honorable Minnesota old school, with a light body and crisp finish.

If you don’t like beer, please accept our condolences. No matter: You can still do frosty and sudsy with a great pint of cider. Crispin Hard Cider ($8) was born in Minnesota and will make you rethink the sticky-sweet stuff you slugged as a kid. This is elegantly clean, almost dry and made from fermented West Coast apples. Cheers!

Now bring on the munchies! Fried calamari ($6) is God’s gift to happy hour; get into the near-sacred ritual of untangling of tentacles, dipping into sauce, and—ha—respecting your neighbor’s fingers. Add some fat, golden onion rings ($3 during happy hour); Maynard’s sure knows its way around a fry-o-lator. 685 Excelsior Blvd.; Excelsior; 952.470.1800.


The Breather

Before you leave Excelsior, get reinvigorated (and encourage digestion of your appetizers) with a walk down memory lane. Excelsior was founded in the 1850s as a resort town and somehow, it’s managed to preserve that laid-back lakefront village vibe. Imagine the joy and mourn the loss of the Excelsior Amusement Park, which existed on the Maynard’s site from 1941 to 1973. There were midway rides, Miss Minnesota pageants and Big Reggie’s Danceland Ballroom. Quirky local legends include a good one about the Rolling Stone concert at the Danceland in 1964. The show drew a measly crowd—not quite 200 people—but it wasn’t for naught, because Mick Jagger found himself standing in line with Mr. Jimmy at the town’s Bacon Drug. When the rocker couldn’t find what he came for, Excelsiorite Jimmy Hutmaker told him “you can’t always get what you want.” If you’re inspired to dig deeper, consult the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society.


The Main Event

Dinner’s destination is a no-brainer: Birch’s in Long Lake is a magical mix of creativity and relaxation, and their not-so-small small plates consistently excel in flavor and innovation. Choosing from this menu tends to be stressful because it’s so hard to decide, which is another great reason for group dining. Birch’s makes a truly divine lobster mac ’n’ cheese, but the restaurant’s unique truffled shrimp casserole ($17) is a revelation, despite the fact that it sounds suspiciously like hot dish, the bane of Minnesota cooking. Trenne (penne-like) pasta, sautéed shrimp, sweet peas, sherried mushrooms, truffle cream and a garlicky crumb crust make this a haute dish—pun intended—and boy, oh boy, is it rich. Pass it around; everyone can moan with pleasure over the decadent ingredients, but no one will sink with excess.

Don’t forget your veggies: Roasted brussels sprouts ($10) are brilliantly gussied up with salty nuggets of smoked pancetta (uncured Italian bacon) and a liberal application of local blue cheese. Flatbread, pizza’s artsy cousin, is easy to share; we were thrilled with the lamb arugula ($13) featuring a grilled crust, lamb sausage, goat cheese and roasted jalapenos—a spot-on amalgamation of pungent meat intensity, peppery greens and creamy fresh cheese. 1935 W. Wayzata Blvd., Long Lake; 612.708.3011.


Sweet Surrender

When you think of Gianni’s, you think steak, and for good reason: It’s one of the lake area’s best special-occasion destinations for prime beef. You probably didn’t know that they make stellar desserts, too, since you’re likely to be too full of steak by the end of the meal. Approach this visit with a new objective, because the desserts are, in a word, exquisite—hardly a surprise considering Gianni’s exacting kitchen. You can share a few at the table without guilt (remember, you’re all in this together).

Classic heartbreakers like butterscotch pudding ($8) are true to their promise and tastefully updated, in this case with a lashing of the über-trendy caramel and sea salt. Hot apple cobbler ($12) with vanilla ice cream is the melty, crispy, fruity dessert of our dreams. If you’re not into sugar, do as the French do and get a cheese plate ($15)—Gianni’s puts together a marvelous array of Rosso di Lange, a stinky-ish cow and sheep milk softie; Prairie Breeze cheddar; creamy blue Cambozola; and tangy Purple Haze goat cheese. It comes with lavender honey and fig jam.

And to drink? With the cheese, Belle Vallee pinot noir port ($8.75) is perfect in sweetness, density and spice. Or throw good sense to the wind and get Graham’s 30-year port ($40), thoroughly justifiable on this rare occasion. Gianni’s bar boasts a charming menu of old-school ice cream drinks, like the pink squirrel and brandy alexander; it nails the grasshopper ($15), which reminds us of loaded mint chocolate chip ice cream with the help of crème de cacao, chocolate liqueur and crème de menthe. 635 E. Lake St.; Wayzata; 952.404.1100.

Sealed with a Song

Now for some calorie-burning! Hustle over to the Narrows Saloon, a crazy-fun joint where you can shake your groove thing, support local music and mingle with other revelers. Enjoy a pint of Stillwater’s sprightly Lift Bridge Brewery’s Farm Girl ($5) ale, or if you’re feeling very naughty, a shot of fine tequila like Patron ($8). It’s an awesome place to people-watch and go for a spin on the dance floor. There are blues jams on Tuesdays, country jams on Wednesdays and R&B, dance and classic rock all week long. A plate of JJ’s green beans ($9) make a fine nosh; they’re done up in Szechuan-style with green onions, bacon and sesame seeds, a perfect salty nibble to fuel your dance moves. Check the calendar for the music schedule.  3380 Shoreline Dr., Navarre; 952.471.3352.

Alternate Scenarios

The progressive meal idea can be tweaked to fit any mood and every gathering. Here are some other foodie staycations we’d like to try.

Girls Take Excelsior

  • Get a group pedicure and gab session at Excelsior Nail Spa ($30); it has an upscale feel with good prices.
  • Sip outrageous cocktails at Lago Tacos—how about the pink grapefruit margarita ($7.50), with Sauza tequila, margarita mix, pink grapefruit juice and triple sec?
  • Window-shop on Water Street, one of the cutest little shopping areas we’ve seen: Cruise by Amore & Fede clothing and La Petite Parfumerie and maybe buy a little something. 
  • Eat lots of sushi at Yumi—try a few of the wacky-sounding special rolls like the Yoshi bomb, and the red dragon ($22¬-$23).
  • Enjoy a luscious ending at Licks Unlimited, the sweetest-smelling, nicest-staffed ice cream parlor ever. Stroll in like an excited kid and stroll out without a care in the universe.

The Whole Fam Dam

  • Start with a multigenerational happy hour at The Wharf at Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge in Spring Park. The kids can play on the huge deck fueled by Shirley Temples while parents watch, soothed by gin and tonics and a plate of mosquito bites ($14)—crunchy fried fish bits with tartar sauce.
  • Stop by Tommy’s Tonka Trolley for award-winning hot dogs ($3.50)from Mackenthun’s Meat Market.
  • Finish at Yogurt Lab, a trendy build-your-own, pay-by-weight yogurt bar. Construct your own tasty monster; kids and adults alike love it (46 cents per ounce). 

Dream Date

  • Begin with oysters ($2–$3.75 each) on the half-shell at Blue Point—because you know what they say about oysters.
  • Get back in the car for destination dining at chez Bistro 11. A scenic drive and fresh, delicious, food when you get there. Lovely for sharing.
  • Bond over chocolate truffles from local artisan chocolatier BT McElrath. A nine-piece assortment ($20.50) includes outrageously beautiful confections like zinfandel-balsamic; chile-limón; and kaffir lime with coconut and ginger. Find them at your local market.
  • Get close with live music at the cozy, hip 318. Mellow out with a glass of wine or a specialty coffee drink like the spiced brown sugar latte ($4.25). Check schedules online.

Words With Friends

It happens every time: You set out on the road to a meaningful exchange and suddenly you’re mired in the same old gossip and complaining fest about the drags of daily life. Try to resist the cheap catharsis and go for something deeper, a bit out of the norm. We’re not talking truth-or-dare (although it’s an interesting idea), but how about consciously choosing out-of-the-ordinary conversation starters like the ones we’ve listed below? Pick one or two ideas per location and see how it evolves. After all, conversation can make or break a dining experience. But don’t overthink. Remember, this is fun.

  • If you could eat only one cuisine for the rest of your life what would it be? Why?
  • What is your favorite thing about our neck of the woods?
  • Where would you take a visitor from another country and why?
  • What is one thing that no one knows about you?
  • Propose a toast to another member at the table. Say good things and don’t go on for too long.


Before Embarking

  • Just to make sure everyone is on the same page, follow these pre-event tips for a night of smooth sailing.
  • Decide in advance how you want to pay. Separate checks? Credit cards? Cash? Pesky money details can bring the flow to a crashing halt.
    Transportation is serious stuff. Don’t drink and drive, duh! Park once, relax and stay safe—let Taxi Minnetonka be your trusty chariot. Book a town car, SUV or van online. Basic service is $5 first mile, each additional mile $2.75.
  • Allergies, gluten sensitivity or strong food preferences? Communicate. Don’t wait to reveal your aversion to shellfish till the gang hits the oyster bar.
  • Call ahead and make reservations if you must, but leave room for spontaneity—unexpected fun lurks around every corner! 
  • Arm yourself with everyone’s phone numbers and a list of the scheduled destinations. It’s laughably easy to get stranded, even in the age of GPS and texting.
  • Need we say it? Play nice. Don’t interrupt and don’t hog the tastiest bits.