MODERN CAFE - 337 13th Avenue N.E., 612-378-9882
This unpretentious Nordeast barfront has serious food inside. The menu is creatively prepared, eclectic, quite reasonably priced, and simply delicious. Lunches are a terrific value, with the Cafe’s signature pot roast, meatloaf and gourmet macaroni and cheese always on the menu. There are seasonal specialties with French, Italian and Middle Eastern flavors. Friendly and good service. Lots of free parking nearby.
RISOTTO - 610 W. Lake Street, 612-823-4338
A chef/owner from Genoa gives this attractive, small dining room and its menu a distinctive character. Lunches are an outstanding value (although the chef’s made-to-order special risottos are only available at dinner). Savory sandwiches, including one with Parma ham and imported cheese, are only $7-$9, and include a bowl of excellent tomato basil soup. The linguini with pesto, potatoes and green beans is as authentic a Genovese dish as you can find, as are the tasty appetizers. Free parking nearby.
MASA - 1070 Nicollet Mall, 612-338-6272
This is one of the few Twin Cities restaurants where you can find the truly interesting cuisine of Mexico (not Sonoran snack food). It’s normally a bit pricy for lunch and dinner, but Masa now serves a remarkable three-course lunch plus salsa and chips for $10. There are plenty of entree choices for this lunch, and the food is genuinely outstanding. Friendly service in a bright downtown dining room facing Nicollet Mall. Meter parking nearby.
M STREET CAFE - 350 Market Street, St. Paul, 651-228-3856
This is probably the best lunch value in St. Paul, and all the more interesting because it’s located in the basement of the tony St. Paul Hotel with its expensive St. Paul Grill upstairs. Downstairs, however, there is a fine buffet lunch, with your choice of hot dishes or a salad bar with soup. Or you can do both. There are always a seafood entree, a carvery meat special, pasta, vegetable, potato or risotto at the hot table, carefully watched over by a chef so nothing gets cold or stale. Meat items include fresh roast turkey, roast sirloin of beef, salmon, corned beef and cabbage. A St. Paul promotion now gives you three hours of free parking a half a block away.
CAFE ISTANBUL - 15718 Wayzata Boulevard, 952-476-7997
This friendly Turkish outpost near Wayzata offers a buffet lunch featuring chicken, lamb, stuffed grape leaves, two marvelous Turkish soups, pilafs, salads and dessert. At about $10 for the buffet, you can’t beat the value in this mallfront restaurant on the frontage road off Highway 394. There is free parking.
BE’WICHED - 800 Washington Avenue N., 612-767-4300
This unexpected and contemporary dining room was one of the pioneers on the North Washington Avenue strip, and it was created by two talented young chefs who were veterans of some of the Twin Cities top upscale restaurants. It’s self-serve and deli-style, but everything here is organic and imaginative, including the soups, sandwiches and salads. They make their own pastrami, and it’s a relatively quick and cheap lunch. Parking meters in front.
EL MESON - 3450 Lyndale Avenue S., 612-8062
A more bountiful lunch buffet cannot be found in the Twin Cities, and this one features delicious Central American cuisine There are three buffet tables. The salad bar includes wild greens with aq house dressing, fresh fruit, guacamole, cold vegetables and the best coriander cole slaw I’ve ever had. The hot table features pork, beef, chicken and seafood entrees which vary from day to day, plus soups and the tradional bean dishes. A dessert table offers a rice pudding, Mexican flan and fried bananas. For about $10, you can’t beat this bargain. Free parking nearby, although there is some construction going on summer-long on Lyndale Avenue.
COSETTA’S - 211 W. 7th Street, St. Paul, 651-222-3709
A St, Paul institution for good reason, this colorful downtown restaurant serves a terrific range of Italian specialties cafeteria-style at most reasonable prices. The food is carefully and well-prepared. A lunch here is an experience. Although very popular, there is rarely a long wait in line. And next to the dining room, is the largest and best Italian deli in the state for delicacies to take home. Cosetta’s has its own free parking lot.
FOGO DE CHAO (salad bar) - 645 Hennepin Avenue, 612-338-1344
The Twin Cities only Brazilian steak house, is not inexpensive at dinner with its 15 all-you-can-eat cuts of beef, chicken, pork and lamb, and its fabulous salad bar (which is a meal in itself). As a matter of fact, you can have the salad bar-only at lunch for $19.50. That’s not cheap, but it features smoked salmon, Italian deli meats, cheeses, fresh fruit, hearts of palm, great vegetables and numerous superb salads, many of them Brazilian, plus the hot meal side dishes of polenta and fried bananas. Paid parking or meters nearby this large Hennepin Avenue dining room.
KRAMARCZUK’S - (215 E. Hennepin Avenue, 612-379-3018)
A little bit of Eastern Europe and Ukraine can be found at this long-time East Hennepin cafeteria and meat market, and you won’t go hungry after trying one of their lunches of home-made sausages with sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage, goulashes, salads, soups and borscht. There’s fancy desserts, too, and beer and wine. Prices are low, and they have their own free parking lot next to the restaurant.