MINNESOTA’S GRAND OLD PARTY
So, you’re a straight-talking political maverick, you’re coming to town and you want everybody’s full attention.
Sorry, Mr. Ventura. Your 15 minutes are up.
But welcome, Sen. John McCain.
As Republicans prepare to gather here a week from today to nominate you as their presidential candidate, allow me to draw upon nearly five full days of boots-on-the-ground experience to offer a few Twin Cities visitor tips.
The natives are known as St. Paulites and Minneapolitans. And by now you’ve noticed that Minnesota -- the home state of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, the land of 10,000 lakes and enough social services to attract tens of thousands of immigrant Hmongs and Somalis -- is not an obvious place for a GOP convention. The state leaned toward John Kerry in 2004, when voters in the Twin Cities marked about 60% of their ballots for the Democrats.
Two zoos, no elephants. What does that tell you?
So, with hosts like these, why not spring some surprises? Instead of a careful candidate, be a curious traveler.
1. No need to rush into the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where the convention will run Sept. 1 to 4. Instead, hop in a limo and cruise the length of that city’s Summit Avenue, a five-mile showcase of American dream homes. Every possible Victorian variation is here, and it makes a fine photo op for old-fashioned American prosperity. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote much of “This Side of Paradise” in the house at 599 Summit Ave., and Sinclair Lewis lived for a while at No. 513. But the best address for you is closer to the enormous St. Paul’s Cathedral and its stained-glass windows.
At 240 Summit Ave., you’ll find the 36,000-square-foot 1891 red sandstone mansion of James J. Hill, who started with nothing and made himself into a railroad magnate, the man who connected St. Paul to Seattle with his Great Northern Railway. Hill’s is a classic bootstraps story, and his mansion is a perfect place for a high-rollers’ party -- in fact, it’s already been booked for at least one lobbyists’ bash during the convention. But the rest of the year, the Minnesota Historical Society offers public tours ($8 per adult), Wednesdays through Sundays.
2. Don’t miss the Guthrie Theater. As you draw near the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis, it’ll be the biggest, bluest, curviest thing you’ll see, and it houses one of the top regional-theater operations in the country. The building, designed by star French architect Jean Nouvel, opened in 2006 with three performance spaces, a glitzy restaurant (Cue) and a cantilevered observation deck with panoramic views of the river and skyline.
The obvious show to see here is the Guthrie’s new musical version of “Little House on the Prairie” (running through Oct. 5, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music by Rachel Portman). You can’t get much more American, and Midwestern, than that.
But bear in mind, these people are thespians. Before you leave, toss out a question or two about “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures.” That work, commissioned by the Guthrie, will premiere next year, written by Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame). As the theater people offer you a cup of their free-trade coffee, you might ask how the National Endowment for the Arts is spending its grant money these days. You know, just to pass the time.
3. To handle some heartland agricultural products -- and to remind out-of-staters that the Twin Cities aren’t just wall-to-wall Lutherans -- get thee to a farmers market. One of the oldest operates Saturday and Sunday mornings, April through November, at 5th and Wall streets in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood ( www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com). One of the newest runs Saturdays from mid-May to mid-October at the Mill City Museum on South 2nd Street in Minneapolis ( www.millcityfarmersmarket.org). There’s another one on Thursdays at the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis ( www.mplsfarmersmarket.com).
The farmers named Xiong are probably Hmong. The female shoppers in the Muslim head scarves are probably from Somalia. And don’t you dare denounce broccoli. It’s in season, along with spinach, beets, carrots, melons and sweet corn.
4. Hungry? For coffee-shop eats and schmoozing, there are two old-school favorites. One is Al’s Breakfast (413 14th St. S.E.;  331-9991) in Minneapolis -- a famously narrow ‘50s greasy spoon (just 14 stools) in the Dinkytown neighborhood where University of Minnesota undergrads Bob Dylan and Garrison Keillor hung out 48 years ago (though not together). The other tempting choice is the 24-hour pre-World War II Mickey’s Dining Car (36 W. 7th St.,  222-5633), in St. Paul. But why not apply a little spin to your choice?
At Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, you get a vintage eight-lane bowling alley, a theater space that used to be a game room and a dining area with a wonderfully worn checkerboard floor and a menu full of locally produced ingredients. I recommend the veggie chili. But don’t expect a lot of fanfare.
“We’re not the kind of place that stops everything just because a celebrity comes in,” says chef Al Potyondy-Smith. “We get celebrities in here all the time. What’s-his-name was in here the other day. Josh Hartnett.”
5. Never mind Josh Hartnett. For a guaranteed happy celebrity encounter, head to 7th Street and Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. There, in front of Macy’s, you will find a bronze statue of a giddy young woman heaving a hat into the air. Now, hug the statue. It’s Mary Tyler Moore, whose show-intro hat-flinging moment was filmed right here almost 40 years ago. Everybody loves Mary Tyler Moore. Across the street, you’ll find the IDS Center, where she rides the escalator in the same intro sequence.
And a few blocks from here, you’ll find 1st Avenue (technically, 701 1st Ave. N.), the nightclub featured in the 1984 Prince movie “Purple Rain.”
6. I should have mentioned this earlier. On arrival, don’t pause for a second at the airport lest somebody lob a question about the stall-related difficulties there of Idaho GOP Sen. Larry E. Craig. And don’t bother to heckle funnyman Democrat Al Franken as he attempts to grab one of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats. (The GOP’s incumbent, Norm Coleman, seems to be leading handily.) Nor would I recommend that you consider Minnesota’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, as a running mate, because so many political junkies seem so sure that you already are.
7. With the economy sinking the way it is, you may want to mingle with some consumers in their natural environment. And lo, here lies the Mall of America, in nearby Bloomington, with its staggering (and staggeringly generic) array of more than 520 stores and at least 50 restaurants. I guess it was novel when it opened in 1992. Best thing you can do now is head for the A.C.E.S. flight simulators, where you’re guaranteed to find a bipartisan gaggle of slack-jawed men and boys standing before the aerial dogfight video display screens, transfixed and ripe for persuasion by an actual hero pilot. A 30-minute flight simulation runs $29.95, but I’m guessing you could wrangle a discount.
8. When you get to the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Ave.;  375-7600, www.walkerart.org) in Minneapolis, you’ll have a choice. For a warm and fuzzy visit, step outside to the grass, where 14 local artists were commissioned to create miniature golf holes, many using recycled materials. For $8 (through Sept. 7), you can play seven eccentric holes, surrounded by art lovers and their children. Or, to sound some very different notes, step inside the museum to see the Richard Prince exhibition (through Sept. 14; parental caution advised).
One of Prince’s main strategies is to rephotograph images from advertising and pop culture, such as the Marlboro Man, thereby adding a layer of irony or skepticism or something. The show’s title photo, “Spiritual America,” is a rephotographed image of Brooke Shields, age 10, naked. This was approved at the time by Shields’ mother, but it’s virtually certain to give you the creeps. Now is a handy time to ask that NEA funding question again, or just step back and let the museum director explain it all to the crew from Fox News.
9. Go to St. Paul’s Science Museum of Minnesota, which includes an IMAX theater and Mississippi River visitor center and stands just across Kellogg Boulevard from the Xcel Energy Center. (The museum is closed to the public from Aug. 29 to Sept. 11, but I bet they’d let you in.) Once inside, complain that they haven’t made a strong enough case for creationism. Or for evolution. Whichever you think.
10. Instead of such traditional VIP lodgings as the St. Paul Hotel, the Minneapolis Grand Hotel or the Marquette, stay someplace young and hip. You could try the Ivy Hotel and Residence or the Graves 601 Hotel or Chambers. If the workers get done in time, more trendiness will be on display at the W Minneapolis (in the historic Foshay Tower) and the Hotel Minneapolis (a Doubletree property), which are supposed to open this month.
11. OK, there’s no political reason for this, but you should go to the Mill City Museum, which opened in 2003 amid the sweet-smelling ruins of a vast old Minneapolis mill, and take the “Flour Tower” ride. Not because the view from the top is so great but because the elevator experience is tremendous.
The elevator car itself holds about 30 people and is outfitted with risers, like a levitating black-box theater. While you ride, you hear about the region’s rise and fall as the flour-milling capital of the world, a tale featuring multiple fires and explosions. As the story advances, the car visits stage sets at different levels, each dramatically lighted and enlivened with film projections.
On the museum’s bottom level, local writer-performer Kevin Kling’s 2006 film “Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat” is just as fun and instructive. I wonder, has anyone ever accepted a major-party presidential nomination in 19 minutes flat?
12. Show your vigor. On one of these long, sunny days, grab a couple of Secret Service agents, rent a canoe and paddle around Lake of the Isles, or rent a bike and pedal around Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. You can get the canoe at the water’s edge, the bike at Calhoun Rentals (1622 Lake St.;  827-8231), $17 for two hours. Around Lake of the Isles, you’ll see gorgeous houses. On your jaunt around Calhoun, you’ll see swimmers and an armada of tiny sailboats, plus sunbathers sprawled on the Midwestern lakefront’s gritty sand, which is to say: dirt.
13. Minneapolis and St. Paul might be called the Twin Cities, but Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., are closer neighbors. Plan on a 10-mile, 20-minute drive between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis, longer during rush hour. (Something like the trip from downtown Phoenix to Old Town Tempe, but your radiator is less likely to overheat. Especially in February.) The Twin Cities commute will go a bit quicker once the state is finished replacing the I-35W Bridge, which collapsed in August 2007. Spurred on by incentives, workers are nearly finished rebuilding it.
14. Of course, you’ll be wanting to reach out to liberal folkies and poets. But don’t bother with the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Although it’s home to Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” that weekly radio show (prairiehome.publicradio.org) will be on the road until Oct. 4. As a fallback, try Common Good Books, which opened in 2006 in a basement space at 165 Western Ave. N, No. 14. It’s a general-interest bookshop, but Keillor owns it, and the inventory includes plenty of volumes such as “Homegrown Democrat,” written by the proprietor, which rips Republicanism on most every page.
If you run into Keillor, smile and remind him of Page 222 in his book. That’s where the author calls for a constitutional amendment to require that the president be a veteran of the armed services.
15. One problem with presidential politics these days is that the candidates don’t get to spend nearly enough time in the company of anarchists. Fix this by dropping in at the Hard Times Cafe, at the gritty intersection of Riverside and Cedar avenues on Minneapolis’ West Bank. A vegetarian co-op, the whole place seems to be made from recycled parts of other businesses. Along with strong coffee and spicy huevos rancheros, they have rolling papers and chewing tobacco for sale, free condoms in a coffee can and free clothes in a box. You’ll be busing your own dishes.
What? No? Fine, then stop by the Ron Paul counter-convention, Rally for the Republic, Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 at Target Center in Minneapolis. I bet they’d be really surprised.
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Twin Cities beds and more
THE BEST WAY
From LAX, Northwest and Sun Country Airlines fly nonstop to Minneapolis. US Airways offers direct flights (stop, no change of planes). American, Continental, Delta, United, Frontier and US Airways offer connecting flights (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $278.
WHERE TO STAY
Chambers, 901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; (877) 767-6990, www.chambersminneapolis.com. The Chambers, opened in late 2006, has 60 rooms and contemporary art all around. Most rooms, $265 to $450.
Graves 601 Hotel, 601 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis; (866) 523-1100, www.graves601hotel.com. The hotel opened in 2003 with 255 rooms across the street from the Target Center arena. Lots of etched glass and minimalist furnishings. Most rooms, $149 to $379.
Marquette, 710 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis; (800) 328-4782, www.marquettehotel.com. The Hilton- managed hotel in the middle of downtown is upscale, comfortable and recently rehabbed. Most rooms, $179 to $339.
St. Paul Hotel, 350 Market St., St. Paul; (800) 292-9292, www.saintpaulhotel.com. This grand dame of downtown St. Paul, which has 254 rooms, dates to 1910. Most rooms, $159 to $249.
WHERE TO EAT:
Porter & Frye, 1115 2nd Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 353-3500, www.porterandfrye.com. Contemporary American at the Hotel Ivy. Try the celery bisque. Entrees, $14 to $49.
Heartland, 1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul; (651) 699-3536, www.heartlandrestaurant.com. American cuisine from regional sources in the mostly residential Groveland neighborhood. Menu changes daily. Entrees, $24 to $36.
Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; (612) 825-3737, www.bryantlakebowl.com. Cool, casual and perhaps more organic and sustainable than you would expect from a bowling-alley eatery. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Dinner entrees, $9.75 to $13.25.
TO LEARN MORE
St. Paul Convention & Visitors Authority, (800) 627-6101, www.stpaulcvb.org.
Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Assn., (888) 676-6757, www.minneapolis.org.
More photos and info about Minneapolis and St. Paul at www.latimes/twincities.