Step aside, hotdish. Though Minnesota doesn't make it onto the Michelin map (yet!), the Minneapolis-area culinary scene has exploded in recent years. And the results are well worth sampling.

You have to live to eat. So why not live it up with food you actually enjoy? Or, better yet, expand your palate with something outside the norm.

Check out some of the most tempting options below. Whether you live in the area or are planning a trip, you won't regret trodding off the beaten path for a meal that's truly memorable.

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Birchwood Cafe

Where: Seward 

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Any restaurant with a 4.6-star rating and a thousand-plus reviews is bound to be a winner. And Birchwood doesn't disappoint. Focusing on local, fresh and natural ingredients, the menu includes novel combinations like corned-beef pizza. For a hearty midwinter meal, go for the roasted roots hand pie with a side of housemade pickled veggies.

If you're going in the a.m., you'll find creative breakfast options like a savory parmesan and millet waffle with rhubarb-jalapeño marmalade. Or try the twist on French toast: a birdseed bread topped with blood orange, vanilla, and chili marmalade. 

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Gardens of Salonica

Where: St. Anthony

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Have a hankering for Mediterranean? At this family-owned Greek establishment, expect to see loads of authentic ingredients: spinach, feta, filo, lamb, eggplant, tzatziki, olives and - of course - evoo.

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Don't forget to save room for dessert. Warm baklava with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Yes, please!

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Hola Arepa

Where: Lyndale 

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If you're not familiar with arepas, here's your chance to sample the best of this South American staple. You'll find more than a dozen varieties of these mouth-watering cornmeal griddle cakes at Hola Arepa. Fillings range from pork, plantains, and beans to beef, chorizo and fried eggs.

Colorful decor complements an equally colorful Latin American menu, including tropical drinks such as yerba matte, pineapple tepache and horchata (the deliciously sweet milky-almond beverage)

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Zen Box Izakaya

Where: Downtown Minneapolis

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Turn on your taste buds with izakaya - the Japanese version of tapas. Here you'll find a broad selection of small plates like lava-salted edamame, salmon sashimi, and maguro poke. The menu also includes lunch bento, Japanese curry, miso soup and plenty of ramen choices as well as vegetarian options. 

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The industrial-modern ambiance will make you feel like you're in the heart of Tokyo. And the sake selection is truly delightful. ("Drunken Snapper," for example, is lively brew featuring overtones of watermelon and cocoa nibs.)

 

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The Happy Gnome

Where: Saint Paul 

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Your palate is sure to find happiness here. It's part pub, part fine dining - and all-around delicious. Choose from dozens of craft microbrews on tap to pair with your quail-egg-topped steak tartare, porketta-spiced duck breast or apple-fig-blue-cheese pizza. Finish with a toasted s'more (sandwiched between house-made graham crackers and chocolate mousse) or Surly coffee-bender-infused crème brûlée.

 

Craft beer, not your thing? Try one of their specialty cocktails, like the "Gnome's Hot Teddy," a bourbon-based drink with chai, vanilla, and cranberry. Or hit up the famous bloody-mary bar. (The gastropub nearly earned a record for the world's biggest bloody-mary bar during an unofficial attempt last year.)

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Don't forget to grab a photo op with the restaurant's namesake on your way out. Perched atop a barrel with a foamy mug in hand, Mr. Gnome certainly has reason to be cheery.

 

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Milkjam Creamery

Where: Whittier

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I promise you've never tasted ice cream like this before. Kettle corn with brown-butter caramel. Thai black tea with condensed milk. "Black magic" - dark, dark chocolate that looks like a spoonful of midnight. You can also try a champagne float, liqueur-infused malt or a "jam bun" - your pick of ice cream, sandwiched between sticky glazed donuts.

 

This place isn't your typical ice cream shop, and if you're up for something a little different, you'll find yourself returning again and again. Even in the middle of January. When it's 20 below.

Can't decide on a flavor? Try a flight of four... or all of them. (I'd recommend sharing with a friend!) 

 

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Café and Bar Lurcat

Where: Loring Park 

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Everything about this place is photogenic: The old-world brownstone facade, the cobblestone alley, the sophisticated ambiance, and the gorgeously plated dishes. A foodie's dream, the Lurcat offers two distinct dining experiences: Sip Bordeaux Blancs and sample small dishes at the wine bar. Or sit down with your sweetie for a romantic dinner (reservations recommended). Either way, you can't go wrong.

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Hi-Lo Diner

Where: Cooper 

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When we're talking must-see Minnesota diners, Mickey's in Saint Paul usually tops the list. But this Minneapolis gem is equally worth visiting. Stepping into the 1950s Fodero dining car is like stepping back in time.

And the food exceeds all expectations. Here you won't find lukewarm coffee or day-old biscuits drenched in salty gravy. The menu features tempting updates on classic diner fare: roasted garlic and rosemary pretzel knots, buffalo-spiced cheese curds, chorizo mac-n'-cheese (topped with donut croutons!), and black-bottom banana cream pie, to name just a few. Whatever you pick, save room for an old-fashioned malt!

Come for brunch to try a "hi-stack" of pancakes with whipped butter and strawberries, or the lavender crème brûlé French toast. Mmm-mmm!

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Travail Kitchen and Amusements

Where: Robbinsdale (Minneapolis)

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Fan of the Netflix show Chef's Table? You don't have to fly to New York to get a 20-course tasting menu. Travail offers that and more.

Curated by a trio of James Beard semifinalist chefs with Michelin stars in their sights, the tasting menu isn't just a 20+-course meal; it's an experience. The chefs double as servers (and entertainers), preparing and presenting many of the courses tableside, and even walking guests through the kitchens to get a chef's-eye view. The theatrics compliment the flavors. And both, critics agree, are outstanding.

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Penny's Coffee

Where: Downtown Minneapolis

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A modern, visually stunning setting inside the Washington Square lobby, this is the perfect place to bring your laptop and set up shop. Take advantage of the artisan coffee and all-day breakfast - including their signature sweet and savory crêpes. (Salted honey butter? Banana Nutella? Ham and gruyère? Yes, please!) They also serve wine, beer and bubbly.

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Fasika

Where: Saint Paul (Midway)

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If Ethiopian cuisine isn't on your bucket list, it should be. This East-African gem boasts a menu rich with exotic spices, curries, stews, meats, and root vegetables. With elements of Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Indian flavors, it's like a party in your mouth. 

You'll fall head-over-heels in love with injera. The foundation of most meals, it's a spongy, crepe-like flatbread the size of a dinner plate, made from fermented teff flour.  

Located near the Snelling Avenue Station of the Green Line, this place is hard to miss. A colorful mural stretches across its brownstone facade.

 

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Sea Change

Where: Downtown Minneapolis

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Seafood in the Midwest is always a tricky endeavor. Things can go so, so wrong. Fortunately, that's not the case here. 

You won't find any duds on this menu. Designed by Chef Tim McKee, a James Beard award-winner, the highlights include an oyster bar, langoustine, tuna tartare and Skuna Bay salmon. 

 

Bonus: The restaurant is committed to sustainable seafood, and focuses on environmental stewardship in all aspects of its operation. Conveniently located inside the Guthrie Theater, it's a great place to grab some dinner and drinks before a show. 

 

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Tilt Pinball Bar

Where: Whittier (Minneapolis)

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Craft beer, specialty hot dogs and... pinball. Why not? This place features a rotating selection of nearly two dozen games, both retro (1990s Addams Family) and modern (Game of Thrones).

Like their pinball machines, their hot dogs are far from blasé. Try the "Ruby Slippers" - sauerkraut, gruyère, and Russian dressing. Or the aptly named "Volcano Dog," with habanero hot sauce and pickled jalapenos.

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Revival

Where: Cathedral Hill (Saint Paul), Kingfield (Minneapolis)

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Southern BBQ meets northern climate in this foodie's delight, which features some of the best fried chicken you'll find this close to Canada. The menu is chock-full of comfort fare: chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, johnny cakes, hush puppies, dry-rubbed pork rinds, brisket, and burgers. With so many options, you'll keep coming back for more.

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Midori's Floating World

Where: Longfellow (Minneapolis)

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If the name alone isn't enough to intrigue you, the atmosphere certainly will. Colorful paper umbrellas unfold from the ceiling like flowers in bloom. Traditional box lanterns float above the bar. And the plates, like the decor, embody that distinct combination of simplicity and beauty, with eye-catching pops of color.

 

Known as an affordable neighborhood lunch spot, the eatery's expansive menu includes sushi, tempura, ramen, mochi and more.

 

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Merlin's Rest

Where: Longfellow

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Nothing dispels the chill of winter like a dram of warm whiskey in your belly. At this cozy British pub, you'll find plenty of options to choose from, with more than 340 Scottish varieties and 100-plus Irish whiskeys.

The menu features quintessential fare from across the pond: bangers n' mash, fish n' chips, shepherd's pie, Scotch eggs, and Celtic knots. Bottoms up!

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