Eating alone on the road is sometimes a lonely challenge. Eating alone on the road on Valentine's Day is almost downright pitiful. Even though my wife and I don't celebrate Valentine's Day (why should you show your love on only one day to your spouse or loved one?) there's a number of people that do. And that usually means dinner for those people at a nice restaurant. On a trip to Minneapolis recently, I was staying at the Embassy Suites Minneapolis Airport in Bloomington (see map) on Valentine's Day night. I was told the hotel had a pretty damned good restaurant - Woolley's Steakhouse. It was cold out, I didn't feel like venturing out and I decided to just go downstairs and have dinner in Woolley's.
Since the Embassy Suites in Bloomington opened in 1986, Woolley's Steakhouse has served thousands of travelers and locals the finest in steaks and seafood. Unlike most hotel restaurants that are nothing more than glorified coffee shops, Woolley's is an award winning steakhouse that serves 28-day aged, certified Black Angus beef and has also been given the "Award of Excellence" by Wine Spectator magazine. Chef Peter Christenson oversees the kitchen at Woolley's Steakhouse. Christenson is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York and is currently on the advisory board for Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute.
It was around 6:30 when I went down to Woolley's to see if I could get a table for dinner. I walked up to the hostess stand and scanned the already packed restaurant. One of the two young ladies looked up and asked if she could help me. I said, "Ah, yes. Valentine's Day. I probably can't get a seat in here right away."
She gave me a forlorned look and said, "Do you have a reservation?"
I sort of chuckled, leaned in closely and said, "Now, how big of a loser do you think I am to make a reservation for one on Valentine's Day?"
Both of the girls laughed at that comment. I turned toward the bar area and said, "Can I eat in the bar?"
The young lady said, "Sure!" She grabbed a menu and we walked over toward The Corner Bar. Actually the bar was quite full, as well, and I was able to find a single seat at the bar. The menu at the Corner Bar is quite different from the Woolley's Steakhouse menu, but they allowed me to order off the Woolley's menu in the bar that evening since the restaurant was full. She asked me if I wanted the wine list and I told her that I'd just get one from the bartender if I wanted to look through it.
Sitting alone at the bar also brings its own set of challenges. On my left was a couple - I'm guessing they were in their 40's - and quite possibly on a first date. They were waiting for a table to open in the restaurant and were talking about their life experiences. The lady didn't sound very smart and the guy was heaping loads of praise on her for some of her very menial accomplishments in her life. This guy was putting the hammer down on love that night. It was actually pretty sickening and funny at the same time.
The guy to my immediate right was a nice guy from North Carolina by the name of Pat. He and I watched a basketball game on a television behind the bar. As time went on that evening, I found out that he grew up in the Twin Cities, but had moved to North Carolina for school 30 years before. He had owned a couple companies, but ended up selling one and going bankrupt with the other due to the economic slowdown in 2008/09. Pat was looking to move back to the Twin Cities to be closer to his daughter who had moved back to Minnesota with her mother a few years prior.
The very busy bartender - Chad - finally came over to great me and asked what I wanted to drink. I didn't recognize any of the beers on tap, so I just asked for a pale ale. He said he had an India Pale Ale on tap and I signed up for one of those. It was all right - not the best I.P.A. I've had, but drinkable.
Looking through Woolley's menu was quite daunting. In addition to the number of steaks and chops they had to offer, they also walleye, grilled salmon, shrimp and scallops. Their Valentine's Day special that evening was a petite cut (6 oz.) beef filet with a lobster tail. Along with steak and seafood, they also had pasta dishes, and "comfort food" such as Swedish meatballs, chicken marsala, short ribs with a ginger/carrot puree, and their Woolley's Burger Deluxe - a half-pound burger made with mixed cuts of meat ground in-house. (I want to go back sometime for just the burger - it sounded great.)
The socially awkward couple to the next of me had ordered the calimari appetizer. The lady had never had calimari before, but the guy kept telling her it would taste like fried shrimp. She was a little hesitant when it was brought out to them. To me - it looked damn good. If she wasn't going to eat any, I was going to volunteer to eat what was left over.
I wanted steak that evening, but I was getting tempted from a number of different areas. They had prime rib on the menu, and it had been a long time since I had prime rib. The "Red-Eye Ribeye" featured an ancho chili and coffee rub. The "Martini Steak" was a seasoned flat-iron steak served with blue cheese crumbles and chopped green olives.
But the filet was looking good for me that evening. The Kings cut is a 10 oz. filet and for an additional $4.95 you can get it "classic style" with mushrooms, bacon, onions and blue cheese; or "gratinee style" with croutons, caramelized onions and gruyere cheese. For an additional $6.95, you can order it "oscar style" with a bearnaise sauce and crab meat. I got just a regular old beef tenderloin filet - rare. For my side, I ordered the scalopped potatoes, although the grilled asparagus sounded good for an additional $4.95. The bartender, Chad, understood my dilemma and he said, "I'll have the chef throw a couple asparagus spears on the plate for you."
Woolley's Steakhouse also has a pretty impressive salad bar and he asked me if I wanted to go through the salad bar for an additional $4.95. (Lots of upcharges at Woolley's, have you noticed?) I saw that they had a half wedge salad for the same amount and I just ordered that.
Quite actually, I should have gone through the salad bar because the wedge salad was pretty pedestrian. It featured a few leaves of lettuce, some runny blue cheese dressing with some bacon bits. It was all right, but it wasn't the best I've had.
As I was waiting for my steak, I had finished my India pale ale. Chad asked me if I wanted another and I asked him for the wine list to see what they had for "by-the-glass" wine selections. The wine list was pretty impressive - it was no wonder why both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have given Woolley's awards. I found a Rodney Strong cabernet to have with my dinner.
I was hoping that the average salad wouldn't be an indicator of the rest of the meal, but that pretty much went out the window when I had the first bite of my steak. It was actually cooked more medium-rare than rare, but that was fine. The steak was juicy and flavorful. It had a great taste to it and I was very happy with it.
True to his word, the bartender saw to it that I did get some asparagus spears along with the scalloped potatoes. I only took a couple bites of each as I was focusing on the steak. But the couple three bites I had of each were good, as well.
But the steak was outstanding. I was quite surprised that a steakhouse of this quality was inside an Embassy Suites. I've stayed at a few Embassy Suites in my day (I got a great price for the room at this one - less than $100 a night - and I was surprised at how nice it was), but none of them had a restaurant even on the level of Woolley's Steakhouse.
Sometimes I get surprised by some of the restaurants where I eat. Woolley's Steakhouse was a pleasant surprise, even though I had to eat at the bar and endure the insipid conversation from two socially challenged people to my left. (They never did get seated at a table for dinner. But I don't think the guy cared - he was trying his best to get her out of there and into a bedroom. And she was too stupid or naive to notice.) The steak I had at Woolley's was excellent. Chad - although very busy - did a good job of taking care of me. I was more than happy that I made the choice to stay in and eat at the hotel restaurant that night. I normally don't do that, but I'd go back to Woolley's even if I were staying at another hotel in the area. It was that good.