Nowadays, travelers can find great cuisine in unlikely places.
© Beth Gauper
In Wisconsin, the Trempealeau Hotel is famous for its walnut burgers and a porch that faces the Mississippi.
These days, it’s not so hard to find a restaurant that shows a little imagination. But not so long ago, those of us who travel a lot considered it a banner day when we could find something beyond fish fries on Friday and prime rib on Saturdays.
I remember how grateful I was on a cold December day in 1994, when my Florida sister and I walked into the Old Village Hall in Lanesboro, tired from a day of touring B&Bs, and were served plates of fettuccine — al dente! — with perfectly cooked vegetables and plenty of garlic.
A year later, after a day skiing in nearby Minocqua, Wis., I sank into a chair at Jacobi’s of Hazelhurst and dug into
garlic-stuffed tenderloin with Dijon-cognac sauce, watching the fire and eavesdropping on a conversation about — what
else? — the Packers.
That summer, I sat on the shady brick patio of Bemidji’s Tutto Bene, eating chicken mostaccioli, drinking wine and listening to opera, and I thought I was in heaven.
I still remember these meals not because they were the best I’ve ever eaten, but because they were such delightful
surprises and because they were just what I needed at the time.
Such a meal is a little like a summer romance; it’s especially sweet because there’s no telling when you’ll be back.
Below are some of the small towns in which you should be able to have a really good meal; I haven’t included those
where you’d expect good restaurants, such as Grand Marais, Bayfield, Duluth or Galena.
Things change fast in the restaurant world, so I won’t guarantee that you’ll have a good meal, too — but it’s a pretty good bet.
Bemidji, Minn.: Tutto Bene and its patio still is a great place to relax after a play at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse,
just down the street. Brigid's Irish Pub, across the street, offers a great
lamb sandwich and Celtic fare.
Decorah, Iowa: La Rana Bistro has great access to organic farms and artisan meat producers and takes full advantage
of it. The atmosphere is slightly bohemian, befitting a college town, and it has a very good beer list and well-priced wines.
Rubaiyat Restaurant on Water Street serves a seasonal menu of classics with a
nouveau twist and has an extensive wine and beer list, 563-382-9463. When Luther College has an event, both restaurants fill
far in advance, so make reservations.
Dorset, Minn.: There isn’t really a destination restaurant in this tiny burp in the road near Park Rapids
— the town is the destination, especially during Taste of Dorset (first Sunday in August).
Companeros is most popular, though closed in winter. For more, see The dish on Dorset.
Dubuque, Iowa: The chef of Pepper Sprouts, Dubuque native Kim Wolff, once worked at the Old Village Hall in Lanesboro, and in her downtown restaurant uses locally grown ingredients to make such dishes as sausage-stuffed quail and corn-chip crusted halibut with green tomato salsa. 563-556-2167.
In Harmony, Stephen Larson serves sophisticated Midwestern comfort food at QUARTER/quarter.
Harmony, Minn.: Former Old Village hall chef and cooking-school proprietor Stephen Larson serves sophisticated dishes made with farm-fresh ingredients, at small-town prices, at his QUARTER/quarter Restaurant & Wine Bar.
For more, see Table-hopping in
Hazelhurst, Wis.: Just south of the resort town of Minocqua, Jacobi's offers a dollop of old-fashioned French savoir-faire. 715-356-5591.
Lake City, Minn.: Nosh, named for the small plates it offers, uses
produce and meats from artisan farms around Lake Pepin at a prime location on the marina. 651-345-2425.
Lanesboro, Minn.: Mrs. B’s restaurant and the Victorian House are gone, but the Old Village Hall ably handles the needs of discerning tourists. On a beautiful day, try
for a table on the deck, 507-467-2962.
Mantorville, Minn.: Don’t expect nouvelle cuisine at the 1854 Hubbell House. But you will get good solid food and a whole lot of atmosphere. 507-635-2331.
Monticello, Wis.: In this town near Madison and New Glarus, the Dining Room at 209 Main serves such dishes as salmon with garlic-parmesan potato cake and a three-mushroom reduction sauce. 608-938-2200, (click on menu items to see images).
Mount Horeb, Wis.: This town just west of Madison, known for its Trollway and nearby Little Norway, finally has a
good restaurant. Bistro 101 serves tapas, panini and 20
wines by the glass; its chef worked for Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Chicago. The Wisconsin State Journal cites its "quiet
Pepin, Wis.: The Harbor View Cafe has a mighty reputation that draws ’em from near and far. When it reopens for the season in mid-March, the whole Lake Pepin area swings into action. 715-442-3893.
For more places to eat along the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities, see A spin around Lake Pepin.
Spooner, Wis.: In this western Wisconsin village, the Spooner Market & Grille occupies a modest space but serves such dishes as scallops with bacon and chipotle peppers in a cream and chardonnay sauce with corn cakes. 715-635-6833.
Sturgeon Bay, Wis.: Not far from downtown, the Blue Front Cafe is
more casual but also serves very fine cuisine made from local products. 920-743-9218.
Thunder Bay, Ont.: This Lake Superior working town is a great place to eat ethnic, thanks to its Finns, Italians and Ukrainians. But the real find is Bistro One, which turns out continental masterpieces. 807-622-2478.
Trempealeau, Wis.: This quiet river town wouldn’t be much without the good old Trempealeau Hotel, which had become a redneck bar before a couple of hippies replaced
the Grain Belt with microbrews and the Beer Nuts with walnut burgers in 1985.
You can watch the world go by from its porch, and the world gets especially interesting during the annual Reggae Fest and Blues Bash in May. 608-534-6898.
Washburn, Wis.: In this town on Chequamegon Bay, just south of Bayfield, Good Thyme restaurant serves fun and fresh cuisine in a renovated 1913 farmhouse a
mile north of Washburn on Wisconsin 13, 715-373-5255.
Winona, Minn.: A mile and a half up the bluffs from Minnesota 61, at Bridges Golf Club, Signatures has lovely views as well as appealing food. 507-454-3767.
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