In small towns, an interesting restaurant can make all the difference.
© Beth Gauper
In Pepin, diners wait to snag a table at the Harbor View Cafe.
On the road, tourists are a lot like lumberjacks, puppies and teen-age boys: If you put out food, they’ll come running.
They’ve been coming to the southern Minnesota town of Mantorville since 1854, even though it was bypassed by railroads and highways and should have shriveled up and died. It didn’t largely because of the Hubbell House, a former stagecoach stop that still is serving walleye and chops to busloads of tourists.
In 1976, hungry people found their way past the saloons, strip clubs, warehouses and junkyard on Duluth’s Canal Park to eat at an offbeat new restaurant called Grandma’s. A year later, the restaurant sponsored a new marathon, and the hungry people literally ran to Canal Park, followed by thousands of tourists.
In Minnesota lakes country, the town of Dorset was barely there when a Mexican restaurant opened in 1985 and began drawing
hordes of vacationers to the one-block town. Other restaurants opened, and the town launched the Taste of Dorset
Now, with one restaurant for every six residents, Dorset claims the titles “Restaurant Capital of the World’’ and “Boom Town with a Burp.’’
Most restaurants don’t make or break a town. But a good one does put a lot of people on the streets, and that attracts
On the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin, the Harbor View Cafe draws so many people to Pepin that shops, galleries and wine bars have sprung up nearby to cater to its guests, who often have two hours to kill while waiting for a table.
“It put Pepin on the map, and being on the map definitely helps our business,’’ says gallery owner Catherine Latané, who moved to Pepin with her blacksmith husband, Tom Latané, three years after the Harbor View opened in 1980. “People plan a little expedition, with stops at B, D and C, ending up with dinner at the Harbor View, and we’re one of those stops.’’
In fact, the Harbor View is so popular it drives traffic toward all the towns around Lake Pepin.
“We get quite a few phone calls to our office, ‘Where is this restaurant that’s really well-known, Harbor something?’ and of course, we’re trying to get people to come to our city,’’ says Mary Huselid, director of the Lake City Chamber of Commerce. “It’d be nice to see that right here.’’
Now, Huselid's wish has been granted. Nosh, which built its reputation in Wabasha, has moved to a building that overlooks
Lake City’s marina. The town has a lovely spot along Lake Pepin and is famous for apple orchards and for being the
birthplace of water-skiing.
But it’s never really registered on the tourist radar, largely because it didn’t have a restaurant that could draw people into town.
“It’s been a long time coming,’’ Huselid says. “We’re very excited. We think it’s going to bring a lot of tourists to Lake City.’’
But Lake City’s gain was Wabasha’s loss. It’s such a loss that Wabasha businessman Dave Fisk offered a $1,000 finder’s fee to anyone who could help him come up with a replacement for Greg Jaworski, Nosh’s young chef.
Fisk is a native of Wabasha who returned to retire in the early 1990s but instead began buying and restoring buildings
downtown. One of his first projects was Slippery’s, the riverfront restaurant where the only Wabasha scene from the
1993 film “Grumpy Old Men’’ was filmed.
For an empty storefront on Main Street, he recruited chef Yu Zheng, whose Fresh Wok became so popular the chef opened branches in Plainview and Lake City.
But Wabasha still needed a fine restaurant to match its fine accommodations, many of them newly restored lofts in historic downtown buildings.
“We have a hundred upscale lodgings, with rooms $100 and up,’’ Fisk says. “Those people who come to town, they want to go to an upscale restaurant. Yeah, we really need it, we really need it in town.’’
Over the years, such a restaurant can become almost synonymous with the town itself, as Winona found when its Hot Fish Shop closed in 1999, after 68 years.
“Even today, I had people asking about the Hot Fish Shop,’’ says Pat Mutter, director of the Winona visitors bureau. “They were from Wisconsin and were looking to hold a car show here. That one used to attract a ton of people. It’s been closed for years, and people are still asking about it.’’
Winona has two universities and several large corporations, with many good places to eat. But until 2005, when Signatures opened at the Bridges Golf Club, it didn’t have a destination restaurant.
“They’re very important,’’ Mutter says. “I wish we had a bunch of them.’’
Years ago, vacationers were content to eat where the locals ate. Usually, that meant a supper club, and dinner was meat or fish, plus salad and potato.
Then people started taking more weekend getaways, often to celebrate an anniversary or birthday, and they wanted to dine at a
restaurant that could offer something special.
In isolated Lanesboro, Nancy Bratrud had opened her Mrs. B’s bed-and-breakfast in 1983, “when you could shoot a
cannon down main street and not hit anything.’’ Because a nearby restaurant had closed and she already had a
commercial kitchen, she began offering four-course prix-fixe dinners.
Both inn and food were a big hit that soon became even bigger when the Root River State Trail was built through town.
“We had no idea anyone would notice; we were just going to try to get by,’’ Bratrud said. “It was shocking. We were not prepared.’’
Other B&Bs opened, as well as a French restaurant in one of the hamlet’s Victorian houses. The Old Village Hall
Restaurant opened and is the local mainstay.
Longtime B&B proprietor Peggy Hanson calls Lanesboro’s inns, restaurants and theater “a three-legged stool.’’
“I like it when there are more choices, because it’s just another reason for people to come,’’ she says. “People here have figured out that a rising tide raises all boats.’’
For a list of good places to eat in small towns, see Happy meals.
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