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Cork’s Grill & Wine Bar
2956 Division St., St. Cloud, 320-258-4422
Tucked behind a drab strip mall façade, this cozy little wine cellar and gourmet kitchen has quietly become a locals’ favorite special-occasion spot for sampling edibles imported from other regions —including California wines, Prince Edward Island mussels, and wild boar from Texas.
Thielen’s Meat Market
310 Main St. N., Pierz, 320-468-6616
In 2002, after nearly 80 years of business, Thielen’s gained national notoriety when its bacon was praised in the New York Times. Phones rang off the hook, production quadrupled, Martha Stewart placed an order. The hoopla has subsided, but the bacon is still worth the fuss. Pick up some of the deep-smoked, thick-cut stuff on your way through town, plus a package of lard—it’s pie season, after all.
711 Washington St., Brainerd, 218-829-9297
Over the noon hour, the counter stools and booths are packed at this tiny, rust-colored shed on Brainerd’s main drag. The waitress will probably call you “hon,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” or “angel,” but she won’t make a fuss if you drop bits of the Maid-Rite, the Barn’s signature sandwich, all over the table. The “Maid” is spiced ground beef on a bun—a sloppy joe without the sauce. And while the waitress might urge you to order it without the onions, “or you won’t get no kisses,” our advice is more serious: Score a slice of pie before it’s gone.
15115 Edgewood Dr., Baxter, 218-824-6444
Prairie Bay offers all the comforts of your local Applebee’s, but it has a lot more class, starting with the restaurant’s design: open kitchen, blond-wood accents, and Arts and Crafts–style light fixtures. The menu is more upscale, too. A simple green salad might be made with arugula, fresh figs, and pecorino cheese. But while the pizza may come topped with pesto instead of tomato sauce, the vibe is still all Baxter.
34757 County Rd. 39, Pequot Lakes, 218-543-6136
Knick-knacks and pine paneling set the scene for a menu of surf ’n’ turf, smoked chicken, rack of lamb, and veggies fried in the kitchen’s famous sourdough batter. With 50 years in the business, they don’t miss a beat. As the owners say: “The only thing we overlook is Kimble Lake.”
8363 Lakeland Trail NW, Walker, 218-547-1006
This re-vamped roadhouse contemporizes the log-cabin look with sage-green walls, expansive views, a wraparound porch, and a beautiful wood wine rack separating the dining room from the bar. For drinks, Boulders offers a California-focused wine list and the area’s largest selection of martinis, including both the flirty Tiffany Blue (Shakers vodka and blue Curaçao) and the festive Cinnamon Twist Martini (garnished with crushed Red Hots). And for dinner, Boulders emphasizes steaks and seafood dishes: from filet mignon to skillet paella.
Wild Hare Bistro
523 Minnesota Ave., Bemidji, 218-444-5282
With its display of local artwork, a bulletin board advertising a globalization forum, and a basket of free buttons (“Men of quality respect women’s equality”), the Wild Hare would fit right in were it plopped down in the middle of Minneapolis. The chalkboard menu lists an array of casual coffeehouse fare: espresso drinks, baked goods, hummus platters, soups, and sandwiches. Yet the Hare retains its comforting small-town sense with the box on the counter where regulars can store their free-coffee punch cards.
“The Restaurant Capital of the World,” Dorset
Dorset House, 218-732-5556
Dorset Café, 218-732-4072
Tiny Dorset’s hyperbolic claim is based on a per-capita calculation of four restaurants for 22 residents. Just steps from the Heartland Trail (a sign reads “Please remove Rollerblades before entering the store”), Dorset is little more than a strip of quaint storefronts with a covered wooden boardwalk. It looks like the set of an old Western. The Dorset House restaurant has all the fixtures of an old-fashioned soda fountain, from the tin ceiling to the spinning bar stools. LaPasta serves Italian fare, Compañeros Mexican. Take a pass on what the Dorset Café considers a salad bar (imitation bacon bits, cling peaches with cottage cheese), but the broasted chicken is crisp, juicy, and delicious.
28234 Hwy. 34, Akeley, 218-652-2478
A bit of Bavaria just off the byway between Akeley and Nevis, the Brauhaus is staffed by waitresses in apron-draped dresses serving weissbiers, sauerkraut, and spätzle accompanied by polka music. Owned by a German native who isn’t about to serve just the standard tourist fare of beer and brats, the restaurant offers authentic dishes such as currywurst, sauerbraten, jägerschnitzel, and a pâté that Braunschweiger might aspire to (creamy as whipped butter, with just a hint of liver flavor). The restaurant’s most famous dish is the schweinshaxe, a pig leg slow-cooked to be tender and flavorful—and nearly heavy enough to crack the table when the waitress sets it down.
Patrick’s on Third
125 S. Third St., St. Peter, 507-931-9051
Bars in college towns don’t usually fall into the can’t-miss category. (In fact, they usually fall into the run-as-fast-and-far-away-as-possible category). And make no mistake: Patrick’s is very much a college bar, complete with pool tables, beer signs, and the faint stench of post-adolescent angst. For anyone who’s a burger connoisseur, however, it’s also a required stop. The burgers, from the modest Gustie to the aptly named and appointed Chuck Norris (it consists of two one-pound patties, four strips of bacon, four slices of American cheese, and a full grilled cheese sandwich in the middle), are—to use a technical term—awesome, a perfect ratio of beef, bun, and fixings. Or at least good enough to put up with the stench of angst for a while.