Where to Eat, Drink, and Explore in 10 Minnesota Cities
Adventuring and eating is more fun with friends
photo by jacob lund - fotolia
We like food and traveling, yes we do. We like food and traveling, how 'bout you? Is there anything better? Really, is there? Few things in life are as thrilling as traveling to an unknown location in search of adventure, and when you throw some tantalizing eats into the mix, well, we're getting excited just thinking about it. Thankfully, we live in a state where there's always something to see and do, and finger-licking grub can be found regardless of which direction that needle in your compass is pointing. We've mapped out some of the best activities to try and places to visit—along with some of the area's best-tasting fare—in every corner of the state. So, what are you waiting for? Grab some friends, pile into a car, blast some tunes, and start exploring.
Detroit Mountain Recreation Area
photo by justin miller photography
In Detroit Lakes, about 3.5 hours northwest of the Twin Cities, the population swells from 8,500 residents to nearly 30,000 during swimsuit season. Really, though, it’s a haven for nature lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and history buffs any time of year, with the four-season Detroit Mountain Recreation Area (mountain biking, hiking, and birding are popular in the warm months), the 17,000-acre Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, and celebrations ranging from the Festival of Birds in the spring to the Northwest Water Carnival in July.
Brew Ales & Eats, Detroit Lakes
photo courtesy brew ales & eats
While there are plenty of good restaurants in “DL,” there’s one that is recommended again and again (and again) by those “in the know”—Brew Ales & Eats. Sharing a mutual appreciation of great food, craft beer, and cool spaces, owners Gretchen and Nate Hunter, along with friends Alex and Britt Belquist, realized their beloved small town of Detroit Lakes was missing those elements, particularly the “hand-crafted cuisine and carefully selected beers that other ‘big city’ gastropubs offered,” Gretchen explains. They opened their restaurant in 2014 in a revamped space, complete with an extensive list of 32 rotating beers on tap, locally sourced, from-scratch “over-the-top pub grub,” and a four-season patio with a wood-burning fireplace. “Guests enjoy the patio year-round,” Gretchen says. “We’re Minnesota tough.”
Popular menu items include the goat cheese quesadilla appetizer, quinoa salad, Brewben burger (half-burger, half-reuben sandwich), poutine (even Canadians agree that it’s good), and Guinness cake.
Just south of the Canadian border, the small town of Roseau is all about the outdoors, from hockey in winter (the Roseau High School team has been in the boys’ state hockey tourney more than any other team in the state), to fishing, hunting, and ATVing in the Lake of the Woods area when the snow and ice melt.
In Roseau, the Brickhouse Restaurant & Bar is where the locals like to eat. According to one review, “The owners take an interest in REAL food, not frozen-reheated.” The bread is freshly baked and there’s a classy yet casual vibe and fun atmosphere, including live music on the weekends.
Popular items include chicken breast with bacon sauce, walleye, burgers (cooked to order), beef filet, and prime rib.
Polaris Experience Center
photo courtesy polaris
Before or after your meal, check out the 5,600-square-foot Polaris Experience Center, housed in the same historic building as the restaurant. Polaris built the visitor center to showcase the company’s history. Admission is free.
The rugged landscape and rich mining history of the towns on the Iron Range leave a lasting impression on visitors. The wealth extracted from the mines (the richest iron deposit in the U.S.) supported generations of workers. In operation since 1895, the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine—one of the largest open pit mines in the world at 8 miles long and 3 miles wide (according to one visitor, “like a man-made Grand Canyon”)—is a lesson in ingenuity. See mining in action, hike along a trail, let the kids climb in an iron ore truck, and learn about the history of the area.
Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine, Hibbing
photo courtesy of iron range tourism
Not far from the mine is Hibbing High School, built in 1923 at a cost of $4 million, completely bankrolled by the mining industry. The high school features a Barton pipe organ, circa 1900—one of only two that still exist in the United States—and an 1800-seat auditorium modeled after the Capital Theatre in New York City (the chandeliers alone cost $15,000 each at the time they were made, and are now insured for $250,000). Another claim to fame? Bob Dylan performed on that very stage.
In the nearby town of Chisholm, stop at Valentini’s Supper Club, a restaurant that’s been family-owned and operated since 1934. Throughout the past 80 years, three generations of family have taken the reins at Valentini’s, serving authentic Italian cuisine the way Justina Valentini did when she moved to the Iron Range from Italy to start a new life in America. Favorites include the meatball appetizer, ravioli, gnocchi, carbonara, and chicken cacciatore.
With Lake Superior in the distance and the Sawtooth Mountains rising in the background, a trip to Grand Marais—the only North Shore community whose downtown is on the lakeshore—feels like a trip to the sea. Watch the ships sail by on Lake Superior, fish the inland lakes, and explore the area. Drive just 25 minutes north on Highway 61 to Judge CR Magney State Park and hike along a trail to Devil’s Kettle Waterfall. Drive further north to Grand Portage State Park on the Canada-US border and see the impressive 120-foot High Falls waterfall, the tallest in the state. Amidst the area’s wild beauty, there is culture, history, and an only-on-the-North Shore vibe, evident in the North House Folk School, Grand Marais Art Colony, Artists’ Point, and popular Gun Flint Tavern, located at the head of the Gunflint Trail. “Our inspiration [for opening the restaurant] was a little self-centered,” explains Jeff Gecas, who co-owns the tavern along with his wife Susan. “We were frustrated that there wasn’t a place in town to get a Guinness on draft—or microbrews for that matter—and a nice homemade soup at 1 in the afternoon.”
photo by carl foster
The couple opened their restaurant in 1998, adopted a “no smoking” policy, said no to light beer (and the deep fryer), and served Susan’s recipes along with 12 (good) beers on tap. The community response was overwhelming. Today the menu includes an eclectic mix of Mexican, Asian, and American fare (popular items include smoked lake trout salad, fisherman’s stew, and walleye), 20 bottled beer selections, and 24 microbrews on tap—including five of their own brewed by head brewmaster Paul Gecas, the owners’ nephew.
Self-proclaimed “Deadheads” and music fans, the couple supports local musicians by lining up live music 275 nights a year. “There are a lot of talented musicians in this community and the Northland,” says Jeff, who books the bands. “We have them play here on a consistent basis along with other talented bands from Duluth, Minneapolis, Wisconsin and beyond.”
Gunflint Tavern, Grand Marais
photo courtesy of visit cook county
The next time you’re in Grand Marais, grab a window seat at the Gun Flint Tavern facing the harbor, sip a pint in The Raven, decorated like a tavern from the early 1900s, or—in the summer—head up to the rooftop bar and remind yourself that Life is good.
One of the oldest cities in the state (established in 1848), Little Falls—midway between St. Cloud and Brainerd on the Mississippi River—offers a fascinating look into Minnesota’s past. Tour world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s childhood home; see tanks, artillery, and helicopters at the Minnesota Military Museum/Camp Ripley; go to the Pine Grove Zoo (the second-oldest zoo in the state); or check out the Minnesota Fishing Museum, with fishing items from yesteryear on display.
Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site, Little Falls
photo courtesy of minnesota historical society
When you’re ready to rejoin the present, dine at A.T. The Black & White. Originally built in 1931 and purchased by chef/owners Amanda and Tomas Zimmerman in 2006, The Black and White has become the restaurant in town for innovative, fresh, seasonal food, excellent service, and community support (the Zimmermans regularly donate to local causes and host fundraising events at the restaurant). They carry a large selection of craft beer and wine, including a rotating list of tap beer, and menu favorites including the crab cakes, crab omelet, turkey wild rice wrap, goat cheese salad, black bean burger, Reuben, and The Black and White Express (dark chocolate mousse) and beer brownie sundae for dessert. In 2016, the restaurant was named “Restaurant of the Year” by the Minnesota Restaurant Association.
Brainerd and Baxter are gateway communities to the Brainerd Lakes area, both featuring a distinctly “Up North, at-the-lake” vibe. In the spring and summer, the sky’s the limit. Visitors come seeking lake recreation, mini golf at Pirate’s Cove, races at Brainerd International Raceway, outdoor activities in the 500-acre Northland Arboretum, biking on the Paul Bunyan State Trail (bike more than 75 miles from Baxter all the way to Bemidji), family fun at Paul Bunyan Land, shopping, fun festivals, and unique dining.
Paul Bunyan Land, Brainerd
photo courtesy explore minnesota
One of the gems of Baxter is Prairie Bay Grill & Catering, first opened in 2004. Nick Miller, co-owner, takes pride in the fact that Prairie Bay has earned a reputation for quality service, delicious locally sourced food, a staff that truly enjoys what they do (and has fun doing it), and their support of the Brainerd Lakes community. One way they show this support is by serving beer—they have 13 on tap—from the four local breweries in the area (Miller’s personal favorite is Jack Pine’s Fenceline).
prairie Bay Grill & Catering, Baxter
photo courtesy prairie bay grill & Catering
In the summer, he recommends the build-your-own bruschetta platter: “the colors from the heirloom tomatoes make it look like a piece of art.”
Best known as “Spam Town USA” and the home of Hormel Foods (established in 1891), it would be remiss to visit Austin without a trip to the Spam Museum. The free museum recently moved to a new location on Main Street, and is jam-packed (like meat in a can) with hands-on activities and games, educational exhibits showcasing Spam’s influence around the world, and a large indoor playland for the little ones.
The Tendermaid, Austin
photo by terry brennan
After exploring the museum, treat yourself to a milk shake and loose-meat, secret-recipe burger (similar to a sloppy joe) at The Tendermaid—an old-fashioned diner located in Austin since 1938. After eating, walk along miles of peaceful trails at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center wildlife preserve, or rent a canoe or kayak and paddle on the pond or down Dobbins Creek to East Side Lake.
Although the southern portion of the state is no longer an ocean of tallgrass prairie, you can still feel the peace and solitude—and the historical significance—of the region. Pipestone has long been a meeting place for Native American tribes who traveled from all over the Midwest to learn to live in harmony. At Pipestone National Monument, the grounds are still considered a sacred site to many Native Americans due to the red pipestone used to carve peace pipes—only those who are members of a tribe are allowed to quarry.
Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone
photo courtesy national park service
Visitors can hike the grounds on the marked Circle Trail (you’ll walk by Winnewissa Falls and the pipestone quarries), visitors can watch cultural demonstrations at the visitor center, and buy pipestone crafts in the gift shop.
While in Pipestone, dine at Lange’s Cafe on Highway 75, a family-owned restaurant since 1956 that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Their specialties include from-scratch pastries (the sour cream raisin pie was a recipe of owner Steve Lange’s great grandma), buttery warm caramel rolls, pork porterhouse, French toast made with thick French bread, real mashed potatoes (peeled fresh every morning), and deep-fried, boneless chicken breast.
MPLS/St. Paul Region
Whether visiting Eagan to go mountain biking, hiking, running, canoeing or fishing at the scenic 1,869-acre Lebanon Hills Regional Park, check out the Cascade Bay Waterpark, or go shopping at the Twin Cities Premium Outlets, Ze’s Diner—with locations in Eagan and Woodbury—is a fun place. “Kids will like it,” says Moody Arafa, who runs the family-friendly ‘50s-themed restaurant along with his wife Zeze, the restaurant’s namesake. The couple has more than 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, also owning and operating Cahill Diner in Inver Grove Heights.
Cascade Bay Waterpark, Eagan
photo courtesy Explore Minnesota
At Ze’s, you can get cheeseburgers and malts, breakfast all day, and more unexpected items like veggie falafel pitas, grape leaves, Mediterranean kebobs, and chicken hummus wraps.
The next time you’re in the northwestern ‘burb of Maple Grove—whether to play at Elm Creek Regional Park or to try whirlyball at Whirlyball Twin Cities (think bumper cars meets lacrosse meets basketball)—stop at 3 Squares Restaurant. The vision was “a neighborhood gathering place for good beer and food,” says Stephanie Shimp, owner, Blue Plate Restaurant Company. The restaurant is well known for its craft beer selection, with 28 taps—the most popular being their own Freehouse Beer No. 2 IPA or No. 1 Kolsch—and “everyone loves our fish tacos, mac ‘n cheese, and cheese curds,” says Shimp. They’re always trying new features, too: Right now customers can order a banh mi sandwich or braised lamb. In the summer, the patio, with seating for up to 160 people, is the spot to be.