When Minnesotans cast their eyes around the region with a long weekend trip in mind, it’s often toward the North Shore or western Wisconsin. But there’s good reason to look west, to vital and varied Fargo, on North Dakota’s eastern border.
Once a point of stopping for steamboats on the Red River, then a flourishing railroad center (it was named after Wells Fargo Express Company co-founder William Fargo), Fargo has long sat at a crossroads—literally, in the post-World War II era, as the intersection of Interstates 94 and 29. Fargo’s relative remoteness at the edge of the Great Plains meant that it was largely unknown to the vast majority of Americans until the Coen brothers evoked it on movie screens (ironically, Fargo was filmed and took place almost entirely in Minnesota). Yet it is a city with a history of flooding and tornadoes that has endured amid the shifting fortunes of the state.
Today Fargo is a Rochester-sized city, with a population that increases to almost a quarter million when Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the river, and surrounding towns are factored in. Western North Dakota’s oil energy boom has stuffed state coffers with tax revenues and reversed the region’s once notorious brain drain. In recent years, Fargo has seen concerted efforts from city and private investors to restore and renovate its urban core—and the results have produced a city that is on the rise and in a process of reinvention.
Ten years ago, when the Hotel Donaldson, or “HoDo,” (101 N. Broadway, hoteldonaldson.com) brought the boutique digs you’d expect of London or New York to Fargo, even the glossy national travel magazines took notice. Its urban-chic style—created by a mod renovation of a 100-year-old former fraternal lodge—was then, and still is, unique in the region. With tasteful luxury, each room is decorated with the work of a different regional artist, and clean lines contrast in style with exposed brick from the original structure; the beds and bathrooms are modern with details that could be plucked from a design catalog (rolling room dividers, low-slung beds in rich wood hues), with high windows that frame beautifully the afternoon light. The staff is attentive without being intrusive, and the daily wine-and-cheese plate in the comfortable lobby feels emblematic of the low-key yet welcoming indulgence that permeates throughout. Most importantly, the Donaldson feels both rooted to its plains environs as well as sophisticated enough to stack up to counterparts on either coast.
Downstairs, the HoDo Restaurant emphasizes local and fresh ingredients, which presents its own level of challenge given Fargo’s unique geographic realities—as a result, the menu features distinct takes on dishes centered around bison, venison, and farm chicken, as well as grass-fed beef and Wild Acres farm duck. Starters include a more-or-less mandatory Bison tartare, with entrées such as the market cut of venison arriving with hearty accompaniments, such as beets and puffed wild rice. Like the hotel, the HoDo restaurant feels worldly and firmly rooted into the North Dakota landscape—with vegetarian options accordingly limited.
Across the way on the ground floor, the HoDo Lounge is a roomy and comfortable bar that regularly hosts live music but is also a perfect spot to end up at the end of the night. It’s more casual than the HoDo Restaurant, with a menu including both steak and burgers, and a nice list of artisan cocktails.
The HoDo’s main competition for modern fine dining, Mezzaluna (309 Roberts St., dinemezzaluna.com) rivals it for hippest dining spot in central Fargo. It’s located in the Lofts on Roberts Street building, tucked away a block off Broadway, and decorated with pressed metal and wood to reflect the artisanal philosophy underpinning the menu. Classic cocktails combine with locally sourced fine-dining takes on American cuisine, including a grilled duck breast and leg confit, and a pistachio encrusted rack of lamb that calls out for a perfect wine pairing.
Open for lunch as well as dinner, the old-school Monte’s Downtown (220 N. Broadway, montesdowntown.com) serves up salads, pastas, and drinks with a low-key cocktail sophistication and dishes ranging from a light arugula salad with toasted walnuts to a grilled fillet mignon with blue cheese and grilled onions.
Maxwell’s (1380 Ninth St. E., West Fargo, maxwellsnd.com) offers relaxed, Continental-inspired dining including a lobster spinach fettuccini and a hearty peppered elk steak. Brunch is served Sundays—when the HoDo and Mezzaluna are closed.
If you’re on the go, there’s no shortage of places in Fargo to drop in for a quick refueling stop. Atomic Coffee (222 N. Broadway, fmatomic.com) is the corner joe joint—it’s also ground zero for vegan and vegetarian food. Vinyl Taco (520 First Ave. N., vinyltaco.com) combines a music-oriented experience, with all tunes on LPs, a full bar, and authentic Mexican street food right down to the house-made tortillas. Spicy Pie (322 N. Broadway, spicypiepizza.com) is the best spot for a late-night slice.
Zandbroz Variety (420 N. Broadway, zandbroz.com) is primarily a well-curated bookstore (with a treasure trove of rarities and first editions in a semi-secret back room); the shop also features new and vintage writing instruments, as well as a selection of cards, gifts, décor items, and body products. Pinch & Pour (210 N. Broadway, pinchandpour.com) occupies a light-filled space on the ground floor of the gorgeously restored downtown Loretta Building and an unexpected retail combination: Its varieties of fresh-crushed olive oils are available for tasting and purchase in a variety of sizes, along with a line of balsamic vinegars and spices—not to mention a clothing shop occupying half the place. The Revolver (627 First Ave. N.) has funky vintage and contemporary clothes. Shannalee (313 N. Broadway, shannalee.com) offers men’s and women’s clothing and accessories.
Feed Your Soul
Ecce Art + Yoga (216 N. Broadway, ecce216.com) feels in some ways like the epicenter of the downtown Fargo renaissance—in the heart of downtown, it combines an art gallery with a yoga studio in a gorgeous rehabilitated space that combines period wood and brick with integrated updates. There are drop-in yoga classes, and the fine-art gallery space hosts frequent openings and a wide range of work in different visual mediums. Steps away is Boerth’s Gallery (212 Broadway N., boerthsgallery.com), with origins dating to 1902 and original artwork for sale. The Plains Art Museum (704 First Ave. N., plainsart.org) is a regional art museum with recent works including exhibitions in ceramics and film.
The Nail Bar (505 N. Broadway, nailbarfargo.com) boasts a full range of mani-pedi services with names inspired by cocktail culture (manicure options include the Mint Julep and the Mango Margarita). For spa treatments, Hair Success Salons (hairsuccesssalons.com) has two locations in Fargo within minutes driving distance from downtown, with services including hair, nails, spa, and body treatments.
Once a month through the summer, downtown Fargo is home to the single-night Corks and Canvas Art & Wine Walk (downtownfargo.com), a stroll through the center of town with selected wines and area art for viewing and purchase, along with artists working live. The Downtown Fargo Street Fair (downtownfargo.com) is July 17-19, with food, crafts, and an open-air celebratory atmosphere. The Moorhead River Arts Festival (ci.moorhead.mn.us) is family-oriented, with free music, rides, and games at the city’s Memorial Park. The Red River Valley Fair (redrivervalleyfair.com) takes place from July 8-13 this year, with live grandstand entertainment, exhibits, carnival games, and concessions. On August 15-16, the Fargo Blues Festival (fargobluesfest.com) features a dozen big-name blues acts (including Johnny Winter and Keb’ Mo’) for all-day enjoyment.
Let Fargo Entertain You
The antique movie house Fargo Theatre (314 N. Broadway, fargotheatre.org) screens films and houses live music events with a strong historic vibe, with a balcony, beautiful marquee, and old-timey touches throughout. Theatre B (716 Main Ave., theatreb.org) stages a four-show season with mostly contemporary works (including, last year, recent NYC hits Red and Clybourne Park).
The Slow Road
From the Twin Cities, take I-94 towards St. Cloud. From there, you can opt for Highway 371 through Little Falls, then cut across on Highway 10 toward scenic Detroit Lakes, stopping along the way at New York Mills.
The Lunch Stop
White Horse (809 W. St. Germain, St. Cloud, whitehorsemn.com) Here’s a comfortable lunch stop, especially if you score one of the long booths in the dining room that seem scaled for giants. Salads and burgers complement a robust array of tap beers, and the Pulled Pork Commercial open-faced sandwich with mashed potatoes ensures hearty nourishment for the road ahead.
The Leg Stretch
SuLaine’s Antique Mall (603 Hwy. 10 E., Detroit Lakes) Detroit Lakes is home to a huge range of outdoor activity throughout the year, and in the warm-weather months features fishing, hiking, and golf. If you’re passing through, SuLaine’s is a perfect place to stretch your legs, filled with furniture, books, small-town antique finds, and all manner of odds and ends under one roof.
New York Mills Whistle Stop Bed & Breakfast (107 E. Nowell St., whistlestopbedandbreakfast.com) There’s a reason romance in the old movies was often kindled on trains. A series of refurbished turn-of-the-previous-century railroad cars sprawl across these B&B grounds, available for sleeping along with more traditional rooms in the Victorian main house. Train-car options include hot tubs and saunas, and a sense of history if you opt to explore where the old railroad car ends and your room for the night begins (the updates differ from car to car). The Viking Car, for instance, was once used by the Forestry Service before it became a commercial kitchen and a Deerwood diner. At night in New York Mills, the silence will probably be punctuated only by the sound of still-running trains passing by in the night.
In the morning make a quick stop at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center (24 Main Ave. N., kulcher.org)—it’s the home of the annual Great American Think-Off, with events and exhibits throughout the year and a gift shop featuring work by area artists. For a straight-ahead burger and a small-town, family-feeling bowling experience, Mills Lanes & Lucky Strike Grill (407 E. Centennial 84 Dr.) is just down the road.