It’s a beautiful and uncharacteristically warm Saturday morning in Duluth.
Rather than breakfasting in Canal Park, the familiar waterfront enclave of hotels, restaurants and shops near the Aerial Lift Bridge, I’ve taken my a.m. appetite to the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
(Note that, until about 20 minutes earlier, I was unaware that this semi-gritty area, a quick westerly skip out of downtown Duluth, even had a name, let alone one with such a stalwart, dipped-in-Americana ring as Lincoln Park.)
I’m sitting in my car, and enjoying the best breakfast ever, heedlessly inhaling every last fragrant morsel of a Duluth’s Best Bread caramel roll. Parting with $4 has rarely made me happier. It’s still radiating a bit of the oven’s heat, the barely sweet dough thickly matted with pecans that are suspended in a gooey, insanely buttery caramel topping.
My first thought? I should have bought a second one. My second thought: Don’t forget about the chocolate croissant.
Oh, that chocolate croissant. Each absurdly flaky and profoundly buttery bite bore a slight sourdough hint, and its center was pocked with hefty chunks of a wickedly dark, single-origin Venezuelan chocolate — that’s processed 40 miles away by Meadowlands Chocolate.
The selection (a few breads, the aforementioned sweets) is slim, and the shop’s physical presence and two-days-a-week schedule is similarly unassuming. But this quality-obsessed labor of love for two brothers — Michael Lillegard (he bakes) and Robert Lillegard (he sells) is one of many reasons why Duluth’s culinary scene has noticeably improved in the three years since I’d last grazed my way across the city.
Another reason? A second microbakery, by another enterprising entrepreneur. I stumbled across Amanda Belcher’s handiwork at what is easily the city’s most proficient caffeination station, the Duluth Coffee Co., where owner Eric Faust’s deep insight into sourcing, roasting and brewing is evident in each fastidiously crafted latté.
He also had the good sense to provide counter space to Belcher. The Duluth native picked up her craft at the former Bars Bakery in St. Paul before returning to her hometown and starting the Zenith Bread Project.
She’s baking up a storm, everything from tender hand pies filled with locally harvested rhubarb to what is easily the city’s top-performing chocolate chip cookie, heavy with slightly bitter Valrhona chocolate and twinkling with flakes of Maldon sea salt. Pass that glass of milk, pronto.
Don’t start hunting for Zenith’s brick-and-mortar location. At least not yet. Belcher’s next move: restoring a cute 1961 Shasta trailer and using it for pop-up events. Look for its debut in mid-July.
“I’m trying to figure out what kind of bakery I’m going to be,” she said. “I’m growing my business organically. Duluth is a good place to figure that all out.”
A third reason? Vikre Distillery, where Emily and Joel Vikre — who left careers in Boston to return to Emily’s hometown — are converting Lake Superior’s pristine waters into gins infused with juniper, spruce and other clean, bracing scents of northern Minnesota forests.
They’re also producing aquavit and vodka, and several whiskeys are patiently maturing in barrels; it’s going to be quite a party when they come of age.
The convivial cocktail room at the couple’s fascinating Canal Park operation (free tours are available daily at 5:30 p.m.) is the place to savor Duluth’s tastiest, most imaginative cocktails. Why not muddle snap peas, tarragon and lemon grass with gin and vodka? The combination was the entrancingly pale color of just-opening leaves, and tasted like a breezy, early summer day in the garden. Aaaaaaaaah.
Movers and shakers
Whatever the reason for visiting Duluth this summer — whether it’s Grandma’s Marathon, the Bayfront Blues Festival or Tall Ships Duluth — know that dining there was once equated with the Pickwick Restaurant & Pub.
Those days are over, although the 102-year-old steakhouse/supper-club classic hasn’t relinquished one iota of its Old World charm. In the 1980s and ’90s, the family of Grandma’s restaurants (Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, Bellisio’s, Little Angie’s Cantina and Grill, the Sports Garden Bar & Grill) played a major role in revitalizing the now-thriving Canal Park district.
Twenty-one-year-old Fitger’s Brewhouse has been another dominating force. The original gastropub remains a worthy stop, and owner Rod Raymond grows his business by launching outlets for brewmaster Frank Kaszuba’s ales and lagers. They’re all wonderfully different from one another. Head downstairs to the rathskeller at supper-club-esque Tycoons Zenith Alehouse and soak up the dripping-with-atmosphere surroundings. Burrito Union is numero uno in the huge-portions/cheap-eats realm, and it’s great to see that Endion Station finally has an operator who is giving strollers and bikers on the Lakewalk (Duluth’s fantastic 7-mile waterfront pathway) a pit stop worthy of the building’s historic charm and primo location.
Today’s leading restaurateur isn’t exactly a newcomer. For the past 15 years, Eric Goerdt’s Northern Waters Smokehaus has been as compelling a draw for Duluth visitors as a Glensheen guided tour.
Labeling Goerdt’s tiny, always-packed Canal Park storefront a mere “sandwich shop” doesn’t do it justice; it’s more of a beacon to the fine arts of smoking and curing. Go for the sublime bison pastrami, stay for fat-flecked saucisson sec, the exquisite coppa and the delicately smoked Lake Superior whitefish.
Goerdt’s latest venture opens up his expertise to a wider audience. The name’s shorter — it’s simply Northern Waters — but everything else has been pumped up: a much larger footprint in the city’s Chester Park neighborhood, full-on lunch and dinner menus, and a flexible format that seamlessly moves from counter service during the day to table service in the evening.
And what a table. The dining room (notable for its great-looking, vaguely Nordic design features) is dominated by what is surely the state’s longest communal table, a perfect venue for the handful of share-friendly platters that showcase Goerdt’s charcuterie skills and his discerning nose for cheese.
If it were located in Minneapolis, I’d dine here once a week. The all-day bar menu is worth a hike up the hill: crispy-skinned chicken wings, a fantastic house-made weisswurst buried under sauerkraut, addictive cracker-breaded-and-fried pork tenderloin, the tastiest taco served anywhere in the 218 area code and smoky pork ribs glazed in a sticky, sweet-hot sauce.
At dinner, larger appetites can indulge in an eclectic, highly pleasing array of larger dishes, including a lovely Nicoise starring oil-preserved Lake Superior trout, a salmon poke, an elegant freshwater fish chowder and a succulent roast lamb with toothy cannellini beans.
Lunch is even more casual, with a half-dozen well prepared sandwiches and salads. Dessert is restricted to (excellent) house-made ice cream. Another draw? The highly reasonable prices, made even more approachable by the no-tipping policy. There’s not a misstep anywhere.
Then there’s Duluth Grill owners Tom and Jaima Hanson, role models who have ignited a nascent culinary revolution by proving that a breakfast-to-dinner operation in a former truck stop doesn’t have to rely upon factory-made fare, and that the farm-to-table phenomenon doesn’t have to be synonymous with expensive.
Their something-for-everyone menus make all kinds of dietary allowances — vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free — and the nimble, made-from-scratch cooking impresses. The ultra-friendly hospitality is another plus, and the Hansons even offer a visual reminder that they practice what they preach: herbs and vegetables are cultivated in former parking lot acreage.
Here’s a touristy tip: Every Sunday morning through Oct. 9, the Hansons team up with Vista Fleet for Brunch on the Bay, a buffet-style meal on the water that includes all the usual suspects, plus a heaping helping of scenic views. Tickets $39.95 per person, reservations at vistafleet.com or 1-218-722-6218.
Up the shore
Another must-visit restaurant off the well-beaten Canal Park trail lies roughly 20 highly picturesque minutes up the shoreline.
While the address of his New Scenic Cafe is definitely more rural than urban, chef/owner Scott Graden cooks with big-city finesse. His far-flung menu, a reflection of his world travels, continually surprises and delights, but it’s also grounded in an obvious admiration for local, seasonal ingredients.
Whether it’s a special occasion or an impromptu lunch, service is smoothly professional. The wine and beer rosters are chosen with obvious care. The pie is spectacular. Heck, even the kids’ menu is a treat. Truly, I can’t imagine finding myself anywhere north of Hinckley and not dining here.
Continue driving up the shore past the New Scenic, and you’ll encounter two signs that elicit a hit-the-brakes reaction. The first is the neon beacon over the door at Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse, a North Shore institution with a stock-the-cooler selection of smoked herring, sugar-cured smoked lake trout and cisco, pickled herring and other delicacies.
The second is a sandwich board on the highway outside the delightful Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen, the one that gleefully announces the presence of “Nutty Ice Cream Bars.”
Translation: a hefty wedge of vanilla ice cream on a stick, dipped in rich chocolate, salty roasted peanuts and toasted coconut. It’s just one of several signature calling cards at this enchanting sugar shop.
The house-made caramel is so buttery that it can practically be spread on toast, the chocolate-coated sponge candy is a nostalgic throwback and the bark comes in almond, lemon and blueberry varieties. Don’t leave without the ultimate North Shore gardener’s souvenir, a package of lupine seeds, lovingly collected from beds up and down nearby McQuade Road and then dried, sorted and packaged by co-owner Dennis Matson.
Another newcomer worth a visit: Cedar Coffee Co., a handy spot for bike rentals and an in-the-woods respite for coffee, beer, wine, snacks and a rare crack at another up-and-coming Twin Ports artisanal food maker, Love Creamery ice cream. Yes, you should order the salted caramel.
Across the bridge
There are a number of reasons (beyond the vertigo-inducing views of St. Louis Bay) to traverse the John A. Blatnik Bridge and venture into Superior, Wis.
One major draw is the Spirit Room. Owner Jeff Heller has devoted several decades to restoring the Trade and Commerce Building, a 126-year-old landmark. His most recent project is this cozy, handsomely appointed respite for grown-ups.
The bar’s long list of libations includes a half-dozen inventive spins of what is surely the official Wisconsin state cocktail, the Old Fashioned. Prices induce sticker shock, in a good way.
Meanwhile, in his kitchen, chef Zac Simonen turns out an impressive (and impressively affordable) array of small plates, tempering the sweet side of scallops with earthy mushrooms, or forming cakes with gently smoked whitefish, or infusing a jerk seasoning into beef skewers. What a find.
Ten years ago, Steve and Susan Knauss converted a retrofitted creamery into fun-loving Thirsty Pagan Brewing, instantly making it a Mecca for those in search of the Badger State Holy Grail that is beer and pizza. There’s always something intriguing and offbeat on tap. Try their rendition of Berliner Weisse, a sour taste of summer blended with rhubarb sauce, or the cracked pepper-infused Pilsner; both pair well with the deep-dish pizza’s rib-sticking crusts and lively toppings.
The Twin Ports’ most enduring guilty pleasure remains the burgers at Superior’s most enduring dive bar, the dimly lit Anchor Bar and Grill. They weigh in at a third of a pound, and most fall within the $5-and-under range.
And sure, the city is home to a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise (find it at 3110 Tower Av.), but consider stopping in at A Dozen Excuses Donuts & More on downtown Superior’s coming-back-to-life main street.
Owners Melissa Kindgren, Reggie Crawford and Cliff Lindberg crank out several dozen lavishly topped varieties — banana split! strawberry shortcake! — doughnuts, in both cake and raised varieties. The trio also do a brisk business in beef-filled pasties and Coney Island-style hot dogs.
Keeping it mobile
Take a bite out of Duluth’s small but growing street-food scene at two major gathering spots.
The cozy taproom at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. pairs up with a host of visiting food vendors. Chewy pretzels from Zenith Bread Project (served with stone-ground mustard blended with the brewery’s stout-like Black Ale) are the star of the show on Wednesdays (starting around 3 p.m.).
On Thursdays (4 to 8 p.m.) a food truck (Chow Haul, the Rambler or KBQ Ribs) parks it out front. Fridays are pizza nights (4 to 8 p.m.), thanks to Log Home Wood Fired Pizza (which enriches its dough using the brewery’s spent grain) and Saturdays (noon to 8 p.m.) are all about burritos, tortas and tacos from El Oasis Del Norte.
At the Duluth Public Library (520 W. Superior St., 1-218-730-4200), Food Truck Fridays take over the building’s Michigan Street plaza. The library provides the tables and chairs, and a handful of Duluth’s finest drop in from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., through Sept. 2.
Here’s a third option: Nyanyika Banda — a vet of New York City’s Mission Chinese Food and WD-50 — operates her Marita, Duluth’s first pop-up restaurant, inside the red, barnlike shed that is the Duluth Farmers Market (1324 E. 3rd St., Duluth).
She shops her fellow vendors’ stands for organic ingredients. On Saturday mornings (7 a.m. to noon), it’s all about breakfast: root vegetable hash, or an egg sandwich with wild-foraged ramp pesto and tangy goat cheese from Sassy Nanny Farmstead Cheese in Bayfield, Wis., all stuffed into a fresh-baked English muffin from — you got it — Zenith Bread Project.
When the market convenes on Wednesday afternoons (2 to 6 p.m.), Banda concentrates on the tacos and ramens that garnered her a loyal following during the school year — she’s studying history at the University of Wisconsin-Superior — when she began popping into area nightclubs, her laud-worthy effort to pump up Duluth’s tepid late-night dining scene.
“I missed cooking, and I saw a pocket that needed to be filled,” she said. “I’m trying to incorporate fine-dining techniques into street food.”
While the Duluth dining scene doesn’t operate at the breakneck pace of its Twin Cities counterpart, there’s always a constant batch of newcomers on the horizon.
Blacklist Brewing plans to open its new downtown production facility for Belgian-style wheat ales — complete with taproom — sometime this summer at 120 E. Superior St.
OMC Smokehouse (that’s shorthand for Oink, Moo, Cluck), a barbecue joint from the talents behind the Duluth Grill, should be open by year’s end in a 130-year-old building at 1909 W. Superior St.
Next door, first-time restaurateurs Tom Donaldson and Heidi Frison hope to launch Boreal (1907 W. Superior St.) by early 2017. The flexible format will feature coffee, an in-house Paleo-style bakery and a farm-to-table cafe with a tapas emphasis.
And 21-year-old Amazing Grace Bakery & Cafe just went through an ownership reboot. Connor Riley bought the funky Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace destination from his mother, Marcie Stoyke, and chef Chad Minor has already launched new breakfast and lunch menus.