Destination Duluth: Where to eat right now

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2013 - 8:10 AM

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Duluth is full of surprises. The ever-present lake views, the equivalent of a live-action postcard, never fail to startle and delight, and the tourist attractions seem to multiply each year. Also remarkable: the city’s ever-growing culinary scene. Longtime practitioners continue to impress, and a steady stream of talented newcomers are revitalizing downtown, energizing Canal Park and popping up in offbeat pockets across the city. Craft breweries, artisanal cocktails, locavore cooking, food trucks — dining in Duluth has never been more diverse or more satisfying. Let the good eats begin: Our summer 2013 guide to 25 drinking, dining and food-related shopping suggestions in Duluth (and a few in nearby Superior) starts now:

Food lovers’ haven
The region’s most inspired cooking can be found at the New Scenic Cafe, a must-visit for Duluth-bound gastro-tourists. For 14 years, chef/owner Scott Graden has taken his cues from the seasons and the local larder, crafting an eclectic array of colorful, artfully composed and subtly delicious fare at lunch and dinner. The serene surroundings, expert service and picturesque lakeside location — roughly 20 exceedingly scenic minutes up the shore from downtown — only add to the experience. As for dessert, here’s hoping your server says what ours did: “We have four kinds of pie tonight.” Music to anyone’s ears, as Graden’s kitchen is home to some of Minnesota’s most gifted piemakers.

Food lovers’ haven, part 2
Northern Waters Smokehaus may look like a modest sandwich shop, but appearances are deceiving. Owner Eric Goerdt presides over one of the state’s great culinary treasures. The shop’s repertoire includes sublime smoked meats (a pancetta of the gods, a bison pastrami that has to be tasted to be believed), expertly prepared chorizo and dry-cured salamis plus smoked Lake Superior whitefish and trout (try his incredible smoked whitefish sausage). All that goodness is incorporated into a dozen or so dazzling sandwiches, prime quick-service fodder for anyone within 25 miles of Canal Park. Heck, make that 50 miles. Choosing the house-smoked porketta on stirato is a no-brainer, but don’t overlook the curry-infused smoked leg of lamb on naan, the fancy-schmancy liverwurst on a hero or the awesome corned beef brisket on rye. Goerdt imports bagels from Superior’s Red Mug Bake Shop (while they won’t be mistaken for their New York City counterparts, they have a vigorously chewy pull) and liberally stuffs them with stacks of smoked Atlantic salmon and a criminal amount of scallion-enriched cream cheese. It may be Duluth’s best breakfast, a remarkable distinction for a place that doesn’t open until 10 a.m.

Picnic fodder
It’s easy to fill a picnic basket at Whole Foods Co-op, Duluth’s well-stocked natural foods supermarket (and no relation to the Whole Foods Market mega-chain). Peruse the dairy case for a small but winning selection of Midwestern cheeses, then stock up on olives at the salad bar and dried fruits and nuts in the bulk-food aisles. Make a meal from the deli’s prepared-to-order sandwich board, or grab a few freshly prepared spreads — cilantro and edamame hummus, roasted red pepper, curried tofu — tailor-made for swiping across rustic loaves from the skilled bakers at Ashland Baking Co. in Ashland, Wis. Wash it all down with Minnesota-made Joia sodas. The city certainly has its share of impromptu picnic locations, including Enger Park, Park Point and Chester Bowl parks. But another lovely spread-the-picnic-blanket destination is the inviting green lawn — and adjacent rose garden — at Leif Erikson Park. It boasts magnificent Lake Superior views — and breezes — and it’s about 12 blocks from the store.

Cool treats
The reflex response is to head to the adorably nostalgic PortLand Malt Shoppe, a walk-up lakefront landmark for scoops, sundaes, floats, shakes and malts. But consider dropping in on the nearby Va Bene Caffe, Duluth’s top-performing Italian restaurant, where the scoop case contains a dozen ever-changing, full-flavored varieties of gelato and sorbetto. Dining in? The restaurant’s porch just might boast the city’s most enchanting lake views.

Brewcomer
Bursting with energy, great looks, an exceptional location and a rare lakeside patio, Canal Park Brewing Co. has a lot going for it. There’s beer, of course, brewed on-site in a showy facility. But the kitchen also deserves points for turning out a wide range of beer-friendly fare. Think sports bar with a contemporary twist: warm, salty soft pretzels with beer-infused mustard, tangy pickled herring on rye toast, creamy deviled eggs, beer-Cheddar soup, ridiculously huge burgers, a snappy-skinned grilled bratwurst with pungent sauerkraut, ale-braised corned beef sandwiches and more. It’s the best addition to its namesake neighborhood in years.

More beer
Suds-crazed Duluth has no end of opportunities for craft beer seekers (follow the user-friendly guide at www.duluthbeertrail.com). For a premium taproom experience, head west from tourist-focused Canal Park and go to Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Brewmasters Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen have a flair for offbeat brews, including Bent Hop, their deeply golden IPA, and the oats-packed Black Ale, which is part porter, part stout. Every Saturday at noon, the duo opens their brewery for free tours.

Beer, as in root
Fizzy Waters capitalizes on Duluth’s bottomless thirst for beer— the nonalcoholic version, anyway. Spouses Steve and Susan Smith are filling shelves with bottled root beers and sodas, a coast-to-coast list that emphasizes Midwestern names: Sprecher, Blumer’s, Dorothy’s Isle of Pines, Point, Fitz’s, Buddy’s, Spring Grove. There’s a make-your-own-soda component. Oh, and floats, naturally. At last count, there were 110 root beers, along with several dozen offbeat sodas along the lines of blueberry cream and rhubarb. “And we’re just getting started,” said Steve Smith.

Food trucks
The mobile food scene has a nascent presence in the city by the lake. The big green Rambler is all about creative (and hefty) sandwiches — a kind of sweet-and-sour pulled pork, juicy pot roast with all the right trimmings — while Chow Haul hawks grilled chicken banh mi, peanut butter-jalapeño wontons and other global quick-service fare. Track their whereabouts on Twitter. Better yet, drop by Bent Paddle Brewing Co. on Thursday evenings (through August), when both are parked out front.

Big-city feel
One of the anchors of E. Superior Street’s continuing renaissance is the Zeitgeist complex, which houses a movie theater, art gallery and, most important, a restaurant and bar, the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe. In a two-level space that wouldn’t look out of place in Minneapolis’ hopping North Loop, chef Taylor Peterson treats his guests to a great-looking smoked salmon salad, delicate herb-scented gnocchi, texture- and flavor-packed rice bowls, a juicy bison burger crowned with a slab of Stilton cheese, a savory duck pot pie and other modern crowd-pleasing ideas. That’s just at dinner. Lunch is also served, along with a creative weekend brunch.

Fresh fish
Twin Citians accustomed to driving to the nearest strip mall for sushi will not fully appreciate the seismic shift in the Duluth dining landscape that Hanabi Japanese Cuisine represents. Sushi, in the Twin Ports! All the standards are present and accounted for: sushi, sashimi and a long list of highly elaborate rolls, plus a smattering of noodle and grilled teriyaki items, all served in pleasant surroundings. The restaurant is just one example of downtown’s encouraging revival. Oh, and happy hour? Some major deals are served daily, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Boffo bar
The newish owners at the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar have made plenty of admirable improvements since buying the place in 2009. At the top of that list is a reinvigorated bar, where micro-distillery spirits and liqueurs, house-made infusions and fresh juices are the rule, and creative craft cocktail-making happens on a daily basis. By Twin Cities standards, the wine prices will seem positively happy hour-esque. Another tip: Weekend brunch is a first-rate affair, best enjoyed with the bar’s robust bloody Marys and tart grapefruit Mimosas.

Superior pizza
Nothing against Pizza Lucé, which has a major downtown Duluth presence, but that’s an experience that can be had in the Twin Cities. Instead, set the GPS to Superior and Thirsty Pagan Brewing, where the house specialty — alongside well-crafted beers — is an excellent sort-of deep-dish pizza. Baked in high-rimmed, oven-scarred round pans, the crust falls into a category all its own, with a crispy and sturdy outer shell that yields to a soft, bready interior. It’s fabulous, and owners Susan and Steve Knauss don’t skimp on the toppings, either. The funky and highly convivial setting — and the staff’s we’re-thrilled-you’re-here enthusiasm — adds to the appeal.

The anti-chain
Yes, fans of Starbucks, Caribou and Dunn Bros., your caffeinators maintain Duluth outposts. But the chains can’t touch the lattés, cappuccinos, espressos and brewed-to-order cups made at the quality-obsessed Duluth Coffee Co. Every step of the process is scrutinized by owner Eric Faust, from his relationships with small coffee producers to his skill at the roaster. The stylish downtown storefront is warm and inviting — the turntable and record collection are nice touches — and the neighboring How Sweet It Is bakery keeps the place stocked with croissants, pain au chocolat and other pastries. Pick up one of the shop’s coffee-infused chocolate bars for the road.

Out-of-the-way breakfast

“We’re not the ‘P’ word” — meaning Perkins — said the staffer behind the knotty-pine counter at the New London Cafe. She was right. This funky Lakeside neighborhood gem has a true where-the-locals-eat feel, right down to the all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry. At breakfast, plate-sized, nutty-brown blueberry pancakes rise high off the griddle, and a gigantic slab of crisp-edged hash browns compete for attention with eggs Benedict; lunch is a long list of burgers, sandwiches and salads, all moderately priced and served in a flash.

Nostalgia
Those in search of a little time travel during their Duluth visit should drop in on the throwback that is A & Dubs. The beloved drive-in is within home-run distance of Wade Stadium, home of the Duluth Huskies, and it’s terrific. Pull up under the carports and indulge in a long list of drive-in classics: double cheeseburgers, fried chicken baskets, crinkle fries, coleslaw, sundaes, shakes and floats made with the rich and refreshing house-made root beer. Friendly carhops, low prices, cash only.

Family meal
Although a barren parking lot separates a Burger King from the Duluth Grill, the distance between the two couldn’t be more pronounced. Ditto the restaurant’s 3-mile drive from Canal Park’s familiar chains, a mental chasm so wide it might as well be 3 million. At their pretense-free breakfast-to-dinner enterprise, owners Tom and Jaima Hanson go to great lengths to emphasize fresh, locally sourced and sustainably raised ingredients, a quality reflected up and down the detail-oriented menu of uncomplicated, all-American favorites. Yes, it’s a place of juxtapositions. On the one hand, there are the orange countertops (remnants of the building’s 1970s truck stop roots) and a cheerless, just-off-the-freeway address. But just outside the front door there’s a series of raised-bed gardens overflowing with beets, radishes, beans and herbs, which explains why the fleet-footed staffers wear T-shirts that read, “Veggies fresh from the parking lot.” A small orchard is the next asphalt-replacement project. Go because the Hansons use their thriving business to support local producers — and boost the region’s economy — and stay for the fresh, satisfying and reasonably priced cooking.

Dive, dive, dive
Crossing the construction-clogged Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge into Wisconsin — and then dealing with a road-remake nightmare that is downtown Superior’s Tower Avenue — is worth the hassle when the destination is the landmark Anchor Bar and Grill. “Tchotchke explosion” is the best way to describe this dive bar par excellence, its dimly lit surroundings considerably less murky since the Badger State enacted its smoking ban in 2010. Take a seat at the well-worn mahogany bar and watch the hardworking cook press enormous russet potatoes through a cutter and toss them by the handful into the deep fryer. The burgers, third-pound monsters on toasted buns, are the perfect expression of what a bar burger should be. They’re also quite possibly the best food deal in the Twin Ports. Even the most lavishly topped iterations (test-drive the version studded with cashews) clock in under $4.50.

Sweet spot
It’s hard not to feel a surge of affection when walking into Positively 3rd Street Bakery (the name is a marriage between “Positively 4th Street,” the 1965 hit by Duluth famous son Bob Dylan, and the address of the brightly painted building). For 26 years, the cooperatively owned bakeshop has embraced a healthy, whole-grain approach to breads, cookies, muffins and bars, a mind-set that has probably gone a long way toward making Duluth a vegetarian- and vegan-friendly city. Its Cashew Crunch and maple-almond granolas make for a convenient — and delicious — souvenir, and the Thunder Cookie, the bakery’s conglomeration of oats, peanut butter and chocolate chips, may be Duluth’s defining goodie. Read the ingredients lists carefully. Most list “love,” and with this feel-good place, it’s entirely believable.

Slick Shopping
With its vast collection of cookware and specialty foods — including Duluth Coffee Co. beans — the well-stocked Duluth Kitchen Co. has pumped some much-needed energy into the Fitger’s shopping complex. A more idiosyncratic kitchenware selection makes the highly browsable Blue Heron Trading Co. a DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace must-visit. Admirers of hand-painted Italian pottery will lose themselves — and their credit card limits — inside the colorful jumble that is Coppola Art Imports. And on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, head to the big red shed that’s home to the Duluth Farmers Market, the place for maple syrup, honey, preserves, wild rice, cheeses and other locally sourced products.

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