My hometown, Duluth, has a growing number of restaurants that plan their menus around seasonal produce, source their meat and eggs from local farmers, and embrace the term “locavore.” Minneapolis and St. Paul have more of these places than you can count. But would you believe … Fergus Falls? Dining in outstate Minnesota doesn’t have to mean chain restaurants. Our growing season is short, so compromises must be made; sometimes that locavore embrace isn’t so much a bear hug as an awkward Minnesota A-frame hug, but here are five chef-owned places that are keeping it local in small towns.
Zella’s in Hutchinson
Hutchinson, 65 miles west of the Twin Cities, was founded by the Hutchinson Family Singers, who were prohibitionists. The elegant bar at Zella’s is a fine place to toast the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Owners Blake Barnard and Tiffany Haag (Zella was her grandmother) offer an upscale menu featuring local vegetables, herbs, meat and poultry.
The Zella’s answer to a Minnesota winter is a very seasonal flatbread with roasted root veggies, apples, mozzarella and local honey; other answers might be a kale and Brussels sprout salad followed by a house-ground lamb burger with caramelized onions.
The Haag/Barnard family proudly supports sustainable farming, and they’ve got a wine list carefully chosen to complement all that good food. Zella’s is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but available for private parties those days. (www.zellas.net; 1-320-587-9463)
Amboy Cottage Cafe in Amboy
The parts are familiar: cozy dining room, pies, whimsical decorations, daily specials scribbled on a chalkboard, pies, caramel rolls and pies. Everything else is a surprise. The Amboy Cottage Café exemplifies the phrase “worth the drive,” about 100 miles south and west of the metro area.
Proprietor Lisa Lindberg feeds her patrons comfort food like raspberry bread pudding and farmer-style three-egg omelets, but she’s just as likely to serve blueberry feta salad, coffee-rubbed steak or olive chicken.
Amboy is in fertile farm country, and Lindberg takes full advantage of her proximity to locally grown ingredients. If it can be made from scratch, Amboy will make it from scratch. They don’t serve alcohol, but dinner patrons can bring their own — and there’s no corkage fee. (www.amboycottagecafe.com; 1-507-674-3123)
Prairie Bay in Brainerd
The Brainerd Lakes area is a popular destination for boating, fishing and snowmobiling. You can buy live bait in every convenience store, and most of the dining options are decidedly casual. Prairie Bay (technically located in Baxter, across the bridge from Brainerd) stands out. The vast menu offers full entrees, sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas, starters and desserts — think supper-club food with many twists.
Prairie Bay’s suppliers include the Farm on St. Mathias and Stonebridge Beef (Stonebridge supplies Lucia’s and Hell’s Kitchen, among others). Prairie Bay also operates Side Dish, a seasonal food truck. (www.prairiebay.com; 1-218-824-6444)
Cafe 116 in Fergus Falls
The dining room at Cafe 116, just off Fergus Falls’ main drag, is airy and slightly retro, with Formica tables and linoleum tile. On a hot summer day, it’s particularly inviting.
Co-owner Greg Stumbo roasts his beans on site, then sells them by the pound or makes them into lattés, cappuccinos and — for purists — coffee. Stumbo’s iced coffee is the real thing, a cold-press brew that retains all the character of hot coffee and stands up to milk or cream. Flavored coffee syrups are made from scratch.
Cafe 116 is open for breakfast and lunch and shows off locally sourced products at those meals: maple syrup from Camp Aquila, scones from Falls Baking Co., and sausage from Premier Meat Co. (cafe116.com; 1-218-998-3780)
Wild Hare Bistro in Bemidji
Wild Hare’s menu is full of salads, wraps and soups laden with fresh vegetables and greens. Many items can be adjusted to meet dietary needs, whether that need is gluten-free, nondairy or “extra bacon, please.”
It’s open limited hours (closing at 5 p.m. weekdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, and all day Sundays), so if you want a sandwich to go with your beer at the Bemidji Brewing taproom (bemidjibeer.com) three blocks away, remember to stop by Wild Hare before it closes. Regional purveyors include Kerr Farms, egg suppliers Random Rural Enterprises and Alakef Coffee. Heads up: Wild Hare does not take credit or debit cards. (www.wildharebistro.com; 1-218-444-5282)
Jean Sramek is a writer, theater artist and playwright based in Duluth.