When the urge for a summer getaway strikes, my imagination inevitably splits in two directions: north, to Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands region; and south, to Lake Pepin. For the scenery, and the restaurants.
Toward the Apostle Islands region
I’d happily make the four-hour journey north to Bayfield, Wis., just for a chance to dine at Wild Rice (84860 Old San Road, Bayfield, Wis., 1-715-779-9881, wildricerestaurant.com), where longtime chef Jim Webster’s big-city cooking is as much of a draw as the restaurant’s spare, stunning design, by Duluth architect David Salmela. The wine list? Also impressive. It’s a peak Midwestern dining experience.
The sumptuous, tradition-minded Old Rittenhouse Inn (301 Rittenhouse Av., Bayfield, Wis., 1-715-779-5111, rittenhouseinn.com) offers a brief glimpse into this lakeside town’s fat-cat era, especially from a perch in the dining room.
On a more downscale note, check out the nearly nightly Wisconsin fish boil at Greunke’s Restaurant (17 Rittenhouse Av., Bayfield, Wis., 1-715-779-5480, greunkesinn.com). Breakfast? The Egg Toss (41 Manypenny Av., Bayfield, Wis., 1-715-779-5181, eggtoss-bayfield.com), of course.
For a Friday night fish fry, look no further than the ultra-inviting Good Thyme (77180 Hwy. 13, Washburn, Wis., 1-715-373-5255, agoodthyme.com), a $16, all-you-can-eat spread starring Lake Superior whitefish and trout.
Along the Mississippi
The double beauty of a Lake Pepin visit is that it’s as vista-soaked as it is convenient, a stunning landscape that’s little more than an hour southeast of the Twin Cities.
Summer means that Chef Shack food truckers Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer leave the city on weekends and open the doors of their enchanting Chef Shack Bay City (6379 Main St., Bay City, Wis., 1-715-594-3060, chefshackranch.com). Consider it your lucky day if they’ve fired up their outdoor pizza oven.
Anyone with a free Tuesday night needs to know about the “pizza farm,” aka A to Z Produce and Bakery (N2956 Anker Lane, Stockholm, Wis., atozproduceandbakery.com), where owners Robbi Bannen and Ted Fisher channel the considerable bounty of their picturesque farm into wood-fired pizzas of genuine distinction. It’s magical. Go.
Stop for breakfast or lunch — and pie, lots of glorious pie — at the weekend-only Homemade Cafe (809 3rd St., Pepin, Wis., 1-612-396-5804, thehomemadecafe.com). Or make a plan for Pepin’s landmark Harbor View Cafe (314 1st St. Pepin, Wis., 1-715-442-3893, harborviewpepin.com), where the constantly changing chalkboard menu has been drawing day-trippers for 36 years.
No jaunt down Wisconsin’s winding Hwy. 35 is complete without a pit stop at the marvelous Smiling Pelican Bakeshop (W3556 Hwy. 35, Maiden Rock, Wis., 1-715-448-3807). Or the Nelson Cheese Factory (S237 Hwy. 35, Nelson, Wis., 1-715-673-4725, nelsoncheese.com), if only for the inexpensive ice cream cones.
Mention “Lake Pepin” and a food lover’s reflexive response is often “Nosh Restaurant & Bar” (310½ S. Washington St., Lake City, Minn., 1-651-345-2425, noshrestaurant.com). With good reason. Chef/owner Greg Jaworski taps neighboring farmers for ingredients and inspiration, and his creative, seasonal cooking more than lives up to his restaurant’s spectacular marina location. When making a reservation, be sure to ask for a window table.
The water views are also a major draw at Reads Landing Brewing Co. (70555 202nd St., Reads Landing, Minn., 1-651-560-4777, rlbrewingco.com), but so are brewer Bob Nihart’s beers and chef Casey Mehrkens’ satisfying pub fare.
It’s great to see the lights back on at the handsome Staghead (219 Bush St., Red Wing, Minn., 1-651-212-6494, thestaghead.com) after a too-long absence. New co-owners John and Danielle Flicek (he cooks, she runs the front of the house) deftly pair their gastropub menu with a discerning beer roster.
Here’s a final tip: Skip the restaurants and pack a hamper (or, better yet, order takeout) and head to the breathtaking, bluff-top picnic ground in Frontenac State Park (29223 County Road 28 Blvd., Frontenac, Minn., 1-651-345-3401, mndnr.gov/stateparks). Can’t find it? Google Maps probably has it filed under G, for “God’s Country.”