For many Minnesotans, going to "the lake" means a cabin, water skiing and plenty of mosquito repellent. For this restaurant critic, the notion often translates into a relaxing day somewhere near scene-stealing Lake Pepin. The 90-minute drive from the Twin Cities feels like a world away, and the towns ringing this wide stretch of the Mississippi River are always spawning fascinating new food destinations. Be sure to call ahead, as hours and payment options vary.

The big buzz in Red Wing, Minn., is the impending opening of Norton's Downtown & Lucky Cat Lounge (307 Main St., 1-651-388-2711, www.thenortonsrestaurant.com). After five years of cooking 5 miles east of the city, owners Greg and Sarah Norton are reopening smack dab in the middle of town with a lunch-dinner-lounge format. Cannon River Trail pedalers should stop by the cheery Smokey Row Cafe & Bakery (1926 W. Old Main St., 1-651-388-6025, jennylindbakery.net) for hearty sandwiches and soups as well as baker Ruth Raich's tried-and-true sweets.

Cross the Mississippi into America's Dairyland and keep on the lookout for the unassuming Hager Heights Drive-In (Hwys. 63 and 35, Hager City, Wis., 1-715-792-2118), an anti-McDonald's pit stop for quick burgers, fries, shakes and fried chicken.

Once on the Wisconsin side, cruise-control south on Hwy. 35 into sleepy Maiden Rock, where well-informed tourists brake for the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop (W3556 Hwy. 35, Maiden Rock, Wis., 1-715-448-3807). Owner Sandra Thielman, a one-woman baking machine, artfully fills her case with all-American beauties: blue-ribbon-worthy pies, layer cakes, quiches and her trademark lavender-ginger sugar cookies. Maiden Rock's other foodie landmark is Rush River Produce (W4098 200th Av., 1-715-594-3648, rushriverproduce.com), the Cuddy family's extraordinarily picturesque blueberry U-pick farm.

Speaking of scenery, the winding road south to tiny Stockholm, Wis., is a landscape painter's dream. The village's best bet is the Bogus Creek Cafe & Bakery (N2049 Spring St., 1-715-442-5017), the place for plus-size breakfasts and lunches and a lovely patio. Pies, and lots of them, are what's in store at the bantam-sized Stockholm Pie Co. (N2030 Spring St., 1-715-442-5505).

The Stockholm area's worst-kept secret is A to Z Produce (N2956 Anker Lane, 1-715-448-4802), an utterly enchanting farmstead pizza operation open Tuesday nights only. It's strictly BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything, including beverages and utensils), and be warned: Slavishly devoted locals show up for the glorious wood-fired pizza in droves, so expect a long -- emphasis on long -- wait.

Neighboring Pepin, Wis., is home to the granddaddy of all daytripping restaurants, the Harbor View Cafe (314 1st St., 1-715-442-3893, www.harborviewpepin.com), where new ownership hasn't altered its warmth, its seasonally focused chalkboard menu or its popularity.

The star of Nelson, Wis., is the Nelson Cheese and Creamery (S. Hwy. 35, 1-715-673-4725, www.nelsoncheese.com), stocked with gourmet foodstuffs, wines, a wine bar, a pizza/sandwich counter and tall, super-cheap ($1 and $2) ice cream cones, which explains the near-constant line of customers.

Cross the river back to Minnesota, turn right, go north to Lake City and Nosh Restaurant & Bar, where chef/owner Greg Jaworski treats locally sourced ingredients with respect and flair; the lake views aren't too shabby, either.