Lake Superior Eats: Lake-to-Table Dining on the North Shore

By James Norton

When you head north to the stunning rocky shores of Lake Superior, food may not be the first thing on your mind. But the region has a lovely gastronomic style all its own. From smoked fish to fresh berries to cured meat to some of the region's tastiest breakfasts, the shores of Superior increasingly combine soulful and traditional local eats with infusions of modern dining techniques to create killer meals that can transform a pleasant trip into a great vacation.

Lake-to-Table Dining

Northern Waters Smokehaus
Northern Waters Smokehaus / Photo by Becca Dilley

The team at Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth takes food extremely seriously without ever getting stuffy or fussy—the restaurant's menu of sandwiches, cured meat, and fish smoked in-house is both completely down-to-earth and world-class gourmet. Try the Cajun Finn (house-smoked Cajun salmon, green onion cream cheese, roasted red peppers, pepperoncini and lettuce on stirato bread) for one of the most memorable bites you'll have on the shores of the lake—or anywhere, for that matter.

To get a real taste of the lake, stop by the Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais, which features locally caught bluefin herring, lake trout and whitefish, plus pickled herring, herring roe (which has a clean, cool flavor dominated by a gentle minerality) and other specialties of the region. A next-door restaurant (Angry Trout Cafe) serves many of Dockside's catches with haute cuisine panache amid a dining room decked out with the work of North Shore artisans.

The New Scenic Cafe has become a North Shore fine dining mainstay, combining local fare, stellar desserts (including worth-eating-two-pieces pies), and globally influenced technique in a setting that embraces the beauty of the lake. Located about 15 minutes from Duluth, New Scenic is simultaneously accessible and a little bit wild.

World's Best Donuts
Photo by Becca Dilley

Sweets and Breakfast

Can the world's best doughnuts truly be found at World's Best Donuts in Grand Marais? It's a valid question, and right-thinking people can be on both sides of the debate. The doughnuts are hot, fresh, simple and classic, and absolutely perfect for strolling lakeside early in the morning with a cup of coffee.

The Vanilla Bean Cafe in Two Harbors specializes in bringing a taste of Scandinavian breakfast to the North Shore, good news if you're a fan of Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. It also features one of the best renditions of wild rice porridge (simmered in cream and maple syrup with dried cranberries and pecans) in the state.

The Rise of Craft Brew

A liberalization of Minnesota brewing regulations means the state is experiencing a craft beer renaissance, a movement that has reached the shores of Lake Superior (where, it should be said, Fitger's has been making a stellar craft brew product for years). The newly founded Borealis Fermentery is based out of a Belgian monastery-inspired brewery and offers its soft-spoken and lovely Belgian-inspired beers on draught and by the bottle at a number of locations in Duluth and beyond.

Bent Paddle Brewing features a large and lovely taproom near downtown Duluth. And Castle Danger Brewery pours easy-drinking, vacation-friendly craft brews in the vicinity of its production brewery north of Two Harbors. Its taproom is slated to open in 2014.