When you head north to the stunning rocky outcrops of Lake Superior's North Shore, you'll not only discover the region's breathtaking scenery, but a unique cuisine with a gastronomic style of its own.
From smoked fish to fresh berries, cured meats and some of the region's tastiest breakfasts, the North Shore of the largest Great Lake combine soulful and traditional local fare with modern dining techniques to create killer meals that can transform a pleasant trip into a great vacation.
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 in a dining room decked out with the work of local 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 north of Duluth, New Scenic is simultaneously accessible and a little bit wild.
Sweets & 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.
For candy lovers, don't skip a stop at the adorable Great Lakes Candy Kitchen in Knife River. Homemade candies are cooked in small batches and stirred by hand in copper kettles. The seasonal shop is open late April through Christmas Eve.
Craft Breweries Galore
Minnesota's craft beer renaissance has reached the shores of Lake Superior (where, it should be said, Fitger's has been making a stellar craft brew product for over a century). In Knife River, Borealis Fermentery is a Belgian monastery-inspired brewery that offers soft-spoken and lovely Belgian-inspired beers on draft 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 the city is now home to more than half a dozen breweries. Further north, Castle Danger Brewery pours easy-drinking, vacation-friendly craft brews in the vicinity of its production brewery north of Two Harbors. Keep going and you'll hit one of the North Shore's newest taprooms, Voyageur Brewing in Grand Marais.
James Norton is the author of Lake Superior Flavors (University of Minnesota Press), a guide to eating and drinking on the Lake Superior Circle Tour. He is currently the editor and publisher of Heavy Table.
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