No matter how you choose to enjoy it, a trip to the North Shore works up an appetite — whether you’re hiking, fishing, kayaking, or just listening to the late summer wind whip the waves onto the rocks.
While there are plenty of chicken strips and fresh-from-the-freezer battered fish to be had here in vacationland, there are also quite a few authentic local flavors that are more than worth the drive. And now is the time to visit, after the summer hordes have left and before the leaf peepers show up.
1. Knife River Herring Sandwich at New Scenic Cafe
We have loved absolutely every bite we have ever eaten at the New Scenic and this sandwich, a daily special, was no exception. A fat, firm, white filet of herring, caught right up the road at Knife River, was melted with a crispy strip of prosciutto — just enough punch for the mild fish. This was served on butter-drenched bread cut thinly and grilled so it crackled with every bite. The first foodie haven on the North Shore is now 14 years old and still going strong.
(New Scenic Cafe; 5461 North Shore Dr, Duluth, MN; 218.525.6274)
2. Air Candy at Great! Lakes Candy Shop
Anywhere vacationers gather, the fudge and taffy shops are sure to be as thick as the traffic on the highways and swarms of gulls in the air. But Great! Lakes is definitely worth a hard turn to the left as you drive north. While there’s some interesting packaged candy (Haribo grapefruit slices — yum) the focus is on the chocolate-filled display case: chocolate-covered toffee and caramel, chocolate-dipped fruit, chocolate turtles, chocolate in all shapes. But what you definitely don’t want to miss is the air candy, otherwise known as sea foam or honeycomb or Violet Crumble. Your teeth glide through it, and then it melts between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, leaving a salty, buttery flavor, like airy, acidic toffee. It comes in great, greedy chunks, the size of a child’s fist, dipped in milk or dark chocolate.
(Great! Lakes Candy Shop; 223 Scenic Dr, Knife River, MN; 218.834.2121)
3. Pasties at Betty’s Pies
Betty’s Pies, the grande dame of North Shore vacation dining, has gotten mixed scores of late. (We praised the pecan and panned the pumpkin.) So, we decided to give Betty’s savory side a try. You can pick up frozen pasties — beef, chicken, or veggie, each big enough for one really hungry person — to reheat at the cabin later. The pasties are dense, bland, and hearty. In other words: exactly right. Even meat eaters should choose the veggie-cheese version, which has more flavor.
While we were ordering, we couldn’t resist a picking up a Key lime pie, as well. Betty’s version isn’t as dense or as tangy as a traditional Key lime pie, more like limeade stirred into dense whipped cream. And it was delicious. (When it came time to clean out the fridge at the end of our vacation, there was no leftover Betty’s pie; I can’t say the same about the caramel apple pecan pie we had bought from Rustic Inn Cafe.)
(Betty’s Pies; 1633 Hwy 61, Two Harbors, MN; 218.834.3367)
4. Smoked Whitefish and Whitefish Spread from Dockside Fish Market
This, right here, is a place worth the drive, all on its own. You can eat in (the batter-fried herring, caught daily by the Dockside’s owners, is a thing of beauty) or get your fresh Lake Superior whitefish (or other fishy things from farther afield, like salmon, scallops, or lobster) to take home. But, either way, you cannot leave without a hunk of brown sugar–cured and smoked fish and generous tub of smoked fish spread. Eat the fish with your fingers on the way home (if your traveling companions can take the smell), and slather the spread on dark rye bread for breakfast.
(Dockside Fish Market; 418 W Hwy 61, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.2906)
5. The Uffdah Zah at Sven and Ole’s
It was the bumper stickers that made us do it. We’ve seen those yellow Sven and Ole’s stickers on brand-new, tricked-out minivans and on beat-up old two-doors. We had to stop and see what inspires all that loyalty. Nostalgia, it seems, is a powerful thing. It’s easy to imagine just how good that pizza tasted 30 years ago, when you’d piled out of the way, way back of your mom and dad’s station wagon after a day of fishing and hiking. But, today it’s ordinary American pizza with a sweet tomato sauce and a forgettable crust — and the toppings piled as thick as the Scandihoovian jokes throughout the menu. The Uffdah, with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, peppers, and onions, had more flavor than the more geographically appropriate Vild Vun, with wild rice and Canadian bacon. And, while it didn’t blow us away, it did taste like a childhood vacation.
(Sven and Ole’s Pizza; 9 Wisconsin St, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.1713)
6. Whitefish Sandwich at Crooked Spoon Cafe
On the North Shore, you really need one dining tip: Ask what the catch of the day is, and order that. At the Crooked Spoon Cafe, it was a whitefish sandwich, served grilled or cornmeal crusted (we chose grilled, all the better to savor the flavor of the fish itself). Whitefish is easy to love, even better, we think, than our beloved walleye. It’s meaty and mild, with substantial filets that fill up a sandwich, no batter-frying needed. The Crooked Spoon cooked ours just right and served it on a light ciabatta bun with herby mayonnaise.
(Crooked Spoon Cafe; 17 Wisconsin St, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.2779)
7. Maple Bacon Fudge at Gunflint Mercantile
It’s okay with us if the bacon craze lingers just a little while longer. While it’s no longer surprising, it’s still fun to find it in unusual places. And, in the maple bacon fudge at Gunflint Mercantile, it works. Or, at least, the flavor does — just salty and bacon-y enough — but the little bits of bacon suspended in the maple fudge are a little stringy and in the way. The dark chocolate cayenne fudge here, by the way, packs a we-weren’t-kidding punch.
(Gunflint Mercantile; 12 First Ave W, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.9228)
8. The Zanger at Sydney’s Frozen Custard
Sydney’s has just two flavors of custard, chocolate and vanilla, but that is just the beginning. To make a “Sydnami,” they blend in flavors and toppings that make a DQ Blizzard look dull. The Zanger is an unlikely and utterly delicious mixture of raspberries, espresso, and crushed heath bars, and the “mini” is more than enough to fuel you up for a clamber over the rocks on Artists’ Point. The lines at Sydney’s walk-up window wind all the way down the street in the summer. Now’s the time to go and nab a spot on the rooftop deck overlooking the lake.
(Sydney’s Frozen Custard; 14 S Broadway, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.2632)
9. High Tea at Naniboujou Lodge
After a day in the wilderness, this is the civilization you crave. Have a seat in the solarium, a sunny porch with low couches and coffee tables (all very dated, but afternoon tea isn’t exactly an up-to-date concept). Pick out a game (cribbage? Uno? Monopoly?) or a book. And wait for a silver tray to arrive, laden with tea and treats. Everyone gets their own plate, so there’s no fighting over the last finger sandwich.
Ours came piled with far more than an afternoon snack: triangles of cucumber and cream cheese on thin white bread, a hearty slice of a turkey salad sandwich, a scone somewhere between savory and sweet, orange-and-chocolate swirl pound cake, and a chocolate-dipped shortbread cookie. As much as we protested that it was just far too much, we finished every bite, and then worked it off by sitting in the Naniboujou’s Adirondack chairs and watching the waves roll in and out.
(Naniboujou Lodge; 20 Naniboujou Trail, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.2688)
10. Canadian Candy at Ryden’s Border Store
So, you’re this close to Canada, literally staring at Canadian treetops beyond the border control station, but you don’t have your passport with you, so there will be no run to Thunder Bay for Aero Bars, Coffee Crisps, Violet Crumble, or Smarties (the Canadian kind, which are like sweeter M&Ms) for you. Never fear. Stop into Ryden’s, a general store with a true end-of-the-road provisioner’s feel to it, and they’ll hook you right up with Aero Bars and Coffee Crisps, along with hunting and fishing gear and a 10-pound bag of jerky, should you need it. (Sure, you can get these in the British food section at Lunds and Byerly’s, but, come on, don’t they just taste a little more, er, authentic, up here, so close to the Commonwealth, itself?)
(Ryden’s Border Store; 9301 Ryden Rd, Grand Portage, MN; 218.475.2330)
11. Dorothy’s Isle of Pines Root Beer
Dorothy Molter was the last year-round resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when she died in 1986. She was known as the Root Beer Lady because she always had some brewed and ready to hand out to thirsty hikers and paddlers. Today the Dorothy Molter Museum, in her old homestead, produces a root beer in her memory. It’s very sweet and smooth, without a lot of the herbal notes root beer–lovers love. You can find it at Sven and Ole’s in Grand Marais.
(Dorothy Molter Museum; 2002 E Sheridan St, Ely, MN; 218.365.4451; also available to order online)
12. Bent Paddle IPA
Craft brewing has come to the North Shore. Duluth’s Bent Paddle is one of the newer arrivals, having launched in May of this year, but it’s already fairly easy to spot on menus up and down the shore. We tried an IPA on tap at the Crooked Spoon in Grand Marais and found it crisp and woodsy, with a lot of tang and barely any sweetness.
(Bent Paddle Brewing Co.; 1912 W Michigan St, Duluth, MN; 218.279.2722)
Bonus: World’s Best Donuts
We scoffed at the claim. Then we tried a doughnut or six. Pretty close. No bacon or puff pastry or other trendy tricks. Just buttery, fresh, classic donuts.
(World’s Best Donuts; 10 E Wisconsin St, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.1345)