There's nothing like the pull of the open road, twisting and turning through breathtaking landscapes with promise of a delicious destination at the end of the journey. While back roads are dotted with charming Main Street stops and a plenty of roadside bars, there also are restaurants that are a step above expectation.
Head to the places where the settings match the sweeping vistas and the shushing chatter of a river laps the shoreline below a patio's edge. Or where wide-open dining rooms drip in romantic golden lighting and artful, unforgettable meals are prepared by incredible chefs reveling in their more sedate settings.
Fall colors may add to the allure of a road trip, but here are four restaurants worth the drive any time of year.
Lanesboro is an utterly charming destination all on its own. Many tourists come to bike the Root River Trail and enjoy the town's leisurely pace. And while those are attractive draws, the best reason to take the trip just might be dining at Juniper's, the restaurant with "elevated fast-casual cuisine" that Anne and Tyler Shipton opened last winter. Named for their young daughter, the layout is unconventional — a dining room, two balconies and a desk — but fun to explore, especially in the summertime when the patio overlooking the Root River is open.
The menu is purposely casual with a counter service model, but the food showcases Tyler's fine-dining background. (He was an opening chef at Borough and dazzled in San Diego before returning to Minnesota and Lanesboro, his hometown.) The mushroom soup, served with droplets of chive oil and a sprinkling of popcorn, is a rich and earthy showcase for the wild world nearby. Minnesota's state fish gets a crispy panko and Parmesan crusting and is served with a fingerling potato salad that's a just-fancy-enough for the casual setting. A well-curated selection of small plates, salads and pastas round out the menu. Meals are a family affair with a kid's menu that has the usual hits, but with a little burger that will likely please all the smalls.
Juniper's is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday with lunch hours added on Saturday.
109 Parkway Av. S., Lanesboro, Minn., junipersrestaurantmn.com
Cup N' Saucer
If you've ever wondered about the power of words, talk to Seth and Elizabeth Lintelman. The two won their restaurant, Cup N' Saucer in tiny Sherburn, Minn., in 2013 after Elizabeth penned the winning entry in an essay contest. The couple left Minneapolis, where he was a chef at the Lafayette Club and she had earned an MBA, and headed south, eager to open their own restaurant and raise a family near the town where Seth grew up.
The Lintelmans ran the diner in much the same way it operated for 50-plus years — serving locals breakfast and lunch, but with a fresh approach. They sourced ingredients from nearby farmers and makers and, eventually, their own garden to bring farm-to-table dining to the community. They also added evening tasting dinners, giving Seth a chance to keep flexing his culinary muscles.
Those six-course tasting dinners became a hit, drawing diners from hours (and sometimes states) away. It's easy to see why: They are impeccable, from amuse to dessert. The menus vary with the season — early summer featured rhubarb and morels, later summer brought peaches and sweet corn — and a chalkboard shares where the evening's ingredients were sourced. The two are a culinary dream team: Seth emerging from the kitchen to introduce each course as it's served, and Elizabeth running point on the top-notch hospitality. It's an unexpected find on the unassuming Main Street, nearly 150 miles from downtown Minneapolis.
Last fall, the couple stopped breakfast and lunch service and made the tasting dinners and private events their bread n' butter. The $90 tickets go on sale the first of each month for the following month's tasting dinner and often sell out quickly. Upcoming dinners are Sept. 23-24 and Oct. 7-8 — it's worth getting on the waiting list. If there's an opening, take it.
23 N. Main St., Sherburn, Minn., sites.google.com/view/cupnsaucer
When Jay Sparks and Joan Ferris were looking for their own restaurant, they had every intention of finding a space in Minneapolis. But the beguiling setting of La Crosse, Wis., drew them two hours southeast instead. In December 2016, the couple opened Lovechild to immediate acclaim. Both are impressive talents. Sparks, a James Beard-nominated chef, had overseen culinary operations at D'Amico's Cucina, Cafe Lurcat, Campiello and Parma 8200, while Ferris' hospitality talents were well-known in her role as general manager of the company's full-service restaurants.
The restaurant encapsulates romance, just as the name implies. (Food & Wine named it the state's most romantic restaurant.) The wide-open dining room seats 100 but holds plenty of spaces for rendezvous. There's a long, sweeping bar dotted with seats and large velvet-lined booths curved in for added intimacy.
The menu changes often with a rotating array of classic French and new American dishes delivered with rapturous flavor combinations, such as a pâte starter served with fig compote and toast. Larger plates include a selection of pastas or sumptuous roasted meats. Tagliatelle is tossed with a fresh corn crema for a fresh Midwestern summer feast. Lamb shanks are slowly braised in a red-wine sauce until fork tender and served over risotto.
From the bar are a selection of craft cocktails, like a butter-washed Old Fashioned that's a must for bourbon fans and a selection of adult spirit-free beverages. There's also a gorgeous wine list filled with special occasion bottles and affordable by-the-glass offerings.
300 S. 3rd St., La Crosse, Wis., lovechildrestaurant.com
Krewe and Flour & Flower
Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas have brought new energy and flavors to the college town of St. Joseph, Minn., where Mackbee runs Krewe Restaurant and Lucas the bakery next door, Flour & Flower.
Krewe's eclectic menu is thanks to the eclectic culture of New Orleans, the inspiration for the restaurant. Mackbee's mother, Mary Mackbee, was raised in New Orleans, and the family recipes that she grew up eating — and later used to feed her children — are now the backbone of her son's restaurant.
Many standards, meticulously prepared, are present and accounted for, including jambalaya with shrimp and andouille sausage, overstuffed po'boys and a gumbo brimming with crab, chicken and shrimp. Those worried that the spirit of the glorious Louisiana traditions might get lost in translation, don't. They are intact — and thriving — here.
Flour & Flower is equally impressive. Lucas' talent with laminated doughs shines through in croissants and cinnamon-laced morning buns, while her less-is-more approach to pastries takes advantage of seasonal ingredients — a handful of blueberries with lavender and lemon balm dot scones, a peaches-and-cream bun is kissed with a bourbon brown-sugar glaze, and raspberries and strawberries star in scones and croissants. But the pie is her crowning achievement; intensely flavorful fillings are loaded into golden, butter-redolent crusts.
Don't be deterred if you don't have a sweet tooth. There are breads, savory croissants, caprese hand-pies, coffee, lunch offerings and pizza nights, too. And don't forget the flower in Flour & Flower. Grab bouquets of fresh or dried flowers, depending on the season, courtesy of Pluck Flower Farm in Milaca, Minn.
If you're eyeing a longer road trip, there are plenty of options.
You might have passed the New Scenic Cafe on the North Shore's Hwy. 61, but if you haven't stopped in, you should. With an eclectic menu and globe-trotting flavors, Scott Graden has operated the cozy restaurant since 1999. And, like a fine wine, it gets better with age. 5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, newsceniccafe.com
Twin Cities chef Mike Rakun opened Longtrees Woodfire Grill in Alexandria, Minn., last year, giving the former Doolittles a refresh and putting a showy wood-burning grill front and center. Open daily starting at 10 a.m. — and serving brunch, lunch and dinner — it's convenient to stop no matter what time you're passing by. 4409 Hwy. 29, Alexandria, longtreeswoodfiregrill.com
If scenic is what you want, Cantilever Distilling Co. delivers. Located near Rainy Lake just minutes from Minnesota's national park, the distillery-restaurant-hotel took its inspiration from the nearby cantilever bridge, one of the North America's busiest rail border crossings with a reputation for importing liquor during Prohibition. Cantilever's spirits can be found closer to home, but it's best when sipped right at the source. 2078 Spruce St., Ranier, cantileverdistillery.com
And cookbook author and Food Network darling Molly Yeh will open the restaurant Bernie's soon in East Grand Forks, on the banks of the Red River, where she promises "Midwest traditions, Scandinavian flavors, local ingredients and really good bread." Keep up to date at instagram.com/berniesegf.