Fargo doesn't have a great reputation, which is exactly why my 13-year-old and I decided to visit.
Perhaps best known for "Fargo," the Oscar-winning 1996 film noir by the Coen brothers about a kidnapping gone wrong — the movie ends with a body in a woodchipper — the North Dakota city has been struggling to recover its reputation ever since. (The majority of "Fargo" was filmed in Minnesota.)
My daughter, Anya, and I thought Fargo would be the perfect place for us to bond over gruesome woodchippers, body snatching and all the gore that went into our favorite film. We had plenty of expectations: It would be a sleepy community that says "geez" in every sentence and has lots of diners and farmers.
We were wrong.
Anyone who spent time in Fargo over the past few years would notice that it's a far cry from the isolated farming community that produces canola oil, snows a ton and may or may not shove people into woodchippers.
Fargo officials and residents were fed up with the way outsiders viewed their city. So they made a concerted effort to change that. In 2002, the city launched a master redevelopment plan with projects spanning 15 years, including tax incentives to reinvest in downtown and restore its Broadway. The entire downtown has been transformed into an area sporting boutique stores, James Beard-award-winning restaurants, a popular university and a community plaza.
In the past four years, more than $300 million in public and private investments have reshaped Fargo. It now looks like a mini-mix between Toronto and Madison, Wis. It's filled with coffee shops, one-of-a-kind stores, local food and bizarre attractions — perfect for a weekend visit.
Where to shop
Anya has shopped in Paris, London and New York. And here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: She now prefers the stores in Fargo to those anywhere else in the world. They're relatively inexpensive, they're quirky, and you won't find duplicates anywhere else. Shoppers could spend all day on Broadway, riddled with small boutiques selling everything from kitschy souvenirs to high-end clothing.
Unglued Market feels like Fargo's own Etsy. It carries jewelry, cards, stickers, candy, candles and a small selection of sweatshirts and baby clothing, mostly handmade by local artisans. We picked up some locally made hot chocolate mix, stickers for my daughter's phone and a postcard that reads "Chipper greetings from Fargo."
Stop a few doors down at Kindred People, owned by a mother and daughter. The store sells the most adorable clothing ranging from T-shirts with silly sayings — "You betcha" — to high-end ripped jeans and accessories. Its sale section is incredible, with many items marked down to $5. Anya got a crop top that doubles as a doll T-shirt.
Where to dine
We came to Fargo expecting fried food, diners and lots of meat. The chefs here had other things in mind. We were so out of place that Anya had to return to Kindred People to purchase a new outfit so she'd be fancy enough for dinner.
One of the best Fargo restaurants is in a strip mall on a quiet street. Luna Fargo was originally a coffee shop; it still looks like one, albeit one filled with the aroma of steak, polenta and garlic. In 2015, chef Ryan Nitschke and his business partner, Nikki Berglund — who also own and operate Nova Eatery (a food truck-style restaurant) and Sol Ave Kitchen (in nearby Moorhead, Minn.) — turned the cafe into a full-service restaurant.
Nitschke received a James Beard best chef in the Midwest nomination and two AAA Four Diamond awards. The highlight of the menu is the cheese plate, large enough for two; it's stinky, varied and comes with domestic and imported selections. The dinner menu rotates frequently, but everything is caught, butchered and milked locally, if possible.
Fargo has a slew of new rooftop restaurants, but 701 Eateries stands out because its rooftop, called Camp Lone Tree, has a fireplace, curling, beanbag games and truly excellent food. After grabbing some drinks and appetizers, head downstairs to Prairie Kitchen, originally a dairy, for Nordic cuisine. We spied couples on dates, groups celebrating work dinners and bachelorette parties. It was a scene. The fried Brussels sprouts are one of the best dishes you'll ever eat, and try the Rommegrot for dessert, whether you have a hankering for a Scandinavian pudding or you've never heard of the dish.
Fargo Brewing Co. is a favorite even for pups (they host many dog-friendly events). Stop by its tasting room to try their staples, limited releases and experiments.
An entire museum about the buffalo? You betcha. Technically about a 90-minute drive from Fargo in Jamestown, N.D., is the National Buffalo Museum, where you'll learn everything about the American bison. There's also a 60-ton bison made of concrete, which is a nearly mandatory photo op.
At the Plains Art Museum, in a repurposed Fargo warehouse, you'll find a mix of local, national and international artists, with a focus on contemporary Native American artwork. The museum offers drop-in classes from pottery to printing, which is enticing for kids.
Full of surprises, Fargo is also the smallest city in America with a professional opera company, Fargo Moorhead Opera. This year's productions include "La Bohème," along with a one-act comedic opera called "Bon Appetit!," based on Julia Child.
Where to stay
Jasper Hotel is a reflection of everything the new Fargo aims to be: It feels like the ultimate boutique hotel. It reflects a Scandinavian aesthetic, has floor-to-ceiling views of the city and serves free Stumbeano's coffee daily. Guests can wander downstairs to eat at the hotel's restaurant, Rosewild. Artwork by local artists adorns the walls, and Peloton bikes fill the fitness room. The hotel overlooks Broadway, where Pride flags were displayed.
Sleep tight. Don't let the woodchipper bite.