MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Dining & grazing

A feast of festivals

At small-town shindigs, get your fill of strawberries and sauerkraut, kolacky and sweet corn.

As soon as rhubarb leaves unfurl and morels pop out of the ground, towns across the region begin their salutes to the local specialty.

It starts with Norwegian lefse on Syttende Mai and continues to Finnish pasties, German pretzels, Czech kolacky, Danish pancakes and American pie.

There will be music and parades and all kinds of goofy contests — rhubarb-stalk throwing in Lanesboro, the rutabaga shot put in Calumet — but mostly, there will be a lot to eat.

read story and trip tips

Dining up north: Longville to Walker

A bicycle trail connects towns and lakes en route to Minnesota's newest fine-dining destination.

In the middle of Minnesota's vacation land, the lakes go from big to bigger.

There's Girl Lake and Woman Lake, with the biggest woman of all, Paul Bunyan's 17-foot "wife'' Lucette Kensack, standing on the shores of Birch Lake in Hackensack.

Looming to the north is giant Leech Lake, the third-largest in Minnesota, and the town of Walker. Fishermen know it for giant muskies; bicyclists know it as the hub of the Paul Bunyan-Heartland-Migizi trail system, now the state's longest.

read story and trip tips

Dining up north: Pequot to Crosslake

Deep in Paul Bunyan country, we find the best lakeside supper clubs, roadhouses and bistros.

North of moneyed Gull Lake, the Brainerd Lakes area starts to look more like traditional Minnesota resort country.

There's still plenty of money and big boats, especially on the Whitefish Chain. But this also is a place where vacationing families gather to race ducks (Fridays at 1 p.m., Pine River) and eat beans (Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes, July 8-9 in 2014).

Bicyclists whiz past on the Paul Bunyan State Trail. To explore it, head out on the 54-mile Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway.

read story and trip tips

Dining up north: Brainerd to Nisswa

We give you an insiders' guide to restaurants in Minnesota lake country, from nachos to filet mignon.

In summer, the crowds pour into the Brainerd Lakes, the Minnesota vacation land that's been stomping grounds for millionaires and middle managers alike since the loggers finished up and headed west.

What's it known for? Lakes, of course. And golf.

It's not so known for its restaurants, but that may be because only locals know the best places.

read story and trip tips

Toasting Oktoberfest

These festive tributes to Bavarian tradition put the oompah into fall.

When fall arrives, we get a sudden urge to hoist a stein of beer, eat a grilled bratwurst and listen to red-cheeked men in little felt hats play the accordion.

Fall belongs to the Germans, who streamed into the Upper Midwest in the 1850s and still are the largest ethnic group in every state. Which is a good thing, because Germans like to have fun.

In October 1810, they had so much fun at the wedding of Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, held in a meadow near Munich, that they decided to do it every year.

read story and trip tips

Bacon bashes

If you fry it, they will come. Here's where to pig out around the region.

Have you ever had enough bacon?

If not, you can get your chance at a rasher of pork parties around the region. At Des Moines' Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival one year, a Nebraska woman put away 2½ pounds in less than five minutes.

If you're wondering how the bacon boom started, Business Week can give you the official answer. It has to do with pork-belly futures (seriously).

read story and trip tips

A spin around Lake Pepin

On the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin, a favorite driving route leads to some real treats.

Along the shores of Lake Pepin, villages like to play a game called “Tempt the Tourist.’’

The tourists think they’re going to go for a drive and see some scenery. But the villages give them so many places to indulge themselves, they end up mostly eating and shopping — not that anyone’s complaining.

The highway around Lake Pepin is a gantlet of temptations — bakeries, bistros, wine bars and gift shops. Some people never make it beyond Stockholm in Wisconsin or Red Wing in Minnesota, just an hour from the Twin Cities.

read story and trip tips

Wisconsin's cheese country

In Monroe, the Swiss stay true to the flavors of their forebears.

In the land of Velveeta, Wonder bread and Miller Lite, a chunk of southern Wisconsin is an Old World holdout.

Home of North America’s last Limburger factory, Green County is the big cheese in a state of cheese makers.

It’s still famous for the pungent Limburger and Swiss on which it made its reputation. It’s weathered the advent of processed cheese food and gummy white bread. It’s survived the tide of bland beer and low-fat diets.

read story and trip tips

Where to eat in Duluth

Once known for its dives, this Lake Superior tourist magnet now boasts brewpubs and locavore cafes.

Duck confit with honey aioli and caramelized shallots. Grass-fed beef medallions with bacon potato croquettes. Vanilla cake with white-chocolate espresso frosting and pumpkin ale truffles.

Yes, you can get that in Duluth.

The restaurants in this Lake Superior port town haven't always had a great reputation. But that's changed.

read story and trip tips

A chocolate tour of Madison

For people who want the best in bonbons, this town is a decadent destination.

No one knows why Madison is the fine-chocolate capital of the Upper Midwest.

We do know that Europe played a big role. Gail Ambrosius, who grew up in Wisconsin's hamburger capital, tasted her first artisanal chocolate on a high-school field trip to Paris. “And I understood — eating this is the best thing you can do,'' she writes.

Markus Candinas studied chocolate-making in his parents' hometown of Thun, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Ton Stam came from the Netherlands to join the Madison Scouts drum and bugle corps, then started Chocolaterie Stam.

read story and trip tips

The chocolate cure

When winter drags on, drown your sorrows with sweets.

In February and March, most of us are getting tired of winter . . . time to eat some chocolate.

As everyone knows, chocolate has unique restorative qualities. It's effective draped on strawberries, whipped into mousse, covering cakes . . . you get the idea.

Here's where to go to thumb your nose at winter (and your diet). Pick from tastings, tours and road trips.

read story and trip tips

Time to eat

During Restaurant Weeks, you can be a glutton with a good conscience.

There's only one good way to respond to cold: Take a cue from bears and pile on some fat.

Oh, you could buy long underwear. But doesn't it really make more sense to gobble some blueberry cobbler with freshly whipped cream?

The Restaurant Week season is starting, giving you another good —no, irresistible — excuse to eat: It's a deal!

read story and trip tips

Putting the fat in Fat Tuesday

When it's time to eat paczki, everyone wants to be a Pole.

Whatever your heritage, you might want to be Polish the week before Lent.

With six weeks of sacrifice looming, Poles go on a paczki binge, eating as many of the fried, fruit-filled bismarcks as they can in the days up to Fat Tuesday, also known as Paczki Day.

A round Polish version of a jelly doughnut, paczki (pronounced POANCH-kee) have fillings of raspberry, strawberry, lemon, custard, blueberry, apple, poppyseed and, most traditionally, prune, apricot and rose petal.

read story and trip tips

Pizza on the farm

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, dinner guests flock to the countryside for ultra-fresh ingredients and idyllic settings.

You can't get more local and sustainable than a wood-fired pizza served just yards from where its ingredients were raised and grown.

Farms that moonlight as pizzerias one or two nights a week are multiplying, but not just because the pizzas are so good.

The visitors who eat them also get to spend an evening soaking up the bucolic country atmosphere, savoring a lifestyle that's now far removed from most lives.

read story and trip tips

Chow-down in Chicago

In a city of neighborhoods, cooks from many countries stir the pot.

Chicago has come a long way since it was hog butcher to the world.

There was nothing very appetizing about early Chicago. The factories and slaughterhouses that made it grow also made it stink. Rotting carcasses made the Chicago River bubble; a glass of water came with a side of cholera.

But the city grew up. The immigrants who packed its meat, dug its waterways and built its railroads moved on and were replaced by new immigrants, who settled in places that became known as Little Italy, Andersonville, Polish Village, Ukrainian Village, Chinatown, Greek Town and Pilsen.

read story and trip tips

Eating in the Amana Colonies

In eastern Iowa, a historic village has a long tradition of feeding people well.

Before 1932, the pious, hard-working people of the Amana Colonies were the only people in Iowa who got to eat out every night.

Members of the pacifist Community of True Inspiration, they emigrated from Germany and built seven villages on 25,000 acres of eastern Iowa farmland. For nearly 90 years, they lived communally, pooling resources and skills.

Butchers, brewers and winemakers turned out goods for everyone, and meals were served in 50 communal kitchens.

read story and trip tips

Tours for foodies

In tourist towns, guides are feeding a growing appetite for culinary walking tours.

These days, sightseeing tours by trolley or bus seem like old hat.

More and more tourists are discovering that the best way to get to know a town is through its stomach. In fact, many towns are most famous for things that are edible.

On a trip to Chicago, my husband and I took one of the Chicago Food Planet tours. We started on the Gold Coast, assembling our own reuben with pastrami from the local Vienna Beef, and walked to Lincoln Park, sampling tea, fudge, artisan oils, kolaches, pierogies and, of course, deep-dish pizza.

read story and trip tips

Now they're cooking

On weekend getaways, amateur chefs can test their mettle in the kitchen.

If you think you're a pretty good cook, just take a class at a cooking school and see how fast you change your mind.

When I showed up at L'ecole de la Maison at the Osthoff Resort, 18 detailed recipes were awaiting our group of eight students.

Everything had to be made from scratch: sheets of pasta and two sauces for the seafood rotolo, rolled cheese crisps for the salad, ladyfingers for the tiramisu. The ciabatta bread, too.

read story and trip tips

Table-hopping in bluff country

On a culinary adventure to Decorah, we tighten our belts, then let them out.

Lately, we’ve been traveling like kings . . . and paupers, too.

I suspect a lot of other people are doing the same thing. To get what we want, we save on something else.

Our favorite splurge is eating out, but a meal for two in a really good restaurant costs $60-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.

read story and trip tips

10 perfect places for a picnic

You'll get scenery with your sandwich at these spots in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On a beautiful summer day, there are few places that aren't good for a picnic.

A patch of grass, a plump sandwich, the warmth of sun on skin — this is what we look forward to all winter.

But at some spots, picnickers will be tempted to while away the whole afternoon there. What elevates a picnic spot to greatness? A stiff breeze to ward off bugs, a scenic view, good people-watching and perhaps a concert.

read story and trip tips

Dining on Minnesota's North Shore

Finally, the cuisine matches the scenery on a favorite tourist route.

Thirty years ago, dining on the North Shore was pleasant, if a little utilitarian. A meal often came with a view, but most of the menus had the same fish, steak, chops and burgers you could get anywhere.

Things have changed. One Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I ate at three of my favorite places and two newer ones, one of which definitely was worth a detour. A three-star culinary weekend on the North Shore — who knew?

On old Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors, the cheery New Scenic Cafe is a fixture of fine dining. I had my usual, the pistachio-crusted goat-cheese salad, with a starter of sashimi tuna tacos.

read story and trip tips

Foodies in Madison

From street carts to fine-dining shrines, Wisconsin's capital city worships food.

Everyone knows what people in Wisconsin like: beer, cheese and bratwurst.

But they also like foie gras, frisée salad and seared pork belly. Southern Wisconsin is a fertile quilt of artisan farms, and their lovingly grown produce goes straight to the Dane County Farmers' Market and the restaurants of Madison.

I've made a lot of delicious memories in Madison: the celeriac soup at L'Etoile, the raspberry truffles of Candinas, the Hopalicious pale ale from Ale Asylum.

read story and trip tips

Into the belly of Chicago

A food tour points us toward pizza, candies, spice and everything nice.

Once, Chicago was a meat-and-potatoes town, the City of Broad Shoulders.

Chicagoans still brawl over who has the best deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, which come with no ketchup but so many condiments they're “dragged through the garden.’’

But these days locals are just as likely to seek out the best macarons and gelato, and on special occasions, they dine at Michelin-starred restaurants with avant-garde chefs who are more Jeff Koons than Betty Crocker.

read story and trip tips

Sweet spots

On road trips, make a detour to some of these great chocolate shops.

Some of us drool over gorgeous images of destinations in travel brochures or on Instagram.

And some of us drool over the sweet spots we can stop at on our way to those destinations.

Heading for the Porkies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula? Good, because that means a stop at Gabriele's in Ashland. Going to Sibley State Park or Spicer in central Minnesota? That merits a detour to Mr. B's in Willmar.

read story and trip tips

The dish on Dorset

This tiny 'Restaurant Capital of the World' is just a burp on the road.

By rights, the northern Minnesota hamlet of Dorset shouldn’t even exist.

It’s on the road to nowhere, a mile and a half off the highway that links Park Rapids to Walker. It’s not on a lake. It has virtually no houses.

It does, however, have a knack for hyperbole. In the 1920s, it tried "land of clover, the big white potato and the dairy cow.’’

read story and trip tips

Seeking the best soft-serve

Their ranks are thinning, but old-time ice-cream stands still brighten road trips.

On road trips, some people look for the best pie or burger. But I look for the perfect twist cone.

Braking for soft-serve ice cream is how I stick up for the mom-and-pop drive-ins that used to be in every little town until the arrival of a certain franchise.

The ice cream almost always is better — richer, with not as much air — and the atmosphere is more fun.

read story and trip tips

Capitals of treats

When you’re on a road trip to temptation, here’s what to eat.

It’s a good thing that, when you’re on vacation, calories don’t count.

Who goes to Milwaukee without eating frozen custard? Or Mackinac Island without having fudge?

You’ve just gotta do it.

read story and trip tips

Grazing in southwest Wisconsin

Where the Badger state began, Old World flavors remain.

In a state where people flaunt foam cheese wedges on their heads, you don't expect the cuisine to be timid.

The cheese, brats and beer for which Wisconsin is known are as robust as the Cheeseheads themselves, who invented the hamburger and the sundae but are best known for Old World flavors.

One of the best places to find them is in the southwest corner, where the state began.

read story and trip tips

Braking for jelly beans

With the siren call of free samples, factories reel in visitors.

On the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee, tourists get to go trick or treating all year-round.

In Pleasant Prairie near Kenosha, they get packets of jelly beans. In Chicago, they're handed chocolate and cheesecake. In Milwaukee, it's caramel corn and cheese pizza.

Everyone loves free samples, and factory tours are a fun way to spend an hour or two. But watch out: They usually end in an outlet shop, where you'll be sorely tempted to spend real money.

read story and trip tips

Indulging at the holidays

At old-fashioned feasts, eat like a king or tycoon.

If you're in the mood to loosen belts as well as wallets, the holidays are the time to do it.

At madrigal dinners, channel portly Henry VIII in a Tudor castle settling. During Dickens dinners, wallow in 19th century England — the England of "A Christmas Carol,'' not "Oliver Twist.''

Which is to say, there's no gruel course.

read story and trip tips

Feasting in Dubuque

Guests on a progressive dinner and mansion tour get a good look at what frontier fortunes could buy.

Walnut carpenter's lace. Fireplaces made of Italian mosaic tile. Yards of leaded glass and richly printed, century-old wallpaper.

Oooooohh.

That's what the two dozen people on a house tour and progressive dinner in Dubuque, Iowa, kept saying as the tour progressed from one Victorian mansion to another.

read story and trip tips