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Appetites: River road restaurants worth the drive

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The Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Monthly.
Photo credit: TJ Turner

The leaves are starting to change color, which means it's a terrific time for a scenic fall drive. Rachel Hutton, senior editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine, recently took a road trip along the Mississippi River in search of its best destination restaurants. She shared her finds with MPR News' Tom Crann.

TOM CRANN:So haven't some of these river town restaurants been travel destinations for quite some time?

RACHEL HUTTON: Yes. The first stop on my trip, the St. James Hotel, in Red Wing, was built in 1875. That was back when Red Wing was the wheat-trading capital of the world, and the grand, Italianate-style building was a symbol of the town's wealth. Over time, the hotel's dining services have changed, of course, and these days, its fine-dining restaurant is called the Port. For years, the Port was known for its classic comfort food — popovers, French onion soup, and such. But a new chef came in a couple of years ago and modernized the menu, so now it includes everything from bison ribeye steaks to confit pork belly to — my favorite — a fabulous fried ice cream dessert.

CRANN:Are there other River Road stalwarts?

The kitchen at the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Monthly.
Photo credit: TJ Turner

HUTTON:The Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis., has also been around for a long time — more than 30 years. It serves generously portioned, scratch-made meals, everything from catfish to pasta to curry, as well as fabulous pie.

The Harbor View's homey charm hasn't changed over the years — it has cute checkered tablecloths, shelves of old books lining the walls, a chalkboard menu — though the restaurant recently modernized, and shocked some of its regulars, by installing a credit-card machine, as diners were previously only able to pay with cash or check.

CRANN:What about newcomers?

A dish served at Nosh in Lake City, Minn. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Monthly.
Photo credit: TJ Turner

HUTTON:A few years ago, a young restaurant named Nosh moved from Wabasha to Lake City, to a two-story building with a beautiful roof deck overlooking the city's harbor. It has the best view of any of these riverfront restaurants. Nosh also has the most upscale and wide-ranging menu, with everything from scratch-made sausages to seared foie gras to seafood paella. Interestingly, Nosh also has what may be the most extensive craft-beer list outside of the Twin Cities metro area — in fact the restaurant is so into beer, that the owners are building a nano-brewery on site.

CRANN:Any new restaurants this season?

The Chef Shack in Bay City, Wis. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Monthly.
Photo credit: TJ Turner

HUTTON:Yes, there's a new eatery in Bay City, Wis., called Chef Shack, created by the duo behind the popular fleet of Twin Cities-based food trucks of the same name. Chef Shack opened last winter. It's a cozy little place with a small-but-interesting dinner menu, offering everything from house-made charcuterie to rack of lamb, and it also serves brunch on weekends.

If you're a fan of the food trucks' mini-donuts made with sweet Indian spices, as I very much am, you'll enjoy seeing the donuts on the restaurant's dessert menu, having been transformed into a rich bread pudding.

CRANN:What about down near the Iowa border? Is there a restaurant you'd recommend in Winona?

HUTTON:The nicest place to eat in Winona is Signatures, which overlooks the Bridges golf course just outside of town. It's a white-tablecloth restaurant that serves some local food, such as walleye from Red Lake, as well as globally inspired dishes. When I visited I enjoyed a prettily plated tower of crabmeat, avocado, and ginger that was as carefully manicured as the golf greens out the window.

Chef Shack • 6379 W. Main St., Bay City, Wis., 715-594-3060, chefshack.org
Harbor View Cafe • 314 First St., Pepin, Wis., 715-442-3893, harborviewpepin.com
Nosh • 310-1/2 S. Washington St., Lake City, Minn., 651-345-2425, noshrestaurant.com
The Port • St. James Hotel, 406 Main St., Red Wing, Minn., 800-252-1875, st-james-hotel.com
Signatures • 22852 County Road 17, Winona, Minn., 507-454-3767, signatureswinona.com