THE PIE TRAIL
The Explore Minnesota marketing juggernaut really ought to christen Hwy. 61 "the Pie Trail." The traffic-stopping "Fresh Pies" sign on the roof of the ultra-charming Rustic Inn Cafe (2773 Hwy. 61, Two Harbors, 218-834-2488) lives up to its pledge, with a variety of lard-made lovelies including "Summerberry," a sweet-tart combination of blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. The harbor views from the windows at the Pie Place Cafe & Bakery (207 W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais, 218-387-1513) are overshadowed by the pride of the kitchen: A display case, worthy of the Minnesota State Fair, filled with crimped-edge, Crisco-crust pies. The trail's towering achievement? It's at the New Scenic Cafe (5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 218-525-6274), where chef/owner Scott Graden reserves a berth on his dessert menu for what can only be described as an utterly beguiling pie. The ultra-flaky crust relies upon shortening, and when it comes to the seasonally minded fillings, pray to the pie gods that Graden has baked his gasp-inducing triple-berry.
HEY, WHAT ABOUT THE PICKWICK?
Duluth has its share of dining classics, and they're worth a visit. Northern Waters Smokehaus (394 S. Lake Av., Duluth, 218-724-7307) belongs on the itinerary of anyone who appreciates culinary craftsmanship; go for owner Eric Goerdt's brown sugar-cured Lake Superior trout, stay for the bison pastrami and charcuterie. Organic and local are the buzzwords at the laid-back At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe (1902 E. 8th St., Duluth, 218-724-6811). The old-world Pickwick Restaurant & Pub (508 E. Superior St., Duluth, 218-623-7425) is under new ownership, but the 98-year-old landmark remains a steaks-and-chops destination. Fitger's Brewhouse (600 E. Superior St., Duluth, 218-726-1392) continues to craft memorable beers, as it has done since 1995; the kitchen follows suit with approachable, beer-friendly fare. The nearby PortLand Malt Shoppe (716 E. Superior St., Duluth) has not given up the title of Minnesota's Cutest Ice Cream Place. Global flavors, comfort-food sensibilities and savvy cooking all merge in the knotty pine confines of the New Scenic Cafe (see above). Neighboring Nokomis Restaurant & Bar (5593 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 218-525-2286) is notable for lovely lake views and chef/owner Sean Lewis' big-city cooking.
RAISE YOUR GLASS
Just how beer-obsessed is Duluth? A craft brewery and restaurant is under construction in Canal Park, while Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub (109 W. Superior St., Duluth, 218-727-1559), a lively pub and microbrewery, recently opened on downtown's revitalized Superior Street featuring brewmaster Erik Larson's distinctive, highly drinkable small-batch beers. The menu is straight-up made-from-scratch pub fare, nicely done.
HOT FROM THE OVEN
Pizza hounds will appreciate Duluth's branch of Twin Cities-based Pizza Lucé (11 E. Superior St., Duluth, 218-727-7400). They'll also enjoy Clyde Iron Works (2920 W. Michigan St., Duluth, 218-727-1150), a former foundry converted into a sprawling restaurant, bar and music hall that specializes in wonderfully spicy sausage and pepperoni pizzas made in a wood-burning oven. Still, year-old Vitta Pizza (307 Canal Park Dr., Duluth, 218-727-2226) is the place for wood-fired, Neapolitan-esque pizza. There's a small but affordable beer and wine selection.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (AND BITE)
Every element of the Angry Trout Cafe (408 W. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, 218-387-1265) underscores its deeply rooted sense of place. At their dockside landmark, the owners have carefully forged an environment where ordinarily wallflower-ish items like a maple-mustard vinaigrette, a trout chowder and a hand-harvested wild rice pilaf make lasting impressions. Expect to find a short selection of fish, plucked from Lake Superior's chilly waters and treated with integrity and simplicity.
KEEP IN MIND
Grand Marais, pop. 1,412, may boast more stellar outdoor dining experiences per capita than any other Minnesota municipality. The signature hand-scooped item at Sydney's Frozen Custard (14 S. Broadway Av., Grand Marais) is best enjoyed on the shop's beachside patio. Along with fresh and smoked lake trout, herring, salmon and whitefish, Dockside Fish Market (418 W. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, 218-387-2906) specializes in quick-service sandwiches, peel-and-eat shrimp, pickled herring and fish and chips. And yes, there's a deck overlooking the harbor.