Over the years I’ve gotten used to homesite dining. Establishments draw me in and, at times, squeeze me out. I have my favorites, but the list is small. To be fair, the homesites are all in small towns. Restaurants have to cater to the local clientele, and when that clientele isn’t that large, it’s only natural that their menus stick pretty closely to the standard fare. While that standard fare can be tiresome, it isn’t always. There is a fine line between country home-cooking and a menu that depends on burgers and the deep fryer. If you’re like me and consider one of the joys of traveling to be getting a chance to eat outside of that standard fare, the frustration of small-town dining can feel particularly acute.
Such was my expectation when I arrived in Pepin. But as I discovered so many times on this trip, expectations have a way of being shattered.
My first night in the area was a culinary bust. I drove straight from the airport to Wabasha, but I was still too late to catch both the Irish pub fare and the Chinese across the street. I had a granola bar for dinner. And a big glass of water.
It hadn’t been open at the time, but by the time we got back to Pepin and parked, there was a line out the door. Maybe the Pickle Factory it would be.
But I was intrigued by the Harborview Café and suggested we go in to see how long the wait was. Forty-five minutes to an hour. Laura and I looked at each other. How hungry were we? How much did we want to wait? The atmosphere was among the most inviting I’d ever seen. The walls above me were lined with books; families with children dined alongside sophisticated couples sipping wine.
“You won’t regret it if you wait,” a voice said. The voice belonged to Josie, a young woman from nearby Red Wing who’d traveled to Pepin specifically to dine at the Harborview. “This place is amazing.”
We decided to trust her and put our name in. We took the opportunity to wander around the lake shore. Boats bobbed in the harbor. Trains sped past between the harborside road and the lake. I remarked that the Minnesota shore looked a lot closer than Laura made it sound in Little House in the Big Woods. We both snapped pictures and enjoyed our leisurely investigation of harborside Pepin. By the time I’d selected a necklace charm from an artisan jewelry store, Bnox Gold and Iron Works, a few doors down from the restaurant, we started to worry that maybe we’d missed our chance to eat. The man in charge, whom I wasn’t sure was the bartender or the manager or the owner, saw us come in. “I was just about to call you.”
The restaurant’s entryway opened on both sides, and he led us to the side we hadn’t been in. “Menu’s on the chalkboard,” he said. Indeed it was. We sat and proceeded to enjoy a meal unlike any I’d expected to find in Pepin, Wisconsin. I savored my tomato soup studded with gorgonzola. The stuffed mushrooms were laden with full cloves are garlic. I even congratulated myself on my wine selection, which suited the curry entrée I’d selected perfectly. I saw Josie stick her head in the room and survey the crowd. Before I could decide whether to gesture to her, she spied us and headed to our table. “I just wanted to see how you were doing. Oh, you got the mushrooms! Isn’t that garlic great? You’re glad you stayed, right?”
Her Minnesota accent was irresistible. If you’ve heard native Minnesotans speak, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Enough said.
The owner himself came over to check on us. Josie had told him we were from Kansas, and he wanted to know how his travelers liked their food. I’d never seen a restaurateur so down to earth. And later on, when we left, Josie was outside with her companions waiting for us to see how it all went.
Best homesite dining experience ever.