It’s been six years since I posted my first list of the best riverside dining along the Upper Mississippi River. It’s time for an update, especially since a few places on the first list have closed, and new places have opened.
A reminder about how I select places:
- the restaurant must have a good view of the river;
- the food and service have to be good, and
- the restaurant can’t be part of a national chain.
It’s not hard to find places that meet the first criteria, but many have trouble with the second. Here’s a reminder to restaurant owners that’s just as true now as the first time I wrote it: if you are shooting for a fine dining experience and your servers are all in high school, you should rethink your concept or hire professionals.
The new list still has a mix of places in terms of price and location, so you’ll find bars mixed in with fine dining. My personal favorites (in alphabetic order):
- Aerie’s Riverview Winery; Grafton, IL
- Douglas Lodge; Itasca State Park, MN
- The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern; La Crosse, WI
There are many fine bars along the river that serve good bar food. If you know of some that stand out, please drop me a note, and I’ll check it out.
So here’s the list for 2019, with the restaurants in geographic order from north to south.
Douglas Lodge Restaurant; Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge; Minneapolis, Minnesota
One of the few places in the Twin Cities where you can dine next to the river, the menu at this Minneapolis establishment might be described as comfort food on steroids, like the tater tots with melted cheddar and sausage gravy. They also make darn good burgers and pizzas; you’ll want to wash it all down with a fancy tiki drink. Psycho Suzi’s can be ridiculously crowded on weekend evenings.
Nicollet Island Inn; Minneapolis, Minnesota
From comfort food to comforting food. Located on the historic Mississippi River island in Minneapolis for which it is named, dining at the Nicollet Island Inn is a sumptuous affair, complete with white tablecloths, top-notch service, and succulent food to match. If you aren’t in the mood for a splurge, go at lunch when the food is still excellent but costs much less.
Harbor Bar and Grill; Hager City, Wisconsin
I’ve never been to Jamaica, so I don’t know what “authentic” jerk chicken really tastes like, but I trust that the Jamaicans who typically work at the Harbor Bar in Hager City (across the river from Red Wing) every summer do know. And man, is it good. If you don’t like jerk chicken, they have other Jamaican entrées you can try, as well as burgers for the less adventurous, but for Pete’s sake: be adventurous!
Harbor View Café; Pepin, Wisconsin
One of the most popular restaurants on Lake Pepin, the Harbor View in Pepin serves sophisticated food in a casual atmosphere; the views of Lake Pepin are quite good, too. Dishes are prepared from scratch, with the menu changing depending upon what fresh ingredients they can get their hands on, so you have a good excuse to keep coming back.
Nosh Restaurant and Bar; Lake City, Minnesota
While the shores of Lake Pepin will never be mistaken for the Mediterranean coast, the food at Nosh in Lake City might fool you into believing that you are a few thousand miles further west. The menu changes with the seasons, depending upon what fresh ingredients are available from local sources (but seafood paella is a staple that is always on the menu).
Great Alma Fishing Float; Alma, Wisconsin
The cafe on the Great Alma Fishing Float is the only restaurant that is actually in the river (except during floods, of course), and it’s a great place to relax for a hearty breakfast or lunch. Take the shuttle from the Alma shore to the float and dig into The Mess, which is a rare example of truth-in-advertising and very tasty; get it with sauerkraut.
The Boathouse Restaurant: Winona, Minnesota
Trempealeau Hotel; Trempealeau, Wisconsin
The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern; La Crosse, Wisconsin
I don’t think I could rave enough about this La Crosse restaurant, which combines fine dining and excellent service with great views of the river. The decor is modern, but not stuffy. If you prefer to be a little more informal, The Tavern is a relaxing place to enjoy a drink and a meal, while chatting with a bartender or that new friend sitting near you. The Waterfront is another place where the menu changes with the seasons, so you should probably go back often to check out the latest creations.
Catfish Charlie’s; Dubuque, Iowa
Located on a harbor in Dubuque just off the river, Catfish Charlie’s is a good choice for a steak or seafood splurge or just to sample one of the ways they prepare catfish. Some of the fish they serve comes directly from the Mississippi River—you can’t get more local than that! If the weather cooperates, try to snag a table on the patio.
Fresh Deli by Nostalgia Farms; Davenport, Iowa
Adjacent to the Davenport Farmers Market, Fresh Deli has a bistro feel and nice views of the Davenport riverfront. Everything is made from scratch and portion sizes are reasonable, which helps keep the prices reasonable, too. The food is sourced mostly from local producers, including the farm run by the owners of the restaurant. Now that’s farm-to-table!
Elly’s Tea and Coffee House; Muscatine, Iowa
More than just a coffee shop, Elly’s offers fresh, light fare for breakfast or lunch to go along with your daily dose of caffeine. Grab a pasty or something a little more substantial like a slice of quiche, a salad, or sandwich, then take it out to the rooftop patio for great views of Muscatine’s portion of the river.
Maxwell’s at the Merrill Hotel and Conference Center; Muscatine, Iowa
Muscatine gets two listings this year, thanks to the arrival of the luxury hotel downtown. If you’re looking for a splurge with a view, Maxwell’s can satisfy both needs. The menu consists mostly of steaks and fish, with solid choices for sides and salads, all of which you can enjoy while staring out the windows that line the dining room.
Martini’s Grille; Burlington, Iowa
Martini’s occupies space on the 4th floor of a bluffside building in Burlington and, oh my, those views of the river are stunning! The restaurant has a modern and elegant interior with big windows and a large patio for taking in the river views. You’ll pay a premium for the food, which is good but not always as good as it aspires to be. Still, you’ll find something to satisfy your appetite and you’ll probably be so distracted by the views that you won’t much care if the food is great or simply good.