Harry's Gang: Local restaurants are starting to flourish again
May 7, 2021
One of my favorite jobs was writing restaurant reviews for the old Ripsaw, the now-defunct alternative weekly out of Duluth. After exploring a couple of locally owned restaurants recently, I couldn't resist stepping back into my old shoes and taking another stab at it.
Heather's Café is simply a reincarnation of Culbert's Café on 11th Street and Cloquet Avenue. Culbert's had been shut down since the pandemic forced many restaurants to close, but Heather was unable to reopen even when rules relaxed: because the space is so small, it was impossible to survive with just 25-percent capacity. She stayed alive through a combination of selling pies for holidays, federal relief funds and a sympathetic landlord.
That's all lucky for us. I enjoyed many a breakfast at the old Culbert's and was worried she may not survive the pandemic. It seems all that's changed from its former self is the name (the place is owned by Heather Culbert) and the new, odd opaque screen between the counter and the grill, leaving those of us who like sitting at the counter to stare at a blank wall. Heather's is Cloquet's only traditional diner, in the same location that has housed a diner restaurant since Jim's Hamburgers was there years ago. I'm hoping they can remove the protective screen soon, so please get vaccinated, Carlton County. Soon.
There seems to be a slight tradeoff between speed and quality here, meaning that you won't get served as quickly as diners are traditionally known for, but the food quality is superior to the classic greasy spoon. They have burgers and salads on the menu, but it's the breakfast that truly shines here: eggs cooked on a grill seasoned by years of use; tender and crispy hashbrowns cooked on that same grill, and huge, fluffy pancakes. Let me repeat that: huge, fluffy pancakes as big as the plate. I've asked Heather for her pancake recipe, but all she gives me is a sly smile. The biscuits and gravy are pretty tasty, too. Everything that's been touched by the grill has a certain grill flavor to it, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. But for those of us who aren't counting calories, Heather's Café is a great local diner. I'll try the lunch menu soon and report back.
Located on old Highway 61 in Atkinson, just a short drive from the Carlton off-ramp and near the county transportation building, the Elmwood Inn has reopened as well, but spent less time shut down than Heather's Café did. The Elmwood is a friendly country tavern, which means you can find people drinking beer at the bar at just about any time they are open. But it's also a terrific burger joint, with a menu that covers all the basics: burgers, salads and Mexican. The clientele is pleasant and the interior worn but clean and comfortable, making this tavern quite family-friendly.
There's a large menu, but their signature stamp seems to be their french fries. Seemingly cut from whole potatoes, the fires are crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and firm, just like a tavern fry is supposed to be. Fries are a $2 upcharge on most menu items, but I can't understand why anyone would pass up the opportunity to add these fires to their order.
The menu reflects the skill and experience of owner Ryan Bader, who can often be seen at the bar greeting customers for a second before escaping back to the grill to cook your food. There's no better sign of a small restaurant than to see the owner in the kitchen overseeing the preparation of your food. Occasionally, you can hear him laughing in the kitchen with the staff, as if they're really enjoying themselves. You'll be impressed. It's great bar food, with generous portions, and believable service: both times we visited recently, the server warned us that it will be 45 minutes before we get our food, as we ordered right at dinner time and the place was busy.
There was one standout from the burger menu I just have to mention: it's basically a peanut butter and jelly burger, except the jelly is a spicy sweet jalapeno sauce and the peanut butter is melted and soft, almost like a mole. Very clever.
I can understand why this place is so busy around dinnertime: being friendly, casual, and fun with outstanding bar food is a recipe for a great local tavern.
Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry's Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected]