While it’s very easy in Duluth  to accidentally find oneself eating the kind of heavy, mediocre fare usually foisted on tourists and college kids, the city is also home to a few of the state’s best creative restaurants.
Hungry diners have been known to drive up from the Twin Cities  for a meal at the New Scenic Café (5461 North Shore Scenic Dr., 218/525-6274, www.sceniccafe.com , 11 a.m.–9 p.m. daily, $10–23), which serves an ever-changing menu of refined locally focused dishes in a casual atmosphere. Be prepared for a crowd and a wait, especially at dinner.
Just two miles up the road, the newer Nokomis (5593 North Shore Scenic Dr., 218/525-2286, www.nokomisonthelake.com , 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily summer, noon–10 p.m. Wed.–Sun. rest of year, $14–23), started by picking up some of those overflow diners and now attracts its own following. The menu changes seasonally, with the walleye po’boy, elk burger, white fish cakes, and coq au vin all getting national raves. A seat on the deck with a view of the lake across scenic Highway 61, is an essential part of the experience.
Even more great food, this time with a cheeky twist, is to be found at the Twin Cities export Hell’s Kitchen (10 Lake Ave. S., 218/727-1620, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Sun., $11–15). Although it built its reputation on breakfast—lemon ricotta pancakes, quarter-inch-thick bacon, wild rice porridge—it’s also great for lunch and dinner, with casual eats like barbecue ribs and bison burgers.
Duluth  does have more traditional white-tablecloth dining. In the Fitger’s complex, Midi (600 Superior St. E., 218/727-4880, www.midirestaurant.com , 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 7 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., $13–26) has the feel of a wine cellar and prides itself on fine service. Unique on the menu are the German sausages and roulades, but otherwise you can expect the usual steak, seafood, and chicken.
Restaurant 301 (301 Superior St. E., 218/336-2705, www.restaurant301.com , 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, lounge open until midnight, $16–28) dazzles with fancy presentations of upscale meats and seafood. You can’t beat the Sunday tasting menu: same great cooking, but just $15 for three courses.
At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Café (1902 8th St. E., 218/724-6811, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Sun., $6–22) is a casual place near UMD where walls of books invite you to stay awhile. The regular menu has basics like a veggie burger and Caesar salad, while the daily specials, based on organic and free-range ingredients and often seasoned with herbs from their own herb garden, get more creative. At breakfast, the huge pancakes get raves.
Another favorite local place for breakfast is Uncle Louis Café (520 4th St. E., 218/727-4518, 6 a.m.–2:45 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–2:45 p.m. Sat.–Sun., $5–10), where the spots at the bar are coveted, and the short-order cook slings out hearty omelets and heaping plates of potatoes.
For breakfast, lunch, dinner, live music, or just a cup of coffee, Amazing Grace Bakery and Café (394 Lake Ave. S., 218/723-0075, www.amazinggracebakery.com , 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 7 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.), is the spot. This little bohemian basement space with a shady outdoor patio serves up largely local and organic sandwiches and soups, with plenty of choices for vegans and vegetarians.
Grandma’s Saloon & Grill (522 Lake Ave. S., 218/727-4192, 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m. daily, $7–25), covered in unique antiques and collectibles, is a Northland institution. The please-everyone menu covers such options as curried wild rice Cajun shrimp, turkey burgers, and lasagna.
If you can’t bear to go inside on a beautiful Duluth  day, Crabby Bill’s (504 Canal Park Dr., www.crabbybillsduluth.com , $3–8) is a 35-foot tugboat in Canal Park . Out its service window come delicious battered seafood, wild rice bratwurst, and bear-battered French fries.
The excellent lunch buffet and seemingly thousands of curry choices, including lamb and seafood, at India Palace (319 Superior St. W., 218/727-8767, www.duluthindiapalace.com , 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., open until 10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., closed Sun., $12–30) make this longtime gem one of the city’s best restaurants.
Duluth’s only Thai dining is the friendly Thai Krathong (114 1st St. W., 218/733-9774, www.thaikrathong.com , 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., $10–20), with curries of all sorts perfectly prepared—the seafood comes particularly recommended—though if you want it spicy, you need to beg. There’s a weekday lunch buffet.
Taste of Saigon (394 Lake Ave. S., 218/727-1598, 11 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Fri.–Sat., $5–13) serves Vietnamese fare (and a little Chinese too) adapted for American palates in a comfortably casual atmosphere.
The excellent and eclectic Pizza Luce (11 Superior St. E., 218/727-7400, www.pizzaluce.com , 8 a.m.–1:30 a.m. Sun.–Thurs., 8 a.m.–2:30 a.m. Fri.–Sat., $6–13) is far from your average pizzeria. Roasted eggplant, barbecue chicken, and goat cheese are some of the more unusual of their fifty-plus toppings, and they even offer a vegan cheese alternative. Take-away slices are available and they deliver. Pizza Luce is also a surprisingly great choice for both breakfast and late-night live music.
At classy Bellisio’s (405 Lake Ave. S., 218/727-4921, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, $7–29) the atmosphere is romantic and the wine list impressive.
A great atmosphere—more polished pub than south-of-the-border—a great list of beers on tap, and creative takes on Tex-mex classics make Burrito Union (1332 4th St. E., 218/728-4414, www.burritounion.com ) a favorite with local college students. The Rasputin (a murderously huge burrito) and the Fat Capitalist (a particularly filling one) are all part of the joint’s obsessive russo/sovietophilia.
Hacienda Del Sol (319 Superior St. E., 218/722-7296, www.hacienda-del-sol.com , 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., closed Sun., $7–12) isn’t exactly a south-of-the-border experience, but it is still some of the best Mexican in the northland. The secluded, shady deck in back is a wonderful place for a warm-weather meal.
With a warm and welcoming Greek family in the kitchen, Grape Vine Café (220 Superior St. W., 218/464-4027, www.grapevinecafeduluth.com ) serves excellent souvlaki, lamb chops, meze plates, and other home-style Greek specialties.
The sleek and modern Takk for Maten (11 Superior St. E., 218/464-1260, 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat., closed Sun., $3–6) serves lingonberry pancakes and other Scandinavian specialties during the day, then becomes Kippis (5–11 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., 5 p.m.–1 a.m. Fri.–Sat., $3–16) (Finnish for “cheers”) at night. Get $5–6 small plates like pepper-smoked salmon, rye bread with mild Finnish cheese, and catfish pate, as well as northern-inspired cocktails.
There are snack stands all over Canal Park , but it is worth a trip over to the cute PortLand Malt Shoppe (716 Superior St. E., www.portlandmaltshoppe.com ). The constant crowds hovering in front of it tell you how good it is.
The small, worker-owned Positively 3rd Street Bakery (1202 3rd St. E., 218/724-8619, www.positively3rdstreetbakery.com , 8 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Sun., $1–4) uses mostly organic ingredients in its wonderful cookies, bars, and breads, yet they still manage to price them ridiculously low.
Jitters (102 Superior St. W., 218/720-6015, 6:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat., closed Sun.) downtown serves a good cup o’ joe in a small and relaxed environment.