And other pleasant surprises that make it one of the Midwest's last hidden gems
Credit: Richard Cummins / robertharding/Getty Images

If you ever find yourself in Fargo, don't bother looking for its most famous resident—the world's most iconic wood chipper—downtown. The macabre movie prop is actually kept at a low-key visitor center in a neighborhood dominated by dime-a-dozen hotels and a so-tacky-it-can't-be-that-terrible theme restaurant called Space Aliens Grill & Bar. (May we suggest the Martian Munchies Platter?)

All of this starts to make sense after spending a couple days in North Dakota's biggest city (population: 120,762 according to a census estimate last year). While its resurgent food and drink scene appears to be the byproduct of fine-dining spots like Mezzaluna at first, it doesn't take long for a far more complex and exciting picture to emerge.

Take BernBaum's, for instance; despite being a simple lunch counter that shares its space with a mid-century modern vintage store (The Madhaus), the Jewish/Scandinavian deli routinely comes up in conversations about Fargo's best restaurants. Maybe it's because chef Andrea Baumgardner and her husband Brett offer a magnificent lamb meatloaf sandwich with lingonberries and pickled onions; smørrebrød specials that keep it Copenhagen; and a beautifully plated procession of bagel platters, latkes, and matzo ball soup that'd stand their ground against anything being made back in New York City? Yep, it's all of this, and the rugelach that's often sold by the counter, modest in presentation and flawless in terms of its mouth feel and fig-walnut/chocolate-hazelnut flavors.

"We are grateful that [BernBaum's] has resonated with people," says Andrea, "but I don't really know why. It's probably a mix of the wonderful people who work with us, the equally stellar regulars, and the comfortable surroundings which allow all of it to happen. A bit of luck, too! Feeding so many new and familiar people every day really makes the work meaningful; food is love."

This is where that whole North Dakota Nice thing kicks in. Taken in tandem with business-oriented tax breaks and a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats-mentality, the Fargo of today can feel like a group effort to become known for something other than a Coen Brothers classic that wasn't even filmed there. (Most of it was shot in Minnesota.)

"It isn't cutthroat," explains Joel Kath, the owner of the award-winning Proof Artisan Distillers. "There's more of a camaraderie, especially when it comes to getting customers to appreciate finer food and drinks."

That's actually one of Kath's favorite weekly commitments: "meeting people and mixologists" as Proof's brand ambassador, "then getting to play with the spirits" at his own tasting room or similarly minded restaurants around town. Many of which deliver top-notch dishes in unassuming settings, from the left-field tap list and snappy sausages at Würst Bier Hall to the strictly seasonal fare at Luna, a strip-mall secret that serves revelatory entrees like baked sole with dashi rice, nuoc cham, and cilantro and a pancetta risotto with burrata, meyer lemon, black garlic, and hazelnuts.

"I think Fargo itself is a hidden gem," says Mark Bjornstad, the co-founder and president of the downtown favorite Drekker Brewing Company, "so it's not surprising that the town would be filled with them as well. People here understand quality—they respect true craftsmanship and art—and in classic Midwest fashion, we sometimes do it without pretension or an uber-designed setting."

As for the underdog status of Drekker's own palate-imploding beer, he adds, "We hear that quite a bit. It probably comes from being located in Fargo and our approach to selling beer—letting it speak for itself. But being underrated also keeps us under the radar and all the more special for the customers that have found us."

Many Fargo businesses embrace its growth away from the spotlight, for it makes them feel free to experiment with concepts that would have been cast aside a decade ago. Ideas like Pinch & Pour, the artisanal cheese, oil, and charcuterie shop Julie and Gregg Robbins opened right next door to their cutting-edge clothing store Fowler's Heritage Company.

"Nobody believed we could do this," says Gregg, when asked about the couple's initial rollout five years ago. "Everybody was like, 'you want to do what?'"

And yet customers trickle in throughout the afternoon—asking about, and ultimately appreciating, the subtleties of the fresh products and spices P&P imports from throughout the country. "We're about creating an experience," he explains. "It's a lot of fun for us."

The nearby third-wave cafe Twenty Below also sets its standards higher than many of its competitors in much bigger cities, delivering a dizzying array of specialty coffee drinks with a smile and an incredible amount of pretense-free patience.

"We have eight different ways of brewing a rotation of four coffees," explains owner Ty Ford, "giving our customers 32 options for 'black coffee' when they walk up to the bar. Not to mention espresso, nitro brew, and our pay-what-you-can drip coffee. It can overwhelm at times, but we feel that it's important because it helps customers understand coffee better.

He continues, "Brew methods and filters can increase or decrease body, flavor, acidity, and bitterness, which are all key components of the flavor profiles that we create when roasting. Only when a customer tastes the same coffee in several different brewing methods and several different coffees in the same brewing method do they begin to understand how unique each bean is. From there, it is much easier to educate them on other parts of the supply chain."

Ford echoes what everyone else has said, too—that Fargo's F&B folks are in it to win it, even if that means helping your competitors out. "Greg Stumbo over at Stumbeano's actually let us roast on his machine when ours was down for repairs," he says. "We later teamed up with him for a collaborative roast at a local TEDx conference, and an up-and-coming company had some brewing machine issues I troubleshooted after hours. It rarely feels competitive. We're all in it together."