Though 2021 was another year punctuated by pandemic problems, new Duluth-area restaurants proliferated. The Twin Ports gained more than a dozen restaurants, as seasoned and fresh-faced entrepreneurs alike took the leap to open eateries.
Supply chain struggles and staffing woes remained issues for business owners, causing delays to opening dates, reduced hours and trimmed-back menus. Despite this, business owners remained optimistic, buoyed by their passion for food and entrepreneurship as well as the region’s appetite for eclectic offerings.
Zudi Maksutoski opened a restaurant in April in Superior. In brainstorming names, he settled on Dolce Vita. “It’s a term we use a lot in Macedonia that means ‘sweet life,’” he said. “With everything going on with COVID and the shutdowns it’s nice to remember that life is sweet.”
Food prices have been one of Maksutoski’s biggest challenges. He said the price of produce has nearly quadrupled since Dolce Vita has been open and he’s had to raise prices to cover the cost of inflation. Most patrons have been understanding and are pleased with the restaurant, which offers Italian and Mediterranean dishes. “So far everyone has been excited,” he said. “Everybody seems to love it.”
Natalie Harris had long dreamed of opening a restaurant with her husband Calvin. But the couple had good jobs, which kept them largely content. When she lost her job due to COVID, they decided it was the right time to open Superior Waffles. “I had just turned 40. It was a new decade with new possibilities. We just decided to dive in and do it,” she said.
The waffle shop opening was delayed a while due to equipment not being readily available. Certain food products have been hard to come by and Harris said it took a while to secure staff. She admits it’s been tiring and stressful at times but said things have been largely going well. The Harris’ have especially enjoyed having the freedom to be creative with their business.
Supply chain issues have been a big hurdle for Doc Witherspoon’s Soul Food Shack. “The food industry is so off course right now. There’s a lot of stuff I cannot get, a lot of stuff I have to wait for,” said owner Stephan Witherspoon. He noted that it took more than a month for an order of catfish, a staple item on his menu, to arrive.
Still, the restaurant has been well received by the community, according to Witherspoon. “One thing everybody does is eat,” he said. It doesn’t hurt that the soul food menu featuring Southern fried chicken and catfish is unique to the Duluth area.
Tacos Coming to Town
Taquerias are a new theme on the local food scene. Two Mexican-style taquerias tantalized area taco lovers with temporary residencies in 2021. Chachos Taqueria and Tacos Tacos Tacos are poised to become permanent fixtures in 2022.
Two more taco shops are planned for Lincoln Park. Hungry Hippie Tacos will open in the spring. And longtime Twin Ports taco truck, Oasis Del Norte, will finally have a storefront — potentially before summer.
Chachos teased Twin Ports taco fans with pop-ups last summer. The opening of its brick-and-mortar restaurant in Canal Park was delayed until 2022 but is imminent. Tacos Tacos Tacos was open from March until October and is in the midst of setting up at a new location. At the time of the interview, owner Robert Giuliani wasn’t ready to publicly disclose the location of his larger downtown space.
Kate and Jeremy Keeble will open a Hungry Hippies Tacos location in Lincoln Park this spring. The Duluth location will considerably expand the Grand Marais-based business’ footprint, capabilities and customer base. But customers shouldn’t expect authentic Mexican tacos. The restaurant serves what Kate calls “Midwest Northern tacos” and “pushes the boundaries” of what people expect a taco to be.
Restaurateurs Erik and Jessica Lietz have established a bit of an empire on the Iron Range with the Whistling Bird and their two BoomTown locations in Eveleth and Hibbing, the latter of which includes a brewery.
Their third BoomTown began serving up “comfort food with a twist” in June at the old Sunset Bar and Grill location at 4483 Martin Road in Rice Lake. The restaurant was slated to open in 2020 but pandemic-related issues like staffing reportedly caused delays.
The establishment serves a full menu that includes bar fare like burgers, poutine, flatbreads and wings as well as salads, steaks and other “smoky grilled meats.” It also serves brews like the Dirty Ore nitro stout or the Ranger Cerveza Mexican lager in glassware with the apt tagline “Drink Like a Ranger.”
During Grandma’s Marathon weekend in June, Chachos Taqueria made its debut in Canal Park. Additional pop ups happened over the summer, including at other locations like the Reef Bar and Boreal House.
The young entrepreneurs behind the eatery, Aaron Maloney and Alex Giuliani, wanted to dial in their menu and gauge customer tastes. They’re hoping for a January 2022 opening and will deliver during the cold season. Maloney said customers can also expect Chachos to inject some fun, creative elements into their business model.
“We got out there, got to meet the public and wanted to get feedback and make sure our recipes and product were what we wanted to sell,” said Maloney, noting that customers have been appreciative and excited about their menu items, which are fairly unique to the area.
Chachos serves up tamales made from a recipe based on Giuliani’s grandmother, who was Mexican. The partners put birria tacos on the menu. “It’s really fun and trendy right now with other taquerias around the nation,” Maloney said. The braised beef brisket tacos are served in a shell that’s doused in brisket fat and crisped up.
Alex’s father, Alessandro Giuliani, is the Duluth developer responsible for Clyde Iron Works. He purchased the tiny building at 329 Canal Park Drive across the parking lot from Caribou Coffee where Chachos will be located.
Cousin Chuy’s has been quietly operating out of Average Joe’s Pub at 1310 N. Fifth St. in Superior since January. Cody Packingham serves up elevated bar fare like fried pickle wontons, totchos, wings, and burgers with inventive toppings. The Hot Dish burger features tots, fried green beans and cheesy mushroom gravy while the Armadillo has bacon jam, fried jalapeno, Boursin cheese and firecracker sauce. The aptly named Bad Decision burger has double patties, bacon and more sandwiched between two grilled cheese sandwiches.
Doc’s opened in May at 319 W. First St., next to Roscoe’s Pioneer Bar in the old Oriental House space. A sign out front pays homage to owner Stephan Witherspoon’s late father, the Reverend Sylvester Witherspoon. It features a colorful cartoon likeness of him that reads: “All are welcome at our table.”
Rev. Witherspoon operated a restaurant in West Duluth in the mid-1980s and passed on a passion for Southern-style food and cooking to his sons Stephan and Solomon (the latter opened Spoon’s Bar and Grill in 2020, which is temporarily closed due to an August kitchen fire).
Besides soul food standards like fried chicken and catfish, patrons can choose from three different varieties of macaroni and cheese and sides like cornbread, dirty rice and collard greens. Dessert offerings include sweet potato pie and beignets.
The inside of the restaurant features colorful large-scale murals that include Witherspoon’s late parents and sister. “It’s literally, really a Black history monument,” he said. For the uninitiated, he added, “We’ve got good food and ambiance. Come say hi and see the art.”
After getting laid off from her job as a medical assistant at Essentia, Mary Martinson opted to open Dogs n’ Kabobs last August. The seasonal food wagon serves up gyros, kabobs, old-fashioned Coneys and more.
Dolce Vita opened in April in the old La Tequila space at 5802 Tower Ave. in Superior. The eatery has an ample menu with everything from burgers and specialty sandwiches to Italian and Mediterranean-influenced dishes. Patrons can enjoy specials like prime rib on weekends and a Friday fish fry.
Owner Zudi Maksutoski, who hails from Macedonia, said he’s offering Northland flavor and also some other special dishes that are more uncommon in the area. His pasta sauces are fresh and homemade. As for customer favorites. “Definitely the lamb chops everyone seems to love,” he said.
This Miller Hill Mall food court restaurant offers burritos, burrito bowls, tacos and salads. It opened up in the former Taco John’s location in March and is owned by Semir Secic.
Joshua Gosar’s Grumpy Goose food trailer arrived on the scene in May. The seasonal mobile eatery serves up vegan comfort food like BBQ ribz, beer cheez soup, and oyster mushroom po’ boys.
Duluth’s Pizza Ranch restaurant opened in June at the old Lucky’s 13 Pub location in the Miller Hill Mall. Known for its pizza and chicken buffet and salad bar, Pizza Range also includes a FunZone arcade.
Within a week of meeting Terry Johnson 24 years ago, his eventual-wife Dawn told him he was her “ride or die.” The couple recently put this meaningful phrase to use when they solidified their business dream with Ride or Die Pizzeria, which opened in August.
They took over the former Thirsty Pagan space at 1623 Broadway St. “It was scary, opening up during the pandemic. But I think it was the right move for us to take the chance,” Johnson said.
Finding reliable staff hasn’t been easy and Johnson worries about more potential COVID shutdowns in the near future. But he said they’re getting a lot of positive feedback from customers.
The couple previously owned Lee’s Pizza in Duluth’s Lincoln Park Craft District. They took their recipe with them, selling the business and name. Pizza is made to order with a special in-house recipe and cooked in a stone deck oven. They make their own sauce and dough is made fresh every day.
Ride or Die has a state-of-the-art smoker and a pit master. They serve house-smoked meat like pulled pork, chicken and beef brisket. These can be added to pizza or nachos. They also offer carryout and delivery and have live music on weekends.
Motorcycle enthusiasts will appreciate the decor. There’s a large-scale mural of a motorcycle driving on Route 66 by a local artist. Johnson collects Harleys and has several on display.
Johnson wanted to set the pizzeria apart from other eateries. He also wanted people to be able to “walk in the door and feel at home.” They’ve succeeded in this, according to Johnson. “We get a lot of customers who tell us ‘the feel of the place is so welcoming. We can be ourselves.’”
Husband and wife team Calvin and Natalie Harris are behind the new breakfast and brunch spot, Superior Waffles. Located in the historic New York building at 1412 Tower Avenue, the waffle bar serves up an array of offerings.
Sweet tooths might like cheesecake spread on their waffles with berries, cream and chocolate sauce. Savory-minded folks can indulge in a pizza waffle or a “braffle,” a bratwurst served on a waffle bun that’s topped with raspberry jam and syrup. There are even vegan and gluten-free options.
Natalie said business has been good. “Weekdays have slowed down a bit now that the weather is colder but weekends are still really busy.”
Superior Waffles has started to do catering and events in the evening. People can rent out the waffle shop after hours for private parties.
Robert Giuliani started working on the concept for Tacos Tacos Tacos as he was traveling around Mexico toward the end of 2020. He visited 150 different taquerias and realized that the fast-casual concept could work well even in the midst of a pandemic.
Giuliani has some Mexican heritage and remembers growing up and eating tacos from street vendors. “I grew up with that food,” he said. “When I started traveling again it was like being a kid again. There was that nostalgic factor. The food was so simple. It was so good.”
After some travel, tasting and recipe development, he opened Tacos Tacos Tacos in March in the former Martha’s Daughter space at 107 E. Superior St. Giuliani said his aim is to give people the experience of a true Mexican taqueria. This means chicken or fish tacos aren’t on the menu. Neither are rice and beans. The chorizo, beef, pork or nopales (cactus) tacos are served on soft corn tortillas and topped with items like fresh salsa, cilantro and onions.
Giuliani said he was lucky to get a great restaurant location initially but wasn’t able to negotiate the lease, which meant Tacos Tacos Tacos had to close in October. But it was enough time to test out this restaurant concept in Duluth. He was pleased with the result. “In six months we were considered the third-best taco in the state by the Star Tribune,” he said.
A new Duluth location has been secured and construction is starting. Giuliani hopes to be open again in a couple of months. He’s also working on expanding the business to include two Twin Cities locations and a shared food truck for special events.
Giuliani said the closure gives him “the ability to focus on the expansion and dialing last things we wanted to do in order to make it really authentic, to make it a really enjoyable and memorable experience for people coming in.”
This Miller Hill Mall food court sushi option opened in August. It also has a location in St. Cloud.
This seasonal food truck owned by David Fitch and Cory Netland opened in August. It serves up a rotating variety of gourmet hot dogs smothered in toppings like chipotle chili and sharp cheddar or pulled pork, bacon, cheddar, and French fried onions.
Not Necessarily New But Newsworthy
Black Water Lounge has been closed since the beginning of 2019. Its Facebook page details some renovations and updates and promises a reopening in January 2022.
A longtime Lakeside staple is under new ownership as of October. New London Cafe has already received a paint job, rebranding and a new website. The aesthetic is less diner and more Nordic. It’s a business refresh to go along with changes happening in Lakeside, according to John Jenkins. Some renovations and upgrades are also underway, which he expects to be completed in January.
New London was one of the first restaurants Jenkins and his wife Giselle went to when they moved to Duluth eight years ago. They decided to act when they saw it was for sale. “The last thing we need is a big corporation coming in and scooping up the place and turning it into something less neighborhood-friendly,” said Jenkins.
The couple worked with two partners, Jacob Ferris and Maria Olivares, to purchase the New London Cafe building and restaurant from Carl Ehlenz, who also owns Betty’s Pies. They aim to bring in more fresh products and expand the kitchen’s capabilities. They want to eventually expand beyond breakfast and lunch to include dinner offerings and intend to get a liquor license.
The cafe at 4721 E. Superior St. remains open throughout the changes and has been fortunate to retain its staff, according to Jenkins. Customers can expect an updated menu by spring. In the meantime, they’re running specials each week to test new items.
Patrons will see some fresh items like breakfast burritos, avocado toast and fruit parfaits as well as fun takes on traditional eggs Benedict such as pesto and Caprese Benedict. They’re also planning to bring waffles back to the menu.
Underwood Coffee is renting a portion of the building, which is a win-win because the cafe now has fresh-roasted coffee available on site. New London is also working with a number of other local businesses to source decor and products. “We’re trying to focus on community and supporting locals around us as we all lift each other up,” Jenkins said.
The New Scenic Cafe resumed full-service dining in November (Wednesday through Sunday) with a seasonally updated menu that includes a smörgåsbord with pickled herring, deviled eggs, smoked salmon and more. A wild game platter is also on offer, with quail, venison and duck. The restaurant recently implemented a 20 percent “fair wage share” service charge to all orders to “ensure all staff are adequately valued and more equitably paid.”
Zeitgeist Restaurant & Bar reopened on Nov. 19, albeit with limited dinner hours, Thursday through Saturday. Reservations are encouraged and curbside pickup is also available.
The restaurant is under new leadership, including a new chef as well as general and front-of-house managers. Chef Nick Weinhandl previously worked at Fargo’s Hotel Donaldson which earned a Four Diamond rating from AAA during his tenure. Weinhandl was also a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest award in 2014.
The revamped menu has a seasonal focus. Don’t worry, it still includes truffle fries. Patrons can choose from such gourmet items as a pear tart with arugula, blue cheese and smoked almonds or pan-seared whitefish with citrus butter sauce and cauliflower four ways.
Rather than rely on a traditional model where customers tip at their own discretion, Zeitgeist has implemented a 20 percent hospitality charge. The rationale is that this will provide “an elevated and fair living wage for all team members, a professionalized pay scale and a sustainable business model.”
Coming in 2022
Owners of Bucktales Cantina and Grill confirmed they are working to add a location in Superior in 2022 but said it’s premature to talk about it because business details aren’t finalized yet. B105 Radio reported that the restaurant, which serves Mexican and American fare, would be taking over the old Shorty’s Smoked Meats and Pizza location at 1015 Tower Avenue.
Hungry Hippie Tacos will open next spring in the former Westside Pet Clinic at 1810 W. Superior Street. Proprietors Kate and Jeremy Keeble own the Hungry Hippie Farm & Hostel in Grand Marais. They took over Hughie’s Tacos in Grand Marais several years ago, initially planning to replace it with a barbecue joint. After realizing the unique fry bread tacos had a cult following, they revamped their plan, keeping the previous owner’s fry bread recipe and altering it a bit to suit their tastes.
Kate calls their spin on the handheld favorite “Northern fry bread tacos.” They’re made with Minnesota wild rice flour. Toppings on the Grand Marais menu include house-smoked meats like apple-smoked pork or ale and chili brisket. Customers can choose chips or tots to go with their tacos. The Duluth shop will have a similar menu but they’re excited to test out some different offerings on the larger market.
Seth and Sarah Maxim are in the midst of reinventing the oldest craft beer brand in Duluth. They bought the Lake Superior Brewing Company name and recipes. The couple is opting for a brewpub going forward rather than the production brewing model of the past. A recent Fox21 report suggested that a new Lakeside location at 5324 E. Superior Street should be open in early 2022.
Eduardo Sandoval-Luna has long had a goal of bringing his Mexican culture to the Duluth area through his food. He established the Oasis Del Norte food truck in 2015 and has been searching for the right permanent location for some time.
After brief stints at Average Joe’s Pub in Superior and the Miller Hill Mall, Sandoval-Luna purchased the former Big Bottle Liquor Store at 2401 W. Superior St. He’s in the middle of working with a local architect to redesign the space into a restaurant.
The plan is for a fast-casual establishment, with a few tables and booths inside for dining in. The “little, 30-by-30 oasis of Mexico in the North” will include items popularized by the food truck, many of them from his mother’s recipes, like tacos, tortas and burritos. Sandoval-Luna is experimenting with some additional family recipes and looks forward to sharing them with customers.
“I’ll bring my mom’s recipes and family recipes to share. It will be a great experience for anyone who comes in,” he said. “Not just the food but the chance to explore Latino culture.”
Sandoval-Luna hopes to have the restaurant open before summer. He intends to continue operating the food truck as well.
Fox21 News reported that Vitta Pizza will be adding a second location at 21 W. Central Entrance next spring in the former UPS store. The original location in Canal Park serves up Neapolitan-style wood-fired pizza.
The Wissota Chophouse will add a Superior location on the ground level of the new Cobblestone Hotel and Suites development in Superior 1102 Tower Avenue. The chophouse chain, based in Chippewa Falls, is known for its steaks and seafood. It has locations in six other Wisconsin towns.
The chophouse is right next door to Superior’s newest drinking establishment. Jordan DeCaro, who opened Duluth Tap Exchange in 2020, launched his second self-pour drinking establishment in October. The Tap on Tower is at 1106 Tower Ave. in the Schiller Building, formerly the home of Sclavi’s Italian Restaurant & Bar.
For details on eating and drinking establishments that closed this past year, read the companion piece to this story, “Among 2021 restaurant closures were two of Guy Fieri’s favorites.”
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