Driving down US Hwy 61 to at least Wabasha is worthwhile and scenic. You go through Hastings, Red wing, Lake City and Wabasha. I'd recommend the St. James Hotel dining room in Red Wing where I recently has a Kentucky Hot Brown for lunch. Just south of Red Wing in Frontenac you will find a classic dive, The Whistle Stop. Alton Brown stopped there on his Feasting on Asphalt River Road Tour TV show. At Wabasha you can take in the National Eagle Center and view American Bald Eagles close up and either The Olde Triangle Irish Pub or Slipperies. Slipperies was made famous in the Grumpy Old Men movie and is right on the Mississippi River. There are more places but those are the places I've been to recently.
I'm looking for ideas too. I'd drive up to 4 hours and I'd drive for ANYTHING worth the drive---burger, pie, nice meal. Only thing I would not drive for is sushi :0)
Oh, and it would be a bonus if there were, along the drive, great little meat shops or cheese shops or bakeries where I could buy goodies to bring home.
Also, does anyone know if Harbor View in Pepin, now that it has new owners, is as good as it was in the past?
Romantic and time of year/seasonal don't really matter to me, at least not at this time. I'm just looking for terrific food. Generally, we'd rather not spend tons of money; we are usually happier with food that is more moderately priced. And I am fine with hole-in-the-wall, divey places---as long as the kitchen is not dirty :0)
Ok, I'll start with one that can be an actual day trip (if you have a lot of energy and obviously you wouldn't hit all these spots). This is a trip into Duluth and back. It's more of an obvious one, but I'm going with it anyways. This could easily be expanded into a longer trip with the North Shore. Please feel free to add the good places I miss. I know there other things I could have added, especially in Duluth, but I tried to make this focused on the more affordable stops and I left out the fancy places while including some divey places. There is more information on many of these places if you look around Chowhound.
Typical bakery. Not terribly exciting as I remember but might be worth checking out.
Between Hinckley and Carlton
Banning Junction (Finlayson exit
)Cafe, Restaurant, and Bar - Truck stop style place. I like stopping in the cafe for breakfast. Dinner food is okay, but nothing spectacular.
Green Pastures Dairy
Raw milk Dairy Farm - stop here for cheese
TJ's Country Store
Brats and Sausages
Little breakfast place that I've heard good things about
Old fashioned burger place - only open in Summer. I love this place.
Between Cloquet and Duluth
Bar/Restaurant - not too special but I like it
Midwest Style Pizza place - multiple locations
Brewpub with good fare. If you like beer it's a must stop since this is one of my favorite brewpubs anywhere.
If you like coffee, this is my preference in Duluth.
Positively 3rd Street Bakery
Bakery I've heard good things about
Northern Waters Smokehaus
You're going to Lake Superior, you must pick up some smoked fish right.
Amazing Grace Bakery and Cafe
It's been a long time since I've been here but I remember getting a decent cup of coffee and I've heard good things about the bakery.
Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory
This is a chain, but if you end up in Canal Park and love chocolate then it might be worth the stop. I remember there being at least one other candy store too in the shops above Amazing Grace.
Spin-off of Hell's Kitchen in Mpls. Early reviews haven't looked good but maybe that's changed. I figured it's worth mentioning.
There also is a farmers market in Duluth in the summer if you're into those.
This is a dive bar with good burgers. Always an experience.
Some people also like the Coney Island in Duluth but I had a bad experience many years ago and haven't been back.
Actually worth the drive? No place that I know of. Here are some thoughts though...
Zimmern visited Cozy Cafe in Cyrus, but I'm not sure if it's still open and I'm not sure if it's really anything special. He went there for lutefisk...not my favorite dish. :)
If you head all the way to Fargo Moorhead there is likely some chowhound type stops. I've heard good things about Grand Junction and I'm sure there is some other places across the border in Fargo. People seem to like Zorbaz pizza which is in that area and elsewhere around Minnesota, but I doubt it's worth the drive.
There's got to be a good supper club somewhere in Western, MN but I'm very rarely in the area so I'm not aware of anything specific.
I might have some other daytrip ideas...let me think about that.