When roads close out in the country south of Duluth, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. A gravel road leads up a beat-up strip of asphalt, and that crumbling path leads you for miles, across Wisconsin state lines and to the foot of Pattison State Park. There, you’ll find the Manitou Inn.
If you’re lucky enough to get this far lost, stop in. Shoot the shit with a stock-car driver, and let some of the Northland’s finest fried fish come at you in stacks. You can get to Superior if you keep driving north, but I’d suggest holding your horses.
The Basics: Your best bet is their Facebook page for an Internet scoop, as a similarly-named spot in Pikes Peak hoards the Google results. Need Funyons or cigarettes? The Manitou Inn’s got you covered.
A hot day, an isolated building, gravel lot, and a wayward schmuck: A great many movie deaths have begun that way. You hear the crunch of the rocks under the tires, watch the dust rise and dissipate, and the first foot step out of the car. You just know someone’s in for it. In my case, I thought I was in for a quick beer as penance for mooching their WiFi out in the lot.
“What do you know?” a young man asked as I found a bar stool. The front of his T-shirt featured a bull (or was it a moose?) shivering with his hooves over his midsection, and the words TESTICLE FESTIVAL printed over the top of the chest. I looked at the enticing stains on the grill surface, took one sip of the stout he poured me a sample of, and suddenly I was in it for the long haul. That’s what I knew.
The Manitou Inn boasts checkered linoleum flooring that looks 100 years old, peeling away like skin after a bad burn, and a counter so clean you could eat off of it (which I may have done with a bite of my meal). At this time on this Friday, the only other man drinking at this counter was a camo-capped antique of a man. As he mouthed his bottle of Mich, this young cat working the bar — Chad was his name — gave me a shockingly articulate rundown of Oscar’s Chocolate Oatmeal Stout. We bonded over beer, and that was pretty cool.
I waffled between a $7 cheeseburger and the $8.95 fish fry for a few minutes before settling on the fish fry, and let me tell you: I don’t make good decisions in Douglas County too often, but this was arguably the best ever.
The beer-battered fish was a revelation: I’d shied away from fish fries for years, and was briefly saddened by that as I ate. The breading was crispy, but not brittle; it could be effortlessly cut with a fork, without flying into smithereens. The fish was straightforward and fresh; it came with tartar sauce but I rarely used it. It was so easy to eat, I plowed through three plates. The bar fries on the side just made this meal unfair.
That I stayed for two hours and barely played Angry Birds speaks to Chad’s excellent service and fish I just couldn’t back put down. That’s how you keep customers in the middle of nowhere when they arrive, as a crew of construction workers and ersatz old men proved as the day stretched on. In the end, two craft taps and three plates of fish ran me less than a $20. I don’t know if I can ever pass up a fish fry again, and I don’t know if I’ll ever drive straight to Duluth on a Friday again.
I might have to make a main route out of whatever madness landed me there.