Look closely enough at the wall decorations of the Wilbert Cafe and you’ll see tidbits of history, not just that of the restaurant but of the region it feeds.
The Wilbert Cafe, with its sister businesses the El Toro Lounge and El Toro Liquor Store, make a sort of strip mall formation along the Cotton stretch of Highway 53. Wilbert Cafe co-owner Sandy Simek has lived in the area for almost her entire life, having grown up in nearby Melrude and graduated from the old Cotton High School. She points out an old advertisement framed on a wall, of a hunters’ ball that happened in Melrude back in 1965 (Free Lunch – Prizes – Grand Music) and a pair of skis her father once owned.
Above the door to the kitchen is an old sign for the Kelsey Post Office. Kelsey is an unincorporated township seven miles west of Cotton. Its post office closed long ago, and the sign was found in a Duluth antique shop by a customer, who then alerted Simek.
“They sent me a picture of it,” she says. “They were like, somebody in the area should have it. I gave [the shop] a call and I said to hold it for me, then went down and picked it up.”
A Greyhound sign just inside the front entryway is in homage to Cotton’s early days. The town was as a major connecting point between Duluth and Hibbing back in the 1920s. As many as 20 Greyhound buses would stop in Cotton per day.
The stove just below that sign has the look of a pre-World War II model, but people have their own stories about that. Maybe their grandparents used to have one just like that in their kitchen; maybe there was one was in the kitchen of their own childhood home, and would fill their house with the smell of freshly-baked bread.
Should you take the sight of this oven as a signal of a good meal to come? It hasn’t steered me wrong so far.
Before you start debating whether it’s too late for breakfast, or too early for a two-thirds-pound hamburger steak, the front page of the Wilbert Cafe menu is worth a read. It’s an abridged history of the Wilbert Cafe story, to the extent a 97-year-old cafe’s history can be abridged. It starts with William Lyman and Bert Robinson, who built the cafe back in 1922 (Will, Bert, Wilbert).
Even having read this piece before visiting, you might still read the final paragraph of the menu’s front page and think, “Geez, it burns down again?”
Three times, the Wilbert has burned down. The first was 1949. The cafe was rebuilt and re-opened within a year. The second time was 1964. Extensive remodeling followed this fire, including the addition of the El Toro Lounge. It burned down for a third time in 1984. Simek had recently moved back to the area and had begun working at the Wilbert Cafe part-time. She remembers the night of the third fire.
“It happened in the middle of the night, and my husband was on the volunteer fire department,” she recalls. “When he got the call that the Wilbert was on fire, I drove up here. I just remember the owners and several other people out in the parking lot, and everybody was just like ‘Oh my god.’”
The building sat empty for several years, but the El Toro got up and running relatively soon afterward with new owners. Instead of the Wilbert’s past (and current) location, a small cafe was installed on the other end of the building. The Wilbert was rebuilt where it stands today in 1991, and a liquor store was put in the other end. Sandy and her husband Steve bought the businesses in 2004.
Couples still talk during breakfast at the Wilbert Cafe. People come alone for coffee, and read the paper as they sip. They fold their section of choice into quarter-page panels and hold it one-handed, mug in the other hand. Today’s Sunday paper isn’t the first rodeo for these folks. Most families I see here don’t have any phones on the tables, a practice that seems almost ancient now.
The El Toro offers the same food as the Wilbert, but an almost polar opposite experience; whereas the Wilbert Cafe is soft and sunlit, plexiglass windows and sparse lighting give the El Toro semblance of a subterranean hideout.
My stops are for 150 miles’ worth of coffee and a good breakfast, though, and Simek says the Wilbert Cafe sees a lot of travelers come through. There are those cruisin’ between Duluth and the Iron Range, and Lake People who come up for cabin stays. She estimates the population in the area quadruples during summertime.
Wintertime is another story. You might have heard when Cotton very nearly set a new statewide record for coldest temperature in state history back in January (the home of the record, Tower, is roughly an hour north of Cotton). But if you think this region just ices over and shuts down during wintertime, you obviously haven’t spoken with any great gray owls lately.
Simek remembers 2004, the first winter she and her husband spent as owners of the Wilbert Cafe. She says extreme weather condition in Canada that year brought great gray owls – lots of great gray owls – into the nearby Sax-Zim Bog.
“It was just amazing,” she says. “There was an owl on every fence post, every power line, every tree. That’s when the whole thing started.”
Today, the Sax-Zim Bog is one of the premier bird-watching destinations in the world. She says peak birding season lines right up with peak shivering season – mid-December to mid-March. While the locals hiding out in heated fishhouses on the middle of Lake Vermilion with notebooks and six-packs of beer, bird-watching enthusiasts from California, Arizona, and even Japan are heading up to see some birds.
“I had no idea that there were that many people interested in bird-watching,” she says. “A lot of times [during winter], it’s like the highway shuts down. Nobody’s traveling, the roads are bad, so for us to get that kind of business in January, February, March, it’s amazing.”
Simek says they’ve kept with traditional menu items previous owners have offered: homemade meatloaf, hashed browns, and buttermilk pancakes have their inherited recipes intact. If the meatloaf sandwich I had is any indication, that original meatloaf recipe can be proud of how they’re making it today.
A scoop of whipped mashed potatoes balances between the two sandwich halves and the whole thing is covered in that thick, deep brown gravy you coated plates with at big family meals back in the day. This meal takes you back.
Breakfast combinations and omelettes dominate the early-hours options, but I’m probably not leaving without that raspberry truffle French toast. You’ll get two slices of Texas toast that are soft, but not spongy, and the occasional kiss of raspberry glaze as you go.
The Wilbert Cafe offers an extensive menu – the page count doesn’t quite match that of, say, RJ Riches in Mounds View (eight pages, that one), but you’re going to have options. Simek says that’s by design. They keep what their customers have always been asking for modernizing with gluten-free and vegetarian options.
“People will ask, ‘Why do you have an egg salad?’” she says. “Most places you go to don’t have that kind of stuff, and that’s exactly why we continue to have that. We get a lot of older people and that’s what they want – a light sandwich and a cup of soup. We don’t do a lot of stuff for special diets, but we have to at least one option for people.”
Beyond breakfast are pages of burgers and sandwiches; dinners like ham steaks, beef liver, pork chops, and jumbo shrimp; and a beef pasty, which I somehow missed during my two scans of the menu. Next time.
Simek brought out a group of pies during my most recent visit. You can’t leave the Wilbert Cafe without pie.
On a server’s recommendation, I try the coconut cream pie. Simek found a coconut cream pie recipe, substituted vanilla extract with coconut extract to strengthen that flavor, and makes a walnut-based crust. With a hefty squiggle of whipped cream, it’s cool for the summer but can ride nicely with a pot of coffee. It’s where comfort food and summer soundtracks come together, that pie.
My server asks if I want to try them all, maybe have a pie eating contest with myself right there in the cafe. Unwritten head-math tells me I’d have to run all the way up to Canada to burn those calories off off, but I nonetheless give it serious consideration.
IN THAT TOWN WHOSE COLDEST COLD WAS COLDER THAN COTTON’S COLDEST COLD
- Randy Semo Tells the Story of Tower’s Good Ol’ Days Bar and Grill
- At the Vermilion Club, You Save Your Best Stories for the Bamboozler
- Sulu’s: Brenda Sue and Linda Lou’s Main Street Espresso Cafe
MINNESOTA-MADE HOT SAUCE SPOTLIGHTS
- Bernie Dahlin of Double Take Hot Sauce, and The Hard-Hitting Heat of his ‘X’ Sauces
- “Crybaby Craig” Kaiser on Perfecting Unexplored Cooking Methods, Family Meals, and the Accident that Keyed His Success
- David and Leigh Taylor of Hellraising Hot Sauce on Working Together, Forbidden Fruit, and Tres Gatos Hot Sauce
- Tony Stoy of Isabel Street Heat on Fermentation, Barrel-Aged Sriracha, and the Last Time He Hurt Himself Making Hot Sauce