Brainerd, the largest and oldest city in the Brainerd Lakes region of central Minnesota, was first seen by European settlers in 1805 during the search for the Mississippi headwaters.
Established in 1871 and declared a city on March 6, 1873, this Northern Pacific Railroad-created town is the manifestation of President Abraham Lincoln’s dream to connect the east coast with Tacoma, Washington via a northern rail route.
In the 1920s, 90% of the Brainerd population relied upon the railroad for its livelihood. Today, approximately seventy people are retained in a maintenance capacity. While we are going to review Brainerd, MN restaurants here, there is much, much more to the area.
The landmark Brainerd water tower was the first all-concrete elevated water tower in the country. No longer functional and with repair costs climbing, its restoration vs, removal remains a hot topic debated among residents. It’s easy to spot from either side of the Mississippi River and from many of the restaurants on this list.
Brainerd’s touch with infamy occurred on October 27, 1933, at the First National Bank when Baby Face Nelson and his gang robbed the bank, stealing nearly $32,000. The bank building now hosts a collectibles store with images of old-time Brainerd in its windows. Enter and ask the proprietor to show you the bullet holes remaining.
Now, with the railroad a minor player, the primary source of revenue to the region comes from tourism, especially cycling.
Summer or winter, it’s an outdoor location destination. Whether it’s ice fishing and snowmobiling during the winter or cycling and car racing during the summer, the important thing is to embrace the great outdoors. And with tourism, Brainerd restaurants offer tasty, healthy, and homestyle food with frequent new options for all to enjoy.
Also, visiting nearby Baxter during your time in Minnesota? Check out this post covering the best restaurants in Baxter, MN!
7 Best Brainerd Restaurants
606 Laurel Street // (218) 454-SAGE
This favorite restaurant in the center of town is eclectic and cozy and breezy all at the same time. Eat inside, or out on the patio in good weather – the farmers’ market may just surprise you by popping up in the middle of your meal. If they’re not available for people watching, you can always play checkers or chess on the outside tables.
The owner is known to be one of the great restoration people in Brainerd – working with the old brick to rebuild and refurbish this delightful establishment.
Meal options include vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. Fast service with a smile and clarification or “What does that mean?” is truly helpful especially for first-timers.
Appetizers include wings, walleye cakes, fresh spring rolls, baked bruschetta, chips and dips, lefse rolls, a beer cheese pretzel, fried cheese curds (must-have comfort food!), and nachos. The bruschetta is available with gluten-free bread.
Salads include spring roll, wild rice dragon bowl (a favorite), black & blue salad, and southwest salad. My pescatarian loved the wild rice dragon bowl: wild rice (watch labels to see if it’s truly river rice and from the Mississippi Delta), rainbow slaw fresher than you’ve had before, mixed greens, toasted walnuts, apple, and a lightly smoked salad dressing.
They bill themselves as “Creative New American Cuisine” and the menu makes this instantly obvious. They have a takeaway and local delivery options.
With the choice of honey basil flatbread, grown-up grilled cheese, brisket Reuben, bruschetta BLT, Thai peanut wrap, red curry bowl, and seven burger choices (Kimchi looked good and the “Justa Burger” was tempting) or even “Halvsies” – their combination of a half sandwich plus soup or salad or fries – I landed on the Thai Peanut Wrap. With grilled chicken, peanuts, crunchy veggies, herbs, and a peanut sauce that is somehow both sweet and savory, it really treated the taste buds.
To round out their creative offerings, in addition to fries, sweet potato fries, salad, or soup, you can order brisket beans for a smoky taste of days gone by.
They host monthly paint nights from 6 – 8:30 pm for additional community involvement. It’s a fun environment where you’ll meet an eclectic swatch of Brainerd’s best, all at one of the best restaurants in Brainerd, MN.
19090 State Hwy 371 // (218) 829-9872
If you’re interviewing in the area, this is one of the most likely spots for your group dinner. It eschews rugged individualism, whether riding motorcycles, snowmobiles or personal watercraft. But these modern cowboys eat Buffalo wings as hot as they can stand instead of beans over the campfire.
In addition to wings, smoked and rubbed or drizzled with your favorite spice or sauce, they offer nachos, onion rings, walleye cakes, stuffed jalapenos, cheese curds, jalapeno cheese curds, avocado toast, spinach artichoke dip, pickle fries, warm pretzels with cheese sauce, and mac n’ gouda bites.
Choose between flatbreads, sandwiches, or wraps served with chips, soup, or house salad. They serve a brisket twist on a Philly sandwich, an “angry pig,” or go all out for “the bigger Gull Dam,” their signature sandwich, which is an elaborate ¾ lb. stuffed cheeseburger with ham, BBQ pork, bacon, cheddar cheese sauce, pickle chips, and a fried egg.
They offer a half-dozen burgers, fish and chips, chicken tenders, and popcorn shrimp.
In the evening, the field and stream offerings expand. Their eight-ounce Atlantic salmon and walleye fillets were perfect choices, with shrimp skewers, for our evening after a long interview day. Healthy and filling, it holds you in good stead for a restful night and follow-up travel or interview day. And it is perfect for rebuilding muscles if you’re in town for the bike trails.
It’s a great place to meet new colleagues, enjoy the family, fellow cyclists, or have a girls’ night out.
Don’t forget to check out their featured specials and desserts that change seasonally. Casual and always comfortable, Northern Cowboy is one of the best places to eat in Brainerd.
601 Washington Street // (218) 829-5444
Enter to seasonal decorations guaranteed to make you smile. Banners hang in welcome throughout the establishment. Saw blade art is prevalent with gorgeous bald eagles in flight, beavers, mallards, or a deer looking longingly at a small log cabin with a cheery stream of smoke from the chimney.
Wait to be seated – fifteen booths in the main section and three tables in an alcove extension or grab one of the three seats at the counter. There’s a small salad bar with pasta salad and salad adds on the way to the two back conference or event spaces.
Take a look at the daily specials as you enter. The omelets and skillets are popular but there’s always a twist on something to make lunch and dinner that much better.
The menu shows the diversity of tastes in the customers they serve. Cheese curds, “little nuggets of Wisconsin gold” are recommended. Sundaes – chocolate, hot fudge, caramel, or strawberry covered or go for the specialty tin roof, turtle, or Sunny Honey if you’ve come in just for the treat, or if you have room around the generous meal portions.
The most popular items are the Northwoods Skillet, hearty wild rice, smoked bacon and cheddar jack cheese served over hash browns and topped with 2 eggs and hollandaise sauce plus your choice of toast or cinnamon streusel coffee cake and The Everything, with ham, bacon, and (spicy) sausage plus pepper jack cheese.
On the lunch menu, the Turkey Ranch Melt, Brainerd’s Best BLT, and the Steak Sandwich top the list.
When it came to the choice between the steak sandwich and the blueberry flapjacks, the server paused. A real dilemma. “They’re both so good.” The steak is cooked to order, but the blueberry flapjacks come with either maple or blueberry syrup. How hungry are you?
Blueberry flapjacks it is. I can corroborate the freshness of their ingredients as they are truly served HOT off the griddle. A small amount of butter goes a very long way. They’re packed with blueberries so fresh the squirted blueberry juice stains the table.
Sunday’s a buffet offering with gathering in the back area, large tables to hold the church crowds, celebrate a birthday, or have your busy coffee klatch. There are two long rows of tables in one room, a long and circular table in the other. Plenty of space to decorate for a shower or birthday party.
Breakfast is available all day every day. Really wonderful. If you’re trying to decide between Brainerd restaurants, keep the Sawmill Inn Cafe on your radar.
723 Mill Avenue // (218) 270-3195
Several blocks off the main drag, the locals may not tell you it exists, if only to keep it to themselves. Enter this spacious establishment with a central bar, perfect for a party or event.
A surprisingly diverse menu allows for the vegetarians or pescatarians among your group.
Appetizers range from fried calamari and risotto to chicken wings and steak tips or, one of the favorites, poutine, a Canadian favorite involving beef gravy, cheese curds, and green onion.
Soups, clam chowder or the soup du jour, and a choice of six salads offer lighter options.
Ranging from sandwiches to burgers, today’s choice was the Jerk Chicken sandwich, with a choice of French fries or macaroni salad.
The appearance of the sandwich was a bit off-putting. The jerk sauce appears poured over the baked chicken. The taste, though, is really something. The chef prepares it in a way that makes it taste much like a barbecue sauce. The gentle corn-based salsa added texture to the layers of chicken, onion, and a fresh tomato slice that left the fresh taste on your palate at the end.
Desserts available today include crème brulee, cheesecake, chocolate cake, chocolate brownie, and root beer float. You may want to have dessert first. Otherwise, you might not have space.
Go early as the parking lot fills fast. You’ll see why this hidden treasure is among the best Brainerd restaurants.
302 Washington Street // (218)825-9000
Make your way through the snow, or past the crowds, and enter a spacious area, with bar stools and fireplace to the right, booths and tables with sports playing on TVs to the left.
But first and foremost, place your order at the register. Menu choices include a substantial number of pizzas as well as sandwiches.
You can tell it’s a well-established pizza joint. Around the counter, find discounts and opportunities to support local charities. Check out their pizza of the month on Facebook and you may find additional savings.
From all the choices, I elected to try the gluten-free cheese pizza, available only in the twelve-inch size. It’s the best I’ve had in the region.
Eaten fresh from the pizza oven, the dough is thin and just a little crispy. The combination of cheeses is light to the palate. Beware, you can eat half the pizza and barely notice. It’s that delicious.
We all need a pizza from time to time, and if that time hits you in Minnesota, this is the best pizza restaurant in Brainerd.
320 S 7th Street // (218)454-7762
Ready for some spicy salsa? Senor Patron’s is the place for you.
Walk in to be greeted by the cheery mariachi music, then take a seat in one of the nineteen booths or eleven tables following their recent renovation, or belly up to one of the nine stools at the bar and your chips and salsa will be delivered shortly after your menu.
You may even want to check out the menu online ahead of time. It’s packed with more choices than most of us even remember available.
Appetizers range from nachos supremos and fajita nachos or a sampler.
Or, for a meal, if you’re a fan of flautas, take the Taquitos Mexicanos from the appetizer list as your entrée. The cheese sauce for dipping is touted as the best ever. Served both hot and spicy, be ready with your glass of water, especially if you decide to dip it in the spicy salsa instead of the cheese sauce.
Feel like trying to be healthy? The grilled chicken breast salad, fajita taco salad, and house taco salad meet the definition of salad.
In a hurry or on a budget, choose from the a la carta menu of enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, burritos, or tamales by the serving.
Lunch and specials fight for your menu attention as you peruse the fajitas and more, and the dizzying thirty combinations options.
If you haven’t lost your energy yet, check out the fourteen seafood options, and the Asi es mi Tierra, dinner specials that focus on steak, chicken or shrimp.
Want more? Check out the full-page spread on enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas.
More, you say? There are special dinners and then, for the less adventurous, the “American dishes” and beef and pork.
A family restaurant, though the bar is well-stocked, they also offer a kids’ menu of chicken tenders, burritos, tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, or a cheeseburger.
But the real test of a Mexican restaurant for me has to be the fried ice cream. They also have Sopapillas, Flan, and Xangos (the best way to describe is deep-fried cheesecake – a cream cheese filled with chocolate syrup on top).
The fried ice cream is a large portion, easy to share after dinner with three or four people. The light dessert tortilla has been dusted with cinnamon sugar, and the crusted ice cream remains intact with a lattice of chocolate syrup atop the mound of whipped cream with an actual maraschino cherry on top. Delicious.
They serve Coca-Cola products, lemonade, raspberry iced tea, and I’ve heard people rave about their cinnamon tequila. If you are looking for a little south of the border flavor, this is one of the best places to eat in Brainerd.
603 Laurel Street // (218) 829-1551
Another local favorite that serves breakfast all day, the Northwind Grille’s menu is both extensive and deep. While the daily specials with the offer of soup and salad or sandwiches keep many happy without a glance at the menu, perusing the menu offers unexpected options.
After bypassing the beloved breakfast (steak, eggs, pancakes, ham, bacon, hash browns, even eggs benedict), I turned to the salads, wraps, soups, and chili, and sandwiches and burgers pages.
Narrowed down to three, I used my daughter’s trick to make the final choice – which does the server like? Grilled chicken bacon wrap, crispy chicken wrap, or roast beef melt? Without hesitation, he said, “Crispy chicken wrap” and offered coleslaw or fries. And your choice of Coca-Cola products, juice, milk, or hot cocoa.
In addition to the daily specials, the Grille offers a senior menu available to those over sixty.
The Dinner and Pasta and More selections offer more steaks, meatloaf, roast beef, or turkey, broiled or breaded cod, chicken, ham, and country fried steak as well as spaghetti and meatballs, chicken strips, and popcorn shrimp.
The wrap is delightfully fresh, an interesting combination of small onion bites with fresh tomato that lightens the chicken to a different level of gastronomic delight.
The Grille offers a selection of malts and milkshakes, cookies, hot fudge sundae, and fruit pies that can be served a la mode. When faced with the choices: apple, blueberry, five-berry, pumpkin, pecan, or cream pie, how can you say no?
If you can’t find something to eat, it’s not for their lack of trying.
With a dozen booths in front and three tables, there’s another section of tables in the back with four long tables for events.
And, surprise, when you go into the restroom corridor, you find the not-so-secret connection entrance to Coco Moon – a fun, festive coffee shop that is the meeting point for many community events.
If you are looking for a wide variety of menu items in Brainerd restaurants, Northwind Grille should be at the top of your places to eat in Brainerd.
Which of these restaurants in Brainerd do you most want to try? Let us know in the comments section below!
Gail Clifford, MD, a physician for more than 25 years, has traveled to five continents and all 50 United States. An avid traveler, she happily goes on new adventures, especially on birthdays. Multi-generational travel remains a treasured pastime. She divides her time between Ireland and the U.S. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.