CBS affiliate WCCO named Nisswa 2018s Best Small Town in Minnesota. Nisswa, the activity hub of the Brainerd Lakes region of central Minnesota, has a population of 1,971. This soars by thousands in the summer. Stop for the turtle races every Thursday and stay for the history and great variety and quality of the local Nisswa, Minnesota restaurants.
Cross the highway along the well-lit underpass and visit a peaceful park complete with lecture space, bike rack, and gazebo. Follow the path down to the small harbor dock, pass the American flag and bench, or sit a spell. Come during the annual Viking Festival in August. Participate in Norwegian-themed activities throughout the year. And come back for one of the best Christmas light displays in the country.
Nisswa, founded in 1900 under the name “Smiley Township,” was renamed in 1908 from the Ojibwe word “nessawae” meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Apropos, as Nisswa likes to be in the middle of it all.
Any time of year, you’ll enjoy the wide variety of food offered in the restaurants in Nisswa. From traditional brisket (try Big Axe) to seafood (check out Bar Harbor Supper Club) or the best scones in the world (Stone House). Be amazed at the variety of alcoholic blends. It is an ale town, after all. But there are also several top places to eat in Nisswa.
5 Must-Try Restaurants In Nisswa, Minnesota
25435 Main Street // 218-961-2337
Best Brew Pub AND Best Brisket: This dual winner proudly shows “It’s not just a meal, it’s an experience.” When the owner’s school-hood chum said this, I wondered if it may just be some additional advertising. Then I saw the service that manager Melissa provides, from taking orders, to pointing out the water cart (orange jug on the cart with individual table cutlery and napkins), to accepting jugs, or “growlers” for a refill of their variety of beers and ales.
Choose one of their home-brewed ales on tap, and they’ll it for you, while you watch. The current best seller is a blonde ale.
Big Axe Brewing Company has become a destination unto itself. It’s jam-packed in the summer with tourists. But even on a rainy September day, locals and visitors huddle in clusters around their sampling boards.
On the food menu at this Nisswa restaurant, you’ll find a variety of brisket combinations, or a burger, with fries or kettle chips. Their fish and chips use pollack. Chicken clubs, pulled pork, all-beef hot dogs, Babe’s Blue Cheese Brat’s and veggie wraps round out their selections. There are plenty of references to Paul Bunyan and Babe, his Big Blue Ox, as you’ll see throughout the region.
The best-selling appetizers? The cheese curds, by far, followed by the pretzel bites. Try either while you visit this brewpub.
The servers are well versed in allergens and can assist with making certain items gluten-free. I had the brisket sandwich without the bread, making it gluten-free. It had just the right amount of salt and was cut exactly right. As I savored the brisket, the people surrounding me had long conversations about their choices of ale. They serve tasters here, in three or six glass selections. They even put the name on it so you can’t forget. Each of the beers has its own characteristics, and the sampler is the best way to try several. The brisket was topped off with a generous portion of fries, giving me plenty to eat here.
If you save enough room for a sweet treat, they offer a root beer float with house-brewed root beer and vanilla ice cream. You definitely will not walk away hungry from this top place to eat in Nisswa.
25346 Smiley Rd // 218-961-2326 (BEAN)
For moist scones, packed with fruit, this is the place to go. With two seating areas in the store and a large patio for sun-filled days, the atmosphere is restful after shopping or visiting the turtle races. Pair the scone with a berry smoothie and you’ll feel comfortably full for several hours.
The scone recipe, perfected by owners Mike and Julie French, is the key to their success and holds them back from franchising. They’re not ready to share it. And they worry about consistent quality.
Today, we had a cherry almond scone with a raspberry smoothie and a cinnamon apple caramel scone with a pumpkin spice latte with soy milk. The smell of pumpkin spice wafts through the store even as the raspberry from the smoothie explodes in your mouth. Eating the scones leaves you with sticky, gooey fingers, like a kid on a hot summer day. Perfect.
Mike and Julie French couldn’t find what they wanted in a good scone. Most of what they tasted had more chemicals than flavor. They checked a lot of history, read a lot of books. Then they started baking. Julie says they baked everyone’s recipes. They needed a good recipe, one that could be consistently good regardless of the baker.
They started with three varieties, but the options have grown. Now they have several choices. They use eight to ten regularly, and other flavors change seasonally. Julie’s in charge of the recipes. A few of them, only Julie can do. They have to be baked in a very particular way. She shares they have rotating bakers and it’s just “too hard to get it done perfectly.”
They’ve been approached to sell the mix to Costco, Krispy Kreme, and Panera. Others just beg for a franchise. So far, they’re holding off. They do sell the scone mix. My photographer, listening as she ate a cinnamon apple scone, commented, “There’s an outer shell, then it’s moist and delicious on the inside. I haven’t had anything like it before.”
They’re closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. They used to close for New Year’s Day, but one year Mike decided to do it by himself. Now they’re open every year. My new year’s resolution? Go to Stone House, one of the top places to eat in Nisswa, MN more often.
8164 Interlachen Road //218-963-2568
This old-school style supper club has historic photos and chalk drawings of previous famous and local guests. In the late 1930s, Erv Anderson had a vision of what could be on this site. His original success was based on gambling and liquor sales. When the laws evolved in Minnesota to enforce the anti-gambling laws in the late 1940s, a kitchen was added, and the success continued. Purchased by John Allen in 2012, the focus shifted to high-quality food and service to meet the growth in Brainerd Lakes. A mere fifteen-minute drive from the town center, it’s well worth the trip to one of the top places to eat in Nisswa.
Entering the crowded restaurant, we were fortunate to find seating around those participating in a weekend fishing tournament. Plan to call in advance for reservations. Upon entry, you’re greeted by a warm fire. To the right, a full room size humidor. Leather-covered booths welcomed us for seating away from the bar. We were ready to sample the food at this recommended Nisswa restaurant.
For appetizers, the cauliflower was fried but not battered, perfectly al dente. Not mushy. Each was its own little unit, a distinct piece, which was better than expected. The shrimp cocktail was really nice. The shrimp were succulent, and the cocktail sauce had an unexpected kick to it.
They’d run out of the Walleye by the time the server reached us. She recommended the Reuben. The corned beef wasn’t heavily flavored, and the sauerkraut had less texture than I’m accustomed to. It was more like applesauce. The bread was very good, both the texture and the seeds. The accompanying fries were very good. Generous portions of everything.
The dessert options this night: crème Brulee, cheesecake, and bread pudding.
Take your time coming and going from the restrooms. Check out the photos of the celebrities, from Clark Gable to sports legends, that have visited Bar Harbor over the years. The historic clippings reflect the Bar Harbor Clipper launch on Gull Lake waters, other fishing tournaments, and former menus. The history of those menus will lead you to one of the best places to eat in Nisswa today.
25457 Main St. // (218) 963-3023
Thought by many to be the best pizza in the area, the Nisswa branch is one of four locations. Opened first in Brainerd, then Nisswa, then Crosslake, then Crosby, it may be “all about the sauce.” The experts know to order extra sauce on their pizza. Otherwise, it’s not as good. Why settle for “not as good” when you try this Nisswa, MN restaurant?
Start with the appetizers. The pepperoni bread is delicious and the jojos are amazing. It’s hard to get potatoes like that.
The menu includes a gluten-free crust and a cauliflower crust – the appearance is difficult to distinguish between the two.
The Margherita pizza has crisp and salty basil. If you like your basil fresh, be sure you mention it in advance so they can add it last, maybe even after the oven. One local has a standard family order: pepperoni bread, jojos, a large pepperoni pizza with extra sauce, and a small pepperoni, green olives, sausage, red pepper, and onions pizza. There isn’t anything left to take home. You can mix and match your pizza with five sauce choices, a dozen meats, and almost twenty vegetable toppings.
While the pizza is fabulous, the broasted chicken is a crowd-pleaser. The menu rounds out with salads, wraps, and sandwiches.
The best part of the location? The outside deck. You can hear the turtle races and people watch. It’s fun to make up life stories for all those people shopping along the main drag. One last treat at this top Nisswa restaurant.
25807 Main St. // (218) 963-9946
Down Main Street, past the hardware store, on the left, pull into the American Legion parking lot. Admire the tank and the memorial with flags. You can see past them over the highway to the lake. Pay your respects, then climb the parking lot to the front door in the building to the right.
This great Nisswa restaurant is named for Billie Brown, who, with his brother, served in WWII in the 194th Tank Battalion. They were in the Philippines before the Japanese invaded and suffered the Bataan Death March. While they survived the march, Billie died later in Camp O’Donnell. His brother survived and returned to Brainerd Lakes.
Open to the public as well as our veterans, lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11 am until 2:30 pm. Walk right in and seat yourself at one of the seven rectangular tables, three circular tables or twenty-one stools at the bar. If you have any questions, ask the lady sitting in the window selling pull tabs. She explained the evening events at the Legion. Each night of the week has a different special for food, and there is even a weekly Bingo game on Wednesdays.
Annie, the bartender, explained pull tabs to me. Purchase these little “tickets,” pull the tabs and, if you reveal a stripe, win $2 to $100. Proceeds go primarily back to the state, but the Legion’s portion has been used for community projects that benefit the elementary school, the Legion Ball or, this past year, obtained tasers for the police department.
Annie served me the fastest home-cooked meal I’ve ever had at a restaurant. Wayne, a 25-year resident who visits the Legion with his daughter-in-law every Monday (her day off), laughed at my surprise. “When I bring visitors, they rarely get through half their beer when the food arrives.”
Full disclosure: I am not a meatloaf person. I didn’t like my mother’s meatloaf. And I haven’t liked any meatloaf I’ve tried since. But… today’s meal is meatloaf, so I got it, without the gravy. While dismayed I made this change, they held firm to my requests, though, and provided me with some butter for my mashed potatoes.
I cannot believe how good their meatloaf is. It’s the taste of home. The seafood soups at this must-try Nisswa restaurant are award-winning. The pepper jack chicken sandwich is also highly recommended by the locals.
Appetizers include cheese curds, onion rings, tater tots and mini-tacos. Sandwiches are served on white, wheat, or rye and as wraps. The “Legion Club” includes turkey, ham, and bacon, American and Swiss cheeses, topped with lettuce and tomato. They have baskets (with fries and toast) of shrimp, chicken strips, battered cod, or chicken wings. Many go for classic burgers. They also have a variety of salads and a soup of the day
The bar serves coffee, hot or iced tea, beer, wine, and mixed drinks to complement your meal.
For my money, the best bet is their lunch specials. You get the ultimate in comfort food from this top place to eat in Nisswa.
Nisswa residents are thoughtful, welcoming people. They recognize the boon to their economy that tourism brings. In the summer, the turtle races are a primary attraction; in the winter, it’s the lake sports and snow activities. Whenever you’re in the area, you’ll benefit from a visit. And make sure that the visit includes a trip to these best of Nisswa, Minnesota restaurants.
Which of these restaurants in Nisswa, MN 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.