Readers choose ‘Best of Bluff Country’ once again

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Bluff Country Reader

The 14th annual Best of Bluff Country contest features many familiar names and a few new ones as local readers filled out their ballots throughout the summer.

At least once a month since spring, ballots were printed in the Bluff Country Reader for readers to fill out and mail in to vote for their choices. An online survey was also set up so readers could make their choices on their computers. The module prevented multiple voting so one person couldn’t stuff the ballot box.

The Best of Bluff Country contest is the longest running “best of” survey in southeastern Minnesota. The contest features many non-commercial categories and winners aren’t solicited for advertising so the results remain true “people’s choices” for the best businesses and favorite spots in the area.

For the 2018 contest, survey questions remained mostly the same from 2017. However, the results changed significantly as some new businesses rose to the top of certain categories, although many old favorites remained the choice of readers in select categories.

Dining

The always-competitive dining categories changed significantly in 2018 with many new winners and some businesses making their debut on the Best of Bluff Country list. However, several favorites, including one restaurant that has won every one of the 14 contests, remain among the various food and drink options preferred by residents and visitors exploring Southeastern Minnesota Historic Bluff Country.

Annual church dinner: Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lanesboro. A first-time winner, Bethlehem Lutheran, which polled well last year, narrowly beat out St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Spring Valley for top honors. Bethlehem Lutheran features a meatball and lefse dinner every November. St. Ignatius has many meals throughout the year, including a fish fry in the spring, a chicken barbecue in the fall and monthly Knights of Columbus meals. Last year’s co-winner, First English Lutheran Church in Spring Valley, which holds a spring dinner each year that includes baked ham, meatballs and real mashed potatoes, took third place. This is the fourth year for the category, which had Fountain Lutheran Church as a co-winner last year and Christ Lutheran Church of Preston a winner the first two years.  

Bar/lounge: High Court Pub, Lanesboro, and Rack’s Bar and Grill, Spring Valley. High Court Pub, located in an 1876 building where a judge dispensed justice from the third floor, is a new winner in this category while Rack’s tied for top honors last year. Root River Saloon, which polled well last year, took third place.

Breakfast: Elaine’s Cafe, Spring Valley. Elaine’s, which had placed second for the past two years, made it to the top this year, beating out another Spring Valley cafe, Big Bob’s, located just down the street in the downtown core. B & B Bowl, Preston, took third place.

Burgers: Wolf’s Den, Ostrander. The Wolf’s Den replaced another Ostrander restaurant, Susie’s Road House, for the best burgers in Bluff Country. Estelle’s Eatery and Bar in Harmony and the Spring Valley A & W tied for second place.

Dessert: The Bite, Lanesboro. The Bite, which opened in January of 2017, kept up its status as the best place to go for dessert. The restaurant, known for its excellent cheesecake, won this category in its first year and repeated this year as the readers’ choice. A newcomer, Some Like it Hot in Spring Valley, now located in its own building, took second place while a perennial favorite, the Village Square of Fountain, finished third.

Fish fry: Lanesboro American Legion.  The Lanesboro Legion, which has taken top honors the past two years, edged out St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Spring Valley, which has had a big fish fry every spring for the past 33 years. The Lanesboro Legion usually has a fish fry twice a month. A newcomer to this category, the Cracked Egg in Lanesboro, took third place.

Friendliest service: The Pizza Place, Spring Valley. An overwhelming favorite this year, the Spring Valley restaurant won for the third year in a row. Pedal Pushers in Lanesboro took second place while Granny’s Liquor in Lanesboro and the A & W in Spring Valley tied for third place.

Fries: Pedal Pushers Cafe, Lanesboro. The Lanesboro restaurant, which made its debut on top of this list last year, repeats in 2018 as the cafe, known for its healthy, local food, is also a favorite for its fresh-cut fries. Two Spring Valley establishments — The Pizza Place, which has a menu that offers much more than pizza, and the A & W, the only drive-in with carhop service in the area — took second and third respectively.

Ice cream: Village Square, Fountain, and Another Time Ice Cream Parlor, Lanesboro. Another Time, which features Bridgeman’s ice cream, has been first or second for the past three years while the Village Square hasn’t been on top for a while, but always makes a respectable showing. Spring Valley’s A & W took third place.

Pie: Aroma Pie Shoppe, Whalan. Finishing second for the past two years, Aroma Pie Shoppe, located along the Root River Trail, took top honors in 2018. Village Square of Fountain, which placed first in 2016 and third in 2017, finished second in 2018. Some Like it Hot, which has a new home in Spring Valley, took third place.

Pizza: The Pizza Place, Spring Valley. The Pizza Place was voted the best pizza in Bluff Country for the sixth year in a row. The downtown Spring Valley establishment dominated the category this year. The Bite in Lanesboro, which tied for second place last year, finished second by itself this year while the Village Square of Fountain finished third.

Restaurant: The Pizza Place, Spring Valley. Voting was tighter in this category as The Pizza Place took top honors, which it also did in 2016. Estelle’s Eatery and Bar of Harmony took second place and Pedal Pushers Cafe in Lanesboro finished third. The two tied for top honors last year.

Steaks: Branding Iron, Preston. The Branding Iron in Preston has dominated the steaks category since the inception of Best of Bluff Country and it once again took the honors. The Old Village Hall Restaurant and Pub in Lanesboro took second place and Susie’s Roadhouse in Ostrander, which has polled well in the past, finished third.

Shopping/lodging

The categories not involving food also had a mixture of old favorites and newcomers to the Best of Bluff Country list. Here are the favorite shopping and lodging options in the 2018 Best of Bluff Country poll.

Antiques: New Generations of Harmony Antique Mall. New Generations of Harmony was a runaway winner in the antiques category, which has been the case for the past several years. The Peddler of Lanesboro took second place while Old Crow Antiques in Canton, often listed by voters as Canton’s Highway 52 antiques, took third.

Bed and breakfast: Habberstad House, Lanesboro. In contrast to the antiques category, this one is generally spread out among several establishments with rotating winners, although the Habberstad House, which is located in an 1897 Queen Anne Victorian home, had a decisive victory this year after sharing top honors last year. Anna V’s Bed and Breakfast, also in Lanesboro and located in a 1908 Victorian home, took second and Whalan’s Cyclin-Inn, which features two homes, took third place.

Camping: Highway 250 Campground, Lanesboro. Highway 250 Campground just outside of Lanesboro tops the list of camping spots for the third year in a row. Two sites adjacent to each other —Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, which had won in 2015 and 2014, and Maple Springs Campground, just down the road from the state park, were the next two choices.

Farmers market: Lanesboro. For the sixth straight year, Lanesboro’s farmers market with its ample fresh vegetables, fruit and homemade treats won this category decisively. A newer market in Mabel took second place while the Rochester market, which is just outside the Bluff Country area, finished third.

Friendliest business: Granny’s Liquor, Lanesboro. Granny’s Liquor, which also delivers to area campgrounds, was voted the friendliest business in Bluff Country for the third year in a row. The restaurant with the friendliest service, The Pizza Place in Spring Valley, was runner-up among all businesses.

Hotel/motel: Stone Mill Suites, Lanesboro. Stone Mill Suites, which includes a limestone building, tied for second place last year with the Trailhead Inn located at the trailhead of the Root River Trail in Preston, the sole second place finisher in 2018. The Cottage House in Lanesboro, finished third place in 2018.

Retail store: E2 Boutique, Lanesboro. A co-winner last year, E2 Boutique took top honors on its own in 2018. Two Spring Valley businesses took second and third — the Sparrow’s Closet, which has since closed with a new boutique taking its place, finished second and Chateau de Chic, which is in the same complex as the former Sparrow’s Closet, took third.

Unique shop/store: Buy It Now, Spring Valley. Buy It Now has since relocated to LeRoy, but not before taking top honors for the first time in this category. Lanesboro Arts finished second and Lanesboro’s Granny’s Liquor, a popular choice in many categories, took third.

Entertainment/recreation

Lanesboro didn’t have quite as strong of a presence this year in the entertainment and recreation listings in the survey, but it was still the dominant location winning four of the nine categories.

Arts/culture: Lanesboro Arts, Lanesboro. Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization that has been expanding its footprint in the community, tied for first place with readers equally favoring all of Lanesboro, a small city that has made a name for itself in the arts. Lanesboro made it a sweep as Commonweal Theatre Company, the region’s only professional theater company, which tied for top honors with Lanesboro Arts last year, tied with Lanesboro Art in the Park for third place.

Park: Sylvan Park, Lanesboro. A consistent choice, Lanesboro’s Sylvan Park, once again took top honors as the favorite park of readers with the most votes of any winner in any category. The park has a variety of activities with two spring-fed ponds for fishing and a campground located just off of downtown Lanesboro. Spring Valley’s south park, which has a swimming pool, tennis courts, softball fields and playground equipment, took second place for the third year in a row. Chatfield’s city park in the center of the city rounded out the top three.

Family destination: Niagara Cave, Harmony, and Methodist Church Museum, Spring Valley. Niagara Cave, which has dominated this category for several years, was voted as one of the two best destinations to explore with the family this year while the museum in Spring Valley made its first appearance on this list. Niagara Cave continues to expand its family offerings above ground with activities such as miniature golf and gemstone mining while the Spring Valley museum, a Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site, has many local artifacts. The entire community of Lanesboro took third place, down one spot from second last year.

Fair or festival: Ag Days, Spring Valley. Ag Days and Buffalo Bill Days in Lanesboro have been leading this category for several years. This year, Ag Days displaced Buffalo Bill Days for the top spot. Another Lanesboro celebration, Art in the Park, followed second place Buffalo Bill Days for third place.

Golf: Lanesboro Golf Club. The Lanesboro course has taken the top spot the last three years. River’s Bend Golf at the Old Barn Resort, the region’s only 18-hole course located between Preston and Lanesboro, the co-winner in 2016, took second place for the second year in a row. The Preston Golf Course finished third place.

Hiking: Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. A perennial winner that tied for top honors last year boasts 20 miles of hiking trails and breathtaking views. Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park has trails along the Root River and on the bluffs of the park located between Preston and Spring Valley. Second place winner Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, which tied for top honors last year, is also located along the Root River and features trails along the bluffs. It has nine miles of hiking trails west of Lanesboro. Various spans of the Root River Trail took third place.

Historical site/museum: Methodist Church Museum, Spring Valley. The Methodist Church Museum, a winner in this category in 2016 and a second place winner last year, is one of two museums in the complex operated by the Spring Valley Historical Society. The church was built in 1876 when the James Wilder family belonged as members, making it a must-see for Laura Ingalls Wilder fans. Last year’s winner, the Lanesboro Historical Museum, a three-story, downtown building along the Root River that features an extensive photograph collection, took second place. Historic Forestville, a living history site, finished third.

Scenic view: Inspiration Point, Lanesboro. Inspiration Point on Highway 16 near Lanesboro took top honors for the second year in a row with strong support. Inspiration Point, a wayside rest, had its stone walls restored and vegetation blocking the view removed in 2015 so it looks much like it did in 1934 when it opened. Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, which had owned this category the past several years prior to 2017, tied for second with a newcomer, Masonic Park located outside of Spring Valley. Masonic Park, set off of County Road 38 northeast of Spring Valley, is unique in that the view is looking up at a bluff rather than down from a bluff.

Swimming pool: Old Barn Resort, Preston. An always-competitive category that includes votes from each pool in the region, best swimming pool went to the Old Barn Resort between Preston and Lanesboro, a co-winner last year with the Spring Grove Swim Center, which was just one vote behind the top spot in this year’s contest. The pool in Spring Valley took third place.