ELY, Minn. — On the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, this little town remains a hub.
It was a mining town before it became the hub for canoe and fishing trips, with businesses trying to net some cash from those heading into the Boundary Waters and as they come out.
Because of that, Ely has always had pretty good food. Sitting at a table and having ice in your glass is an odd experience after days of sitting around a campfire and eating out of a sierra cup, but red meat rarely tastes as good as when you’ve come off the water.
The Chocolate Moose was one of the most prominent spots in town for decades. Its burgers and desserts were beloved and the dishes often included local ingredients such as wild rice. I had many memorable meals there.
It’s closed at the moment. There’s talk in town that someone is trying to reopen it, but, for now, the seats at other places are filling as the summer season starts.
Ely has better than average food for a town its size and plenty of places to get walleye, whether you got one on the hook or not. (The opening of fishing season May 11 caused a stir around these parts.)
If you’re in this neck of the woods, this assessment of a few of the spots may help you find your own favorite:
BoatHouse Brewpub and Restaurant
47 E. Sheridan St., Ely
The BoatHouse is a local favorite whose beer and food has gotten pretty good. The standard brewpub fare has a Northwoods twist with walleye a variety of ways, including on a grilled cheese sandwich. The brewpub, which also sells growlers that are approved to go into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is a gathering spot for folks who live here and those who are just up north visiting.
Stony Ridge Cafe
60 Lakeview Ave., Ely
Even locals forget about this place, but I won’t. The cafe is tucked away on the north side of town overlooking Shagawa Lake. Log cabin rustic is a common look up here, but this is pretty authentic. The menu has more than 50 varieties of burgers. I got one stuffed with wild rice and topped with mushrooms and blue cheese. The handmade onion rings are one of the best versions possible.
Rockwood Bar & Grill
302 E. Sheridan St., Ely
This former Hardee’s location across the street from Zup’s Grocery now offers craft beers and a nice range of foods. The outdoor patio and rustic interior are a nice setting. The fried walleye basket isn’t the cheapest in town but comes with a large portion of fish. The tap list is extensive, and the menu’s range is also impressive.
216 E. Sheridan St., Ely
Surviving 22 years in a tourist town demonstrates locals love this place. I got an earful of local gossip with a good walleye basket for $15. People gather here for burgers, steaks and fish and a daily happy hour. The banter here flies faster than the average canoe can travel, so hang on.
145 E. Sheridan St., Ely
Executive Chef Daniel Vollom and Sarah Wigdahl-Vollom opened this in 2015. The only chef-driven restaurant in Ely has an urban feel with the small-town and local charms. Vollom recommended the lamb shank, braised until it was fall-off-the-bone tender and full-flavored. The sweet potato ratatouille was a bright, refreshing take on the vegetable medley. On another visit, the bison burger was simply stellar. This is a winner in Ely.
Marshall V. King is a food writer based in Goshen. Find him on Facebook (DiningALaKing) and on Twitter and Instagram. (@hungrymarshall).