BISMARCK, N.D. – The state capital of North Dakota feels more like a small town than a surly legislative city.
It’s the kind of place where people smile at you when you walk down the street. Stop to ask them a question, and you’ll likely get an answer along with some hospitable banter about the weather.
In this town of roughly 72,000, no one seems to be in much of a hurry. That’s understandable given how compact the downtown area is; there’s no need to rush. Most everything is within walking distance, from restaurants, cafes and breweries to shops, art galleries and the symphony.
“We have many amenities usually associated with larger cities,” said Jim Christianson, vice chairman of Bismarck’s Renaissance Zone Authority, a group that works on downtown revitalization projects. “But we have a secret weapon: People here are honest, friendly and will go out of their way to help a stranger.”
Christianson said his lifelong hometown is “at a unique point in its nearly 150-year-old history.” (While the city was founded in 1872, the region has a rich Native American heritage that’s still celebrated today.) Renovation projects and new construction are re-energizing this growing city, making it an increasingly attractive place for younger professionals to return to after college and careers lured them away.
One of these so-called “boomerangs” is Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Stephanie Miller, who appeared on CNBC’s “Restaurant Startup” in 2016 while working in Minneapolis. Not too long ago, she and her husband, Shane Cornelius, moved back to Bismarck, where they opened the downtown eatery Butterhorn late last year.
“We thought Bismarck was ready for a different type of restaurant, one that until now could only be found in places like Minneapolis or Chicago,” said Miller, who named the place after the flaky, buttery pastries she made with both of her grandmothers as a child. The creative dishes include beef tongue bruschetta, Indian butter chicken and rabbit cacciatore.
Butterhorn’s menu changes seasonally, but the namesake product is a constant. The dinner-only restaurant recently expanded its hours to begin offering brunch, where one of the items is the Butterhorn Trio, served with cinnamon butter, jam and frosting.
Bismarck’s burgeoning craft-brewery business is one of the most telling signs of the city’s renaissance. To fully appreciate the city’s revived brew scene, you need to know its past.
According to Mike Frohlich, co-owner and head brewer of Laughing Sun Brewing Co., what used to be the sole brewery in Bismarck shut its doors in the 1960s. The long drought didn’t end until 2012, with the advent of Laughing Sun, which plans to move this autumn from its North Fifth Street location to much bigger digs on Front Avenue. Until then, Laughing Sun will continue to brew and sell its suds in downtown’s historic Laskin Building.
The brewery hosts live music acts about four nights a week. For beers, try the aromatic Feast Like a Sultan IPA, or make a selection from the new Shakedown Series, such as the Shakedown Strawberry Ale that’s similar to a strawberry milkshake.
“North Dakota is one of the top barley-producing states with high-quality products, so it makes sense to brew here,” Frohlich said. “Plus, people in North Dakota like beer.”
He speaks the truth: Brewing trade publisher Beer Marketer’s Insights reports that North Dakota residents consumed 38.3 gallons of beer per drinking-age adult in 2017, trailing only Montana (39.4) and New Hampshire (40.6).
Laughing Sun used to be the only game in town, until the microbrewery Bismarck Brewing opened a loft-style taproom earlier this year on the second floor of Ale Works restaurant, which serves several stick-to-your-ribs items such as sauerbraten, a German pot roast made from the owners’ family recipe, and jaeger schnitzel, a pork cutlet served with an addictive caper mustard sauce and homemade spaetzle. The food pairs nicely with Bismarck Brewing’s Belgian wheats, Scotch ales, pilsners, IPAs and stouts.
Edwinton Brewing Co. has opened inside the city’s historic train depot, and Stonehome Brewing Co. is headed for a newly built bank near the Capitol later this year. (The 19-story art deco Statehouse, commonly referred to as the Prairie Skyscraper, is the tallest building in North Dakota. It’s open for public tours year-round.)
A great way to explore the outdoors is a kayak trip on the river; Missouri River Kayak Rentals can hook you up with gear. Or rent bikes from 701 Cycle and Sport, and pedal along the scenic Missouri Valley Millennium Legacy Trail that parallels the waterway.
About 5 miles south of downtown Mandan, the trail leads to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, where Custer and his 7th Cavalry departed for an ill-fated expedition that culminated with Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
The fort also is home to the On-A-Slant Indian Village, whose reconstructed earth lodges give visitors a sense of what life was like for the Native Americans who occupied the site from approximately 1575 to 1781.
Back in Bismarck, the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum tells the history of the area’s indigenous people and the settlers who followed, among other things. Must-sees in the museum include life-size T. rex and Triceratops skeletons, a panoramic mural – supplemented with the sound of flutes and other audio – depicting a 1500s Indian village, and arrowheads, pottery, tools and similar artifacts used by Native Americans who lived in North Dakota between 13,000 years ago and 1860.
For more Native American culture, plan a visit to Bismarck in the fall for the United Tribes Technical College International Powwow. The annual event, now in its 49th year, takes place Sept. 7-9 and features more than 1,500 dancers and drummers from 70 tribes.
Don’t leave town without a stop at Fireflour, serving the city’s best cup of coffee and tasty Neapolitan-style pizzas in a friendly, welcoming environment – just like Bismarck.