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Geez, even Fargo has gone upscale

By Danielle Braff New York Times

Fargo, North Dakota, doesn’t have a great reputation, which is exactly why my 13-year-old and I decided to visit.

Perhaps best known for “Fargo,” the Oscar-winning 1996 film noir by the Coen brothers about a kidnapping gone wrong – the movie ends with a body in a wood chipper – the city has been struggling to recover its reputation ever since. The TV series inspired by the film, recently renewed for a fifth season, didn’t help.

My older daughter, Anya, and I spend our free time watching true-crime documentaries and listening to the local police scanner (we’re crime fanatics through and through), and I thought Fargo would be the perfect place for us to bond over gruesome wood chippers, potential body snatching and all the gore that went into our favorite film.

We had plenty of expectations: It would be a very sleepy community that says “geez” in every sentence and has lots of diners and lots of farmers. And while the police scanner in Fargo may not be very active, it could have some interesting stories (fingers crossed, we said).

We were wrong about everything.

The draw for many tourists is the hockey and wrestling tournaments (the USA Wrestling Junior and 16U National Championships wrapped up here this summer), according to the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other visitors stop by so they can check the city off their bucket list to travel to all 50 states. And then there are those – like us and about 20% of other dark tourists – who find themselves in Fargo because they’re curious about the film or TV series, according to the visitors bureau.

But anyone who spent time in Fargo over the past few years would notice that it’s a far cry from the isolated farming community that produces canola oil, snows a ton and may or may not shove people into wood chippers.

It’s thanks to the efforts of Fargo officials and residents, who were fed up with the way outsiders viewed their city. So they made a concerted effort to change its reputation.

In 2001, North Dakota State University took over a vacated farm implement warehouse and dealership in the center of downtown and turned it into the university’s architecture and visual arts departments and the Tri-College university office. This move alone brought thousands more students (and funding) into the area, said Mike Allmendinger, president of Kilbourne Group, a redevelopment group based in Fargo.

In 2002, the city launched a master redevelopment plan with projects spanning 15 years, including massive tax incentives to reinvest in downtown Fargo and restore Broadway (the main downtown street). A 2017 plan outlined strategies to bring additional housing and businesses and to turn some streets into pedestrian walkways.

The entire downtown – about 100 blocks – has been transformed from plot after plot of surface parking lots and vacant buildings to an area sporting boutique stores, James Beard-award-winning restaurants, a popular university and a community plaza.

In the past four years, more than $300 million in public and private investments have reshaped Fargo. Fargo now looks like a mini-mix between Toronto and Madison, Wisconsin. It’s filled with coffee shops, one-of-a-kind stores, local food and bizarre attractions – perfect for a weekend visit.

And my 13-year-old’s verdict: It wasn’t at all crime-laden, sadly. But she was so focused on shopping that she nearly forgot to listen to the scanner.

Shopping

Anya has shopped in Paris, London and New York. And here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: She now prefers the stores in Fargo to those anywhere else in the world. They’re relatively inexpensive, they’re quirky, and you won’t find duplicates anywhere else.

Those looking for shopping could spend all day on Broadway. Downtown Fargo doesn’t have chain stores, so Broadway is riddled with small boutiques selling everything from kitschy souvenirs to high-end clothing.

Unglued Market, on Broadway, feels like Fargo’s own Etsy. It carries jewelry, cards, stickers, candy, candles and a small selection of sweatshirts and baby clothing, and the majority are made by hand by local artisans. We picked up some locally made hot chocolate mix, stickers for my daughter’s phone and a postcard that reads “Chipper greetings from Fargo.”

Stop a few doors down at Kindred People, owned by a mother and daughter. The store sells the most adorable clothing ranging from T-shirts with silly sayings – “You betcha” – to high-end ripped jeans and accessories. Its sale section is incredible, with many items marked down to $5. I got a T-shirt that says, “Mama needs coffee,” which was approved by Anya, a rare thing indeed. She got a crop top that doubles as a doll T-shirt.

When you’re done with Broadway, head to Main Street (a three-minute drive), where you’ll find Mint + Basil, a teen/young adult dream. Anya said it was her favorite store in the universe (well, except for Lululemon, obviously). From trendy ribbed tanks to home décor items to desk accessories, this is the type of store you go to when you want to treat yourself without spending a fortune; it feels like a very trendy stylist put together this shop, and it’s a definite dopamine boost.

Restaurants

We came to Fargo expecting fried food, diners and lots of meat. The chefs here had other things in mind. We were so out of place, in fact, that Anya had to return to Kindred People to purchase a new outfit so she’d be fancy enough for our dinners.

One of the best Fargo restaurants is in a strip mall on the side of a quiet street, but this is just another surprise Fargo has in store. Luna Fargo, on University Drive South, was originally a coffee shop; it still looks like one, albeit one filled with the aroma of steak, polenta and garlic. In 2015, chef Ryan Nitschke and his business partner, Nikki Berglund – who also own and operate Nova Eatery (a food truck-style restaurant that opened in late September) and Sol Ave Kitchen (in Moorhead, a sister city to Fargo, and connected to Junkyard Brewing Company, which serves street food) – turned the coffee shop into a full-service restaurant.

Nitschke, a Fargo native, received a James Beard best chef in the Midwest nomination and two AAA Four Diamond awards. The highlight of the menu is the cheese plate, which is large enough for two; it’s stinky, varied and comes with domestic and imported selections. The dinner menu rotates frequently, but everything is caught, killed and milked locally, if possible.

Get out of the strip mall and onto a rooftop in downtown Fargo. Fargo has a slew of new rooftop eateries, but 701 Eateries, on University Drive North, which opened last year, stands out because its rooftop, called Camp Lone Tree, has a fireplace, curling, beanbag games and truly excellent food. After grabbing some drinks and appetizers, head downstairs to 701 Eateries’ Prairie Kitchen, originally an old dairy, for Nordic cuisine and the best date night spot in Fargo. Anya and I spied tons of couples on first, third and anniversary dates, along with groups of people celebrating work dinners and bachelorette parties. It was a scene. The fried Brussels sprouts are one of the best dishes you’ll ever eat, and everyone needs to try the Rommegrot for dessert, whether you have a hankering for a Scandinavian pudding or you’ve never heard of the dish.

Or maybe you’re craving a bagel with house-cured gravlax, lox, pickled fennel and microgreens, with a side of latke. You may assume this wouldn’t be possible in Fargo, where the Jewish population is fewer than 1,000 and more likely closer to 400. (The total population for Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo is 250,000; in 2019, there were 200,000 visitors.)

But as a Jewish New Yorker currently living in Chicago, I can now say that the best Jewish deli I’ve ever visited was BernBaum’s, on Broadway, a five-year-old Jewish-Scandinavian deli in downtown Fargo. Anya couldn’t get over the fancy yet understated coffee and the bagels with rare types of fish piled high.

One of Fargo’s newest hot spots is Rosewild, and it resides within the uber-trendy new Jasper Hotel, on Broadway. This is the place to see and be seen, but it’s also the place to dine on chef Jordan Hayes’ creations. Hayes specializes in fermenting, smoking, curing and pickling, and this comes across in nearly every dish.

Anya and I obviously didn’t spend much time visiting all of Fargo’s breweries, but it was impossible to miss them as we strolled through downtown. Fargo Brewing Company on University Drive North is a favorite here even for pups (they host many dog-friendly events), and their beer is distributed throughout the state and in other parts of the Midwest. Stop by their tasting room to try their staples, limited releases and experiments.

Adventure

An entire museum about the buffalo? You betcha. One of the best things to do here (technically about a 90-minute drive from Fargo, in Jamestown) is to visit the one and only National Buffalo Museum, where you’ll learn everything you never realized you wanted to learn about the American bison. There’s also a 60-ton bison made out of cement, which is a nearly mandatory photo op, because you’ll most likely never see this again.

North Dakota is also the second highest producer of sunflowers (South Dakota is first), and peak sunflower season is August, though you can still find tons of sunflower fields in September. If you drive in any direction for about 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll be sure to hit a sunflower field when they’re in season. For a more structured sunflower hunt, check out the North Dakota Tourism Bureau’s map. This was a total hit for my daughter, who took enough selfies to fill her Instagram and Snapchat stories for weeks. Luckily, we found a field where we were completely alone, so this wasn’t too mortifying for me.

And since you’re in Fargo, you might as well pose next to the original wood chipper prop. It’s at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center, located within a grain elevator. You could even pretend to push the faux leg into the chipper. There’s also a signed original script.

At the Plains Art Museum, in a relatively small repurposed International Harvester warehouse, you’ll find a mix of local, national and international artists, with a focus on contemporary Native American artwork. The museum offers tons of drop-in classes, from pottery to printing, which is especially enticing for kids who don’t tend to enjoy simply staring at the art on the walls (not mentioning any names).

Fargo’s cultural scene doesn’t end with the art museum, however. Full of surprises, Fargo is the smallest city in America with a professional opera company, Fargo Moorhead Opera. We visited in the offseason, so we couldn’t attend, but this year’s productions include “The Marriage of Figaro” and “La Bohème,” along with a one-act comedic opera called “Bon Appetit!” based on Julia Child’s TV show.

Oh, and if you came here expecting to wander through all of Fargo’s legendary filming locations, you’re out of luck. The majority of Fargo was filmed in Minneapolis. Oh, geez.

Places to stay

A new, shiny spot to stay in downtown Fargo opened in 2021, which is the talk of the town. The Jasper Hotel is a reflection of everything the new Fargo aims to be: Located on Broadway in the middle of downtown, it feels like the ultimate boutique hotel. The pet-friendly hotel reflects a Scandinavian aesthetic and has floor-to-ceiling views of the city and serves free Stumbeano’s coffee daily. Guests can wander downstairs to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, Rosewild. Artwork by local artists adorn the walls, and Peloton bikes fill the fitness room. The hotel overlooks Broadway, where Pride flags were displayed every few feet.

Other hotel options include Radisson Blu Fargo and Home2Suites by Hilton Fargo.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the wood chipper bite.

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