Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Healthy & hearty dining at the retro Highland Cafe in southeastern Minnesota October 22, 2012

A side view of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe.

FROM THE EXTERIOR, a side view of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe in unincorporated Highland in rural Fillmore County, Minnesota, presents a mishmash of angles, work in progress and a corrugated metal roof that seems more fitting for a machine shed than a restaurant.

Face on, the front facade is rather plain and unassuming, until you aim your focus upward to the weathered wooden sign: “Highland Store est. 1894.”

The unassuming front of the Highland Cafe.

That single simple sign hints at the treasure you’ll discover once you step inside this combination cafe, mini-store and Seventh Day Adventist mission outreach next to County Road 10.

A vintage pop sign and a neon OPEN sign next to and on a front window.

Enter this historic building in Highland and you just have to stop and take in the novelty of this place which once served as a general store in this strong agricultural and tourism region of southeastern Minnesota.

A dining room overview with a mini gift shop tucked in the back.

The cafe’s charm and good, home-cooked and healthy food draw not only locals, but tourists/users of the area’s state recreational trails and regional diners from Rochester some 50 miles to the north and west.

My husband and I have come here for lunch early on a Monday afternoon in early October while on a day trip to view the fall colors. We prefer one-of-a-kind small-town cafes to chain restaurants and are thrilled with the unique, down-home atmosphere we discover at the Highland Cafe. It’s as if we’ve walked into the kitchens of our childhood, minus the red-and-white checked linoleum floor.

This is the scene near the front of the dining room where vintage tables and chairs are drenched in sunlight on an October afternoon. This is the kind of spot where you can read a book, work on your laptop or chat it up with the locals or others.

This eatery features the original wood floor topped by a mix of 1940s and 1950s vintage laminate chrome-legged/edged tables and chairs that set the mood for casual dining. There’s nothing matchy, matchy perfect about the décor here and that unpretentiousness suits me perfectly.

The absolutely fabulous lunch counter.

If you prefer to dine at a lunch counter, you’ll find one of those, too, painted in the most unexpected eye-jolting red that contrasts with the dark wood floor and cream-hued wood plank walls.

The main menu offers plenty of healthy choices.

The Highland Cafe, you’ll discover, is as much about the casual country atmosphere as about the food. You’ll read words like organic, multigrain, no sugar, soymilk, super antioxidant and fresh on the whiteboard main menu. You’ll also find comfort foods, like real mashed potatoes and gravy, along with fresh vegetables harvested from the cafe garden out back.

Troy Starks hustles behind the lunch counter toward the kitchen.

Even once mostly meat-and-potato eating local farmers have come around to eating healthier, says Troy Starks who on this Monday is waiting tables while his sister, cafe owner Vicki Hudson, is shopping for groceries. It took some time and convincing, but those stolid farmers are now sometimes ordering the cafe’s super oxidant salads.

The hearty breakfast my husband ordered, even though the hour was well past breakfast: two organic eggs, multigrain toast, hashbrowns and kielbasa. He broke the egg yolks before I photographed his meal.

While my husband and I await our orders—his a plate of breakfast foods and mine a chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of corn chowder—I strike up a conversation with R.J., dining alone at the table next to us. He’s eating a burger. Turns out young R.J. farms just up the road and sells his grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef to the cafe.

When I point out to R.J. that he’s paying to eat the beef he sold to the cafe, he shoots back with a quick-witted, “Well, at least I know it’s (the beef) good.”

My meal: a chicken salad sandwich and tasty corn chowder.

Good and filling most assuredly define the food here. I wished I wasn’t too full to order a slice of pie or bread pudding or a piece of apple crisp for dessert. But I am. Next time…

And this, dear readers, is where I originally ended this post, which has been sitting in my draft box. Now I must add to this story because cafe owner Vicki Hudson announced to me in an email on Friday that the cafe she purchased five years ago will be closing just before Thanksgiving.

Her mother Sharyn Taylor, the cafe’s chief cook, is “getting tired and will not be up to working another year, so we are closing our doors,” Vicki writes. “…we are going to turn the upstairs into a bed and breakfast and then sell it as a combination bed and breakfast and cafe. It would not be the same without my mom and I feel she has done a tremendous job the past five years.”

Vicki continues: “Maybe there will be someone out there interested in carrying on.”

There. If you are interested in carrying on the fine tradition of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe, preserving a piece of southeastern Minnesota history and more, contact Vicki. Honestly, don’t you just love this unique small town dining spot? I do.

The dessert menu on this particular Monday in October.

FYI: The Historic Highland Store and Cafe is located along Fillmore County Road 10 southeast of Lanesboro in unicorporated Highland. Hours are from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, closed Saturdays and open from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday, until just before Thanksgiving.

Yes, the cafe is closed on Saturdays because the building also serves as a ministry for the Seventh Day Adventist Highland Chapel with Sabbath school beginning at 9:30 a.m. followed by an 11 a.m. church service and vegetarian potluck. Bible study is also held at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and is open to all.

For more information about the Historic Highland Store and Cafe, click here to reach the cafe’s website.

After the lunch rush, Troy Starks and his mom, Sharyn Taylor, sit down to relax and chat. Sharyn is the cafe’s cook.

A comfy and cozy front corner of the cafe.

Even early on a Monday afternoon, the cafe is fairly busy. Occasionally local Amish dine here, intriguing tourists who come to this region of Minnesota. None were here on the Monday we visited. We were told that young Amish women have also worked here on occasion in the kitchen. And at least one  did not show up for work one day, having left the Amish order to “go Englisch.”

The art market and health and beauty aids department behind the dining room offers an eclectic mix of merchandise.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling