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


23 Responses to “Healthy & hearty dining at the retro Highland Cafe in southeastern Minnesota”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Oh I LOVE this place!! Doubt I can fit a quick trip in before they close but I feel like I have been there already!! The tables and chairs were just like we had growing up and brought back great memories!! Looks like a fabulous place and hopefully someone will snatch it up, let the owners take a much needed rest and turn it into the great bed and breakfast cafe combo that it could be!!! Thanks for sharing!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, Baby Boomers like us love this kind of retro cafe. I, too, hope that someone snaps up the Highland Cafe and leaves it as is because the atmosphere is so vintage comfy.

  2. What a fun place with the Formica tables. Ours was gray; my aunt’s was red. Such a shame to hear that it will close. I, too, enjoy the local places, but they are getting harder to find in some towns.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yup, our table was gray, too. Our house was so small that we even had our Christmas tree set on the end of the table. I love, love these small town eateries.

  3. Jackie Says:

    I’m glad I was able to visit the Highland cafe earlier this year, It’s such a unique vintage atmosphere! The tables reminded me of home, growing up….Loved everything about it. I had the breakfast as well, great food. Hope they have luck with the resale of the building/cafe, it would be a shame to see the doors close forever.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’ve been waiting to hear from you, Jackie, as I know how much you enjoy the Highland Cafe.

      Readers, Jackie was the one who tipped me off to this great little eatery.

  4. Erin Says:

    What a fun find! Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make a trip there before they close. I absolutely love discovering these less known restaurants!

  5. htrax107 Says:

    Oh Audrey – If only I were 30 years (20, 10 ) years younger. What a lovely story again. When my sisters and I went to Ireland, we ate at little cafes such as this and said we would open a small one when we got home. Even had the tablecloths picked out! Never did it though. Lost opportunities. I hope it remains the same if it is sold and maybe the new owners could acquire some of Ms Taylor’s favorite recipes and maybe entice her to help one or two days a week to get the place going for them. It sounds like a wonderful place. Your photos are great!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I don’t know your sisters, but I know you well enough to visualize you as a part owner in a cafe like this, especially one with a deep sense of history. Your ideas about Sharyn Taylor passing along favorite recipes and working to ease new owners into the business are excellent advice. The appreciative clientele already exists. I, too, hope an enthusiastic and appreciative buyer is found for the Highland Cafe.

      I’ll be posting tomorrow or later this week about a young couple opening a cafe/coffee shop/entertainment venue in an historic bank building in Lamberton next summer. You’ll love that building, too, Harriet, and the plans for it.

  6. treadlemusic Says:

    When I started to read this I did not think I would be getting such sad news! Will be going for breakfast tomorrow morning. Such a lovely write-up may generate /pique the interest of that “special someone” out there who would love to carry on the tradition. Blessings, D

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I was as surprised as you to get this news as I had the post already written and then received that email from Vicki. Please let her know I’ve published this piece and that I wish her and her family the best. She and Troy were so welcoming and never hinted to Randy and me, not once, that this was coming. I pray they find a buyer who can continue as they have with this wonderful eatery.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        Oh I definitely will convey your thoughts and well wishes to her! I am still a bit stunned! Just posted a new one on my blog directing peeps to this site. You did such a wonderful job capturing the essence of the cafe. Hugs, D

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Thank you, D.

  7. […] blog chronicles a late morning sojourn in this delightful memory-laden spot. Please, follow this link to her blog to read……..”the rest of the […]

  8. What a beautiful place! I love the retro styling! This is right in our stomping grounds, we live just north of Lanesboro. So I gather that this place is soon shutting down? How long is it going to be open? We need to eat here before it’s gone.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You will note in the post that Vicki says she will close the cafe shortly before Thanksgiving. So anyone who wants to experience the Highland Cafe best hustle down there. Remember, it’s closed on Saturdays.

  9. Eric and I love to stop at places like this for good food!

  10. Sartenada Says:

    What a lovely place. I would live there, I would visit it. Thank You presenting this gorgeous place.

  11. These are the sort of places my husband and I love to stop at, too. That lunch counter is wonderful! It must be both difficult to keep up the daily work to run it and difficult to decide when it’s time to move one. But the important part is that they made a big difference in their community. Love the photos! Does your husband usually wait for you to take a picture of his lunch before he eats? The broken yolk comment made me smile.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Randy finally has accepted that I likely will want to photograph his food before he digs in. So, yes, he usually waits. But it was well past noon and he was hungry and I almost forgot to do a food shoot.

      Running a cafe has to be hard work, that’s for sure.

      Glad you enjoyed the tour. I loved everything about the Highland Cafe. Just a wonderful place in the peaceful country.

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