One of my assignments the last few years has been to write the lead article for the yearly edition of Quimby's Cruising Guide, the "bible" for traveling boaters with listings of marinas and locks on 26 inland rivers and waterways.
Past articles focused on music festivals, bed and breakfasts, and boat and yacht clubs along the waterways - the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, the Tenn-Tom Waterway and the East and West Gulf Intracoastal.
The 2009 edition features a sampler of 206 restaurants that boaters recommend. Each waterway is unique in its dining opportunities and each has its own oddities and specialties.
Here are some of the most interesting Mississippi River restaurants:
My wife and I discovered RJs in Hastings, Minn., years ago and their outstanding hamburgers. Now they have an "Artery Buster," a one-pound hamburger. Hastings is also home to the Busted Nut Grill, where peanut shells litter the floor. The specialty is deep-fried cheese curds.
NOSH is a gourmet restaurant overlooking the south harbor in Lake City, Minn. Like the fantastic and award-winning Harbor View Café across Lake Pepin in Pepin, Wis., the menu uses all fresh ingredients. Much of it they buy locally, like blue cheese dressing, and then make everything in-house. One interesting choice is locally cultivated, roasted exotic mushrooms with a sherry butter reduction served with grilled homemade bread. Folks regularly drive 90 miles from the Twin Cities to the Harbor View Café for dinner. The restaurant has outstanding food, but does not take reservations or credit cards.
Vinifera is a European-inspired wine boutique in Wabasha, Minn. The dishes are based on unique and affordable wines from around the world. Try the beef bourguignon accompanied by a Valpocello or Tempranillo.
If you like hearty breakfasts, visit the Alma Fish Float just below Lock and Dam 4 in Alma, Wis., on Sunday morning and order "The Mess." You'll get hash browns, sausage, bacon, ham, green peppers, onions and eggs all mixed together and topped with cheese and sauerkraut.
The Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau, Wis., is well known for their walnut burgers and walnut balls. The story is that the owner was searching for a meat substitute, ground up some walnuts, mixed in some breadcrumbs, eggs and spices - and voila!
Many boaters say the brats are fantastic at Mr. McGregor's Beer and Brat Garden in McGregor, Iowa.
Bill's Landing in Clayton, Iowa, has been serving its signature Barb's Special Recipe French Fries since 1976. They say the key is the custom seasoning blend.
Another popular Sunday breakfast spot is Ducky's Lagoon in Andalusia, Ill. They have a made-to-order, all-you-can-eat menu.
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Hog wings are popular at the Lighthouse Restaurant at Fairport Marina, Fairport, Iowa. These are described as the pig's "elbows." Unbreaded grilled tenderloins are their biggest seller.
The Purple Cow in Alexandria, Mo., is not much to look at, floods now and then, especially its parking lot, but some boaters never pass without stopping. Try the tenderloins, fries and deep fat-fried frog legs.
According to local lore, there was a house of ill repute in Hannibal, Mo., until the 1950s. Now that building houses Lula Belle's restaurant. One of the specialties is a New York strip steak stuffed with crab meat and cream cheese and topped with a mushroom merlot sauce.
Beer-steamed shrimp is the major draw at Cedar Hill Resort in Batchtown, Ill. What makes it extra special is that it is prepared on a large, covered flat grill with a secret Anheuser-Busch family recipe.
Kinders Restaurant at the ferry landing in Golden Eagle, Ill., has a very loyal following. Most everything, including salad dressings, desserts, cinnamon rolls and catfish batter are homemade with fresh ingredients. Catfish is No. 1 there. Livers and gizzards are favorite appetizers.
Although a major claim to fame at Fast Eddie's Bon Air in Alton, Ill., is that they have long been in the running as the top-rated volume bar in the world, boaters also go there for the cheap eats. The Fat Eddie Burger weighs one-half pound and costs 99 cents, which is also what a basket of fries or the homemade brat costs. Pork kabobs are $1.29, and for $2.99 you can get either the Big Elwood on a Stick, which is marinated tenderloin, or a Hot Chick on a Stick.
So gas up the boat, pack the Alka Selzer and bon appétit!