By Chris Rogers, editor
When I first moved to Winona in 2012, Dibs was still serving seaweed grilled cheese out of its funky little cafe, and one of my favorite restaurants, Little Thailand, was still in business, making the best, authentically hot Thai food — Midwestern taste buds be damned. Shrimp and lemongrass swimming in citrusy, rich broth, its tom yum soup was so spicy I would become a sweaty mess at the table, eyes watering in pain, but still wanting more.
When it came to getting dinner downtown, however, the options amounted to essentially burgers or pizza. For people looking for something else, one of the most popular choices was to leave town entirely. Every weekend an exodus of Winonans would take their money to La Crosse or nearby touristy towns a fraction of Winona’s size but with seemingly more variety.
Now there have been people making great food in Winona this whole time, and complaining about where to eat out is the epitome of a first-world problem, but as you looked across other cities in the area, it was hard not to draw comparisons. For a town with three colleges, a world-class art museum, and more festivals than you can shake a stick at, the food scene seemed to be the one missing piece. In a 2017 article I wrote, it appeared to be a chicken or the egg dilemma. Would restaurateurs take a chance on Winona? Would Winona support them if they did?
Since then Winona’s restaurant scene, especially downtown, has transformed. At least five new restaurants have opened downtown since 2019, including Miya Japanese Bistro, NOSH Scratch Kitchen, Sapori di Sicilia, and most recently Heirloom Seasonal Bistro, and Sliced. Winonans really don’t have much to complain about anymore. We now have dueling sushi joints — which at one point seemed to be outdoing each other with complimentary desserts — and you can get cannolis, hibachi, walleye tacos, handmade ravioli, and a rack of lamb within a few blocks of the river. Congratulations to the new joints, and many thanks to the eateries that have been making great food for years.
There has been churn in the downtown food scene, too. In the last couple years we lost Betty Jo’s, Jefferson’s, The Oaks, and a short-lived gyro shop, to name a few. Highly competitive and demanding, the restaurant industry is not for the faint of heart. Back when I worked as a line cook, I would have nightmares about the ticket printer spooling off a nonstop stream of orders until I woke up in cold sweat, then got ready for my next shift. Despite all the hard work cooks, servers, dishwashers, bartenders, and managers put in, success is far from guaranteed.
The good news is that new restaurants are taking a chance on Winona, and Winonans are returning the favor. But if I’ve learned anything from Dibs and Little Thailand, it’s that you shouldn’t take your favorite spot for granted. If you have the means, go support them and bon appetit!