FARGO, N.D. — The poster shows up all along this city's main drag.
Four scenes: the starkness of Moscow's Red Square; the beauty of a London street; a crowd in Paris. And Fargo.
The Fargo of 10 years ago, mind you, after the fame of the Cohen brothers' award-winning movie, but before the downtown's Renaissance had taken hold. The Fargo which could be any number of mid-sized, Midwest cities, only this one had the dubious honour of having a goofy movie named for it. Visitors have been mimicking that accent ever since, oh yah, oh yah.
The poster, no doubt, was created tongue in cheek.
But it's not so funny anymore. Now, Fargo's downtown is a charming spot with smart hotels, an arts movie house, art galleries, a yoga studio, boutiques and restaurants for all tastes. The streets teem with people; students and university workers pour in and out of Renaissance Hall, the home of North Dakota State University's visual arts department and portions of its architecture and landscape architecture programs, right downtown.
The 100-year-old building, once a farm equipment dealership warehouse, is a fine example of what's going right in downtown Fargo where old warehouses become art galleries, train stations turn into bike shops, a flophouse is now a sleek boutique hotel.
At 360 kilometres away, Fargo makes a perfect weekend escape from Winnipeg.
Plan to arrive Friday night as many of the downtown shops do not open Sunday. There's plenty to keep you busy, but you'll be sad, your nose pressed up against the shop windows, if you didn't finish with the boutiques on Saturday.
The Radisson Hotel Fargo is just a block off the main strip, at Fifth Street and Second Avenue. Plan to park your car for the weekend and walk everywhere.
A good place to start is the Fargo Theatre, fully restored to all its art deco glory. From the Radisson, walk down Second Avenue and turn right on Broadway. You can't miss it.
The Fargo Theatre was one of the first rays of hope in the downtown. In 1998, its owners began a major renovation to fully restore the 870-seat theatre. Built in 1926 for film and vaudeville, the theatre now features classic and first-run films, live theatre and a Mighty WurliTzer pipe organ which provides intermission music. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Fargo Theatre might be the birthplace of the new, improved Fargo downtown (a point still debated among locals), but it has not forgotten the old. Upstairs, among the film paraphernalia and ancient projectors, is a larger than life statue entitled Wood-Chip Marge - an ode to Police Chief Marge Gunderson, Frances McDormand's character in the movie Fargo - presented to the city by MGM Home Entertainment.
Give yourself lots of time to meander along Broadway and the side streets to experience the art galleries, boutiques and specialty shops.
Don't miss Gallery 4, Ltd. or the building it's in, the Black Building, a beautiful art deco design — check out the elevator — on Broadway just east of Second Avenue. Gallery 4, Ltd. is an art co-operative, with 14 local artists sharing the duties of "minding the store" in return for an outlet to sell their work. It has a terrific array of metal sculpture, including the work of creative welder Kyle Thomas.
Ecce art + yoga, at 216 Broadway, carries local and regional artists, and also showcases international designers — including Tord Boontje. You can drop in on a yoga class for $10.
When you're wandering the shops, be sure not to miss Zandbroz, 420 Broadway, perhaps the most fun shop on the strip with its collection of toys, books, jewelry and home decor. The owners have dubbed it their personal antidote to a Walmart world. You'll know it by the amazing window displays: recently it was a fairy tale tulle dress with spider plant leaf streamers. It's open on Sunday when most others aren't.
Also open on Sunday is the Plains Art Museum. Housed in a refurbished International Harvester building, it was an early pioneer in the rejuvenation of Fargo's downtown.
The drawings of Frank Big Bear, which pay homage to his Ojibwe culture, are on display until Sept. 27. The museum offers printmaking displays in its studio on weekends and occasional art workshops for children and adults. To see what's coming up, go to: http://www.plainsart.org/education/.
Also on Sunday, you can rent a bike from the Great Northern Bike Company, in the train station that used to service the Great Northern Line. It's on Broadway across and down a little bit from Zandbroz. Try the roast pistachio gelato in the Clock Tower Café right in the bike shop.
If you're feeling really energetic, you could nip over the state line to Minnesota - it's a bit of a hike, but take First Avenue east to the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Centre - and rent a kayak on the Red River. You won't recognize it from the Red River Winnipeggers know and love.
To round out your visit, if it's a clear night (any night but Saturday), hit the rooftop of the Hotel Donaldson, HoDo to friends, on the corner of First and Broadway. There are some high tech looking tables and chairs among a garden of indigenous grasses and sculptures. The sky is just about as wide as you'd expect a prairie sky to be and all of Fargo spreads out before you.
Try a Dirty Fur Trader, a house specialty: a shot of Hendrick's gin, with fresh mint and cucumber and a splash of 7Up.
Marge Gunderson would approve. Oh yah, oh yah.
IF YOU GO
Take Pembina Highway south to the U.S. border. Highway 75 becomes the I-29 when it crosses into North Dakota. About 250 kilometres or so later, take Exit 65, U.S. 10/ Maine Avenue, and turn left. Many blocks later, turn left onto Broadway and you're in the heart of downtown.
Don't forget your passport. Canadians need a passport to travel to the U.S.
If you have time and are fed up with interstate highways, and who isn't?, head east from downtown on NP Avenue North then turn north on Highway 75 to drive through some of the prettiest Minnesota farmland. Go north about 80 kilometres to Climax, MN, then take Highway 220 to Grand Forks, ND, and get on Interstate 29 for the drive back to Winnipeg.
Where to stay:
Radisson Hotel Fargo: 201 North Fifth St. For rates or reservations call 1-800-333-3333. The hotel is one block off the main drag so you can park your car for the weekend and walk everywhere.
Where to eat:
Passages Café, at the Radisson: The hotel has a bed and breakfast rate. Design-an-omelet is tasty and good value. Passages is open for lunch and dinner, too. The waitresses are really friendly and can tell you where to find the best antique stores.
Atomic Coffee, 222 Broadway: Good coffee and light snacks in a sleek art-filled space with wireless. Try the turkey panini.
Clock Tower Café: In the Great Northern Bicycle Company in the old train station (under its clock tower. Get it?) on Broadway at the tracks. A lovely spot for lunch or a snack. Build your own sandwich is a good deal. Try the gelato. Notice all the old clocks on the wall.
Hotel Donaldson: on the corner of First and Broadway. The HoDo was among the first brave souls to be part of the downtown's Renaissance. It has a small boutique hotel, a wonderful restaurant and lounge and a spot on the roof to have a quiet drink most evenings. An example of the aura of the place: the menu sports a thank you to "the artisans, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, beekeepers and other uncommon souls from this region and beyond who enhance our table and the food we offer." Nice. Offers an extensive wine list and 21 single malt scotches. Be sure to have the flight of desserts, a sampling of five desserts for the low, low price of $8. Best deal of the weekend.
Drunken Noodle: 623 NP Ave. Highly recommended by the locals, (maybe because it's open until 3 a.m. which can be handy) the Drunken Noodle offers big, tasty dishes for $6.25 a plate. Try the signature dish, the drunken noodle: stir fried rice noodles, basil broccoli, onions, garlic, bell pepper, jalapenos & Thai chili.
Basie's: (nowhere near downtown, in the Ramada, 1635 42 St., but if you shop Fargo's commercial area, it's an old favourite). You can't top their steaks (Black Angus specially aged 60 days, not the routine 30, our waiter Joe tells us.) Try their signature rubs, basic, Kansas City, Texan, Jamaican, Puerto Rican or Mediterranean. Not a beefy? The fish is flown in three times a week. Wine flights are new and a nice way to sample the extensive wine menu.
There's a handy liquor store - with alarmingly low prices - on Broadway just past the Fargo Theatre. Empire Liquors is at 424 Broadway North. Right beside is its cousin, The Empire, a dive bar known for cheap, strong drinks, if that's your thing.
— Julie Carl and Jane Carl