Everyone in the restaurant business these days has an angle – you know, artisan pizza, or 23 ways with mac and cheese, or Korean/Spanish fusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but it ends up being all about the food or the novelty. There’s no soul, unless it’s in the food itself, which is very often quite good. We happen to be partial to restaurants with a history, cafes that grew up with the communities they serve. Enter Wilbert Cafe.
It would seem that Wilbert Cafe is named after its town, or the name of the person who founded it. Actually, the founders were William Lyman and Bert Robinson — Wil-Bert. The year was 1922. It so happened that around the same time, Greyhound Lines, the bus company, was founded in the town of Hibbing, MN. The halfway point between Hibbing and Duluth is Cotton, which became Greyhound’s first intercity stop. Greyhound stopped in Cotton as many as twenty times a day, and the Wilbert thrived.
Over the years, the Wilbert Cafe was repeatedly bought and sold, and suffered devastating fires as well, but it was always rebuilt. The Wilbert has had its ups and downs over the decades, depending on who was the owner du jour. Under the current owners, Sandy and Steve Simek, who purchased the cafe in 2004 (Sandy was a long-time employee of the cafe), the Wilbert is definitely looking up.
The Wilbert doesn’t seem like it should be a town cafe, what with its location along 65-mph US-53. But walk through the front door and there’s no mistaking it: u-shaped counter, pie case, fan spinning lazily, generic-looking menu. There are all the usual things for breakfast. The lunch/dinner menu features salads, burgers, pizzas, and sandwiches and assorted hot plates like homemade meatloaf, beef liver, and country fried steak. All those things may be exemplary, for all we know, but use your head: what do you think a place like this does best, pepperoni pizzas, fried shrimp, and Buffalo chicken melts, or homemade pasties?
Yeah, we went with the pastie and it’s first-rate. For the uninitiated, pasties are big turnovers stuffed with meat, usually beef, potatoes, and vegetables, often rutabaga. It’s a miners’ food that was brought to mining areas of the U.S. by immigrants from Cornwall, England. This part of Minnesota is known as the Iron Range, a very active mining region. Hence it’s no surprise that this is pasty country.
Wilbert’s pastie (that’s how they spell it) is clearly homemade, sporting a well-browned top and thick, rolled edge. At first glance it appears you’ll be leaving that thick, doughy rim but it turns out that the crust has a delicious savory quality of its own, which we enjoyed, dipped in the side of gravy, down to the last crumb. If that surprisingly good pastie crust makes you suspect that maybe someone around here also knows their way around pies, give yourself a gold star.
Sandy makes the pies herself, and they are terrific. We tried the two seasonal pies of the month, a fluffy Raspberry Dream on a graham cracker crust (which our waitress confessed was her favorite), and a Raspberry Crunch in a skillfully made pie crust — both of which made us wish for further appetite to explore the rest of the pie case. Alas…
Are there other gems on the menu? The biscuits and sausage gravy were fine, the hash browns that came alongside were good and crisp, but neither are worth a detour. Perhaps it’s all good, or perhaps it’s all about the pastie and pie. Pasties and pie – that’s enough for us to inscribe the Wilbert Cafe in our little black book of good Minnesota eats.
Note: Part of the expansion of Wilbert Cafe over the years has resulted in a bar, liquor store, and, we think, Southwest-themed eatery called El Toro Lounge. The Lounge is connected, and they are apparently both owned by the Simeks. The El Toro Lounge, while it may be swell, is not the place we are talking about here.9105 Highway 53 Cotton MN 55724 218-482-3318 Wilbert Cafe on Facebook