As 2017 comes to a close, it’s time to recognize local businesses favored by our readers in the 13th annual Best of Bluff Country contest.

Since spring, ballots have been printed in the Bluff Country Reader for readers to fill out and mail in to vote for their choices. An online survey was also set up so readers could make their choices on their computers. The module prevented multiple voting so one person couldn’t stuff the ballot box.

The Best of Bluff Country contest is the longest running “best of” survey in southeastern Minnesota. The contest features many non-commercial categories and winners aren’t solicited for advertising so the results remain true “people’s choices” for the best businesses in the area.

For the 2017 contest, survey questions remained the same from 2016. However, the results changed significantly as several new businesses rose to the top of certain categories, although many old favorites remained the choice of readers in select categories.

Dining

Some brand new businesses made their debut on the Best of Bluff Country list while several favorites remain among the various food and drink options preferred by residents and visitors exploring Southeastern Minnesota Historic Bluff Country.

Annual church dinner:Two Lutheran churches in the area tied for first place in this category, replacing Christ Lutheran Church of Preston’s Norwegian lutefisk and meatball buffet, which was the winner the first two years this category was included in the list. Fountain Lutheran Church holds a lutefisk and meatball dinner in October that includes lefse, rommegrot, sweet soup, krumkake, rosettes and other Norwegian baking. The other winner, First English Lutheran Church of Spring Valley, holds a spring dinner each year that includes baked ham, meatballs and real mashed potatoes. Dinners at Union Prairie Church, located between Preston and Lanesboro, Faith United Methodist Church in Spring Valley and Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lanesboro also polled well.

Bar:If you are looking for a night out on the town or just a place to unwind, voters preferred two establishments. Rack’s Bar and Grill in Spring Valley tied for the top spot with the Restaurant & Bar at Old Barn Resort, located between Preston and Lanesboro. Root River Saloon in Lanesboro and Susie’s Roadhouse in Ostrander also had a strong showing in this category.

Breakfast: The Lanesboro Pastry Shoppe, a first-time winner in the Best of Bluff Country contest last year, was a definite favorite again this year. The restaurant gets very good reviews online as well, with people stating there is no menu, so diners can be creative. However, there are often several specials each morning. Elaine’s Cafe in Spring Valley took second place for the second year in a row.

Brunch: The Togie Pub across the Iowa border in Lime Springs took the top spot in this category, the first time this establishment has received votes in the contest. The Mother’s Day brunch with Swiss steak, shrimp alfredo and bacon-wrapped chicken is a hit.

Burgers: First and second place in this category switched places this year as Susie’s RoadHouse of Ostrander, always a top contender in this category, was the preferred restaurant for burgers. Lanesboro Sales Commission, a surprise winner last year since it isn’t a name that comes to mind for most people looking for dining locations, took second place in 2017. Village Square of Harmony and Lanesboro Golf Club also received strong recognition for their burgers.

Dessert: A new restaurant made a good first impression on people seeking dessert as The Bite in Lanesboro was the readers’ choice in 2017. Opened Jan. 3 of this year in downtown Lanesboro, the restaurant is known for its excellent cheesecake. A couple of long-running favorites came in behind the newcomer as Village Square of Harmony took second place and Village Square of Fountain took third.

Fish fry: The Lanesboro American Legion, which tied with Rack’s Bar and Grill in Spring Valley in 2016, took sole honors for first place this year. The Legion usually has a fish fry twice a month. Rack’s, which took second place in 2017, features an all-you-can-eat fish fry every Friday. Village Square of Harmony and the Branding Iron in Preston also showed strength in this category.

Friendliest service:Looking for a smiling face to go with a meal? Then head to The Pizza Place in Spring Valley as its friendly service brought in the top honors for this category again this year. This category had the most different entries with a long list of friendly establishments in Bluff Country. Granny’s Liquor in Lanesboro, Estelle’s Eatery and Bar in Harmony, Village Square of Harmony and the Old Barn Resort all fared well in this category.

Fries: A newcomer to this list was an overwhelming favorite in 2017. Lanesboro’s Pedal Pushers Cafe, which is known for its healthy, local food, is also a favorite for its fresh-cut fries. The Pizza Place in Spring Valley, Dairy Queen in Spring Valley, Village Square of Harmony and The Bite in Lanesboro are other favorites for French fries in the area.

Ice cream: Readers recommend getting some ice cream with the delicious dessert at Village Square of Harmony as it took top honors this year for the cold treat. Two places in Lanesboro tied for second place: The Granary, a coffee shop that opened its doors this summer, features super premium Wisconsin ice cream, as did Another Time Ice Cream Parlor & Chocolates, of Lanesboro, which has placed first or second the past two years.

Pie:If an enchanting pie is what you are craving, head to the Village Square of Harmony. Always among the top three, the restaurant took top honors in this category this year. The Aroma Pie Shop in Whalan took second for the second year in a row while the Village Square in Fountain, last year’s winner, placed third.

Pizza: The Pizza Place’s mouth-watering pizza in Spring Valley was voted the best in Bluff Country for the fifth year in a row. The Bite and Village Square of Harmony tied for runners-up honors. The Creamery in Rushford and Village Square of Fountain are also recommended by Bluff Country residents.

Restaurant:The voting for best overall restaurant was tight this year with Pedal Pushers Cafe of Lanesboro and Estelle’s Eatery and Bar in Harmony tying for top honors. The Pizza Place in Spring Valley, which won last year, the Branding Iron in Preston, which has also won this category in the past and Village Square of Harmony, which has been running strong in many categories this year, also did well in voting.

Steaks:The Branding Iron in Preston has dominated the steaks category since the inception of Best of Bluff Country and it once again took the honors. Riverside on the Root in Lanesboro took second place. Susie’s Roadhouse in Ostrander and Laddy’s Bar and Grille in Chester, Iowa, also received some strong recommendations.

Shopping/lodging

The categories not involving food also had a mixture of old favorites and newcomers to the Best of Bluff Country list. Here are the favorite shopping and lodging options in the 2017 Best of Bluff Country poll.

Antiques:New Generations of Harmony Antique Mall was a runaway winner in the antiques category, which has been the case for the past several years. New Generations is the most dominant winner in any category in the Best of Bluff Country poll.

Bed and breakfast: In contrast to the antiques category, this one is generally spread out among several establishments. Two Lanesboro bed and breakfasts tied for first place — Mrs. B’s Historic Lanesboro Inn, a limestone structure built in 1872 just off the Root River in downtown, and the Habberstad House, which is located in an 1897 Queen Anne Victorian home. The Asahi Loft of Harmony was the third place choice.

Camping: Highway 250 Campground just outside of Lanesboro tops the list of camping spots for the second year in a row. Two public sites — Sylvan Park in Lanesboro and Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, which had won in 2015 and 2014, were the next two choices.

Farmers market:For the fifth straight year, Lanesboro’s farmers market with its ample fresh vegetables, fruit and homemade treats won this category. A newer market in downtown Spring Valley took second place for the second year in a row while the Chatfield market finished third.

Friendliest business: Granny’s Liquors of Lanesboro, which also delivers to area campgrounds, was voted the friendliest business in Bluff Country for the second year in a row. Chateau de Chic in Spring Valley finished second.

Hotel/motel:Looking for a great place to relax for the night after a day on the trail? Green Gables Inn of Lanesboro, which has 15 modern rooms near the Root River, was the top choice for lodging in Bluff Country for the second year in a row. The Trailhead Inn located at the trailhead of the Root River Trail in Preston and Stone Mill Suites in Lanesboro, which includes a limestone building, tied for second place.

Retail store: Kingsley Mercantile of Harmony, which has topped this category since it was included in the poll two years ago, tied for top honors in 2017 along with B2 Boutique in Lanesboro.

Unique shop/store: Spring Valley continues the top spot in this category as Chateau de Chic Salon, Spa and Boutique was the readers’ choice in 2017, taking over from The Salsa Guy, the now closed store that had been the top pick to shop in Bluff Country the previous three years. Emil Farquart’s, which has gifts and apparel in Lanesboro, took second place.

Entertainment/recreation

Lanesboro had a strong presence this year in the entertainment and recreation listings in the survey, winning or tying for top honors in seven categories.

Arts/culture: Lanesboro is the place for the arts. Commonweal Theatre Company, the region’s only professional theater company, and Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization that has been expanding its footprint in the community, tied for first place. Vesterheim, a national Norwegian-American museum in Decorah, the annual Art in the Park in Lanesboro and Wit’s End Theatre, a resident theater company at Chatfield Center for the Arts, had a strong showing of fans.

Park:A consistent choice, Lanesboro’s Sylvan Park, once again took top honors as the favorite park of readers. The park has a variety of activities with two spring-fed ponds for fishing and a campground located just off of downtown Lanesboro. Spring Valley’s south park, which has a swimming pool, tennis courts, softball fields and playground equipment, took second place for the second year in a row.

Family destination:Get the family together and take a trip below the surface as Niagara Cave near Harmony was voted the best destination to explore with the family. Niagara Cave has dominated this category for several years, and it continues to expand its family offerings above ground with activities such as miniature golf and gemstone mining. The entire community of Lanesboro took second place.

Fair or festival: Buffalo Bill Days in Lanesboro and Ag Days in Spring Valley have been leading this category for the past few years. This year, Buffalo Bill Days took top honors again and Ag Days came in second place.

Golf: Lanesboro Golf Club, which tied for top choice last year, took sole honors this year. River’s Bend Golf at the Old Barn Resort, the region’s only 18-hole course located between Preston and Lanesboro, the co-winner last year, took second place.

Hiking: Perennial winner Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park tied for top honors this year with Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro. Boasting 20 miles of hiking trails and breathtaking views, Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park has trails along the Root River and on the bluffs of the park located between Preston and Spring Valley. Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, which is also located along the Root River and features many bluffs, has nine miles of hiking trails west of Lanesboro.

Historical site/museum: The Lanesboro Historical Museum, a three-story, downtown building along the Root River, is a new winner in this category. The museum features an extensive photograph collection. The Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum, a new winner in this category last year, took second place. The church, one of two museums in the complex operated by the Spring Valley Historical Society, was built in 1876 when the James Wilder family belonged as members, making it a must-see for Laura Ingalls Wilder fans. The Fillmore County History Center in Fountain, which has taken top honors in several past years, took third place this year.

Scenic view:Inspiration Point on Highway 16 near Lanesboro took top honors this year, displacing Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, which had owned this category the past several years. Inspiration Point, a wayside rest, had its stone walls restored and vegetation blocking the view removed in 2015 so it looks much like it did in 1934 when it opened. The bluffs of Rushford took second place this year while Good Earth Village outside of Spring Valley finished third.

Swimming pool: An always competitive category that includes votes from each pool in the region, best swimming pool co-honors went to the Old Barn Resort between Preston and Lanesboro and the Spring Grove Swim Center. The pools in Rushford and Lime Springs tied for third place.