Deep in southwestern Minnesota, the unincorporated township of Bergen begins and ends at the intersection of 540th Avenue and 900th Street. All you can see for miles is flat, monoculture farmland, liberally punctuated with towering wind turbines that work lazily in the late afternoon summer haze. At the southwest corner, a shuttered old general store struggles to stand under its own weight. At the northeast corner, two weathered houses shrink away from the road and a worn wooden sign reads, “VELKOMMEN TO BERGEN Est. 1895.” And at the southeastern corner stands the small, nondescript Bergen Bar & Grill—a 48-seat meat oasis in the middle of nowhere.
The restaurant is the first thing that will pop up when you google “Bergen, MN.” Dig deeper and it becomes clear the joint has a reputation. Customers’ stories of long lines forming before they open for dinner at 5pm, people shoving their way past each other to get in, even festive tailgating in the parking lot persuaded us to take the nearly three-hour trek from the Twin Cities.
Entering the restaurant on a heat advisory June afternoon, we felt a bit like the unknown cowboy bursting through a saloon’s double doors—all sound momentarily ceased, and everyone looked up from their plates for a second to stare, sizing up the newcomers—then went right back to eating and chatting. It was 5:30pm, and the place was full.
We took in the atmosphere. Bergen’s is about as simple and unadorned as it gets: a few booths, a handful of tables, and a bar with seating for six or seven. We bellied up and sat down next to a hulking, bearded man clad in biker garb tucking into a sandwich with a tall glass of Coke. On a TV up in the corner by the ceiling, Vanna White turned letters for “Wheel of Fortune” contestants. A backlit dry erase board indicated the soup du jour: Lasagna.
The servers passed by behind the bar, running platters full of meat out to tables. To the left I could see the tiny kitchen through the pass, where steaks sizzled on a small grill, tended by an unseen figure.
Our drinks arrived: a large Schell’s beer for me and a single-serving Sutter Home pinot grigio for my dining companion. We looked over the menu and made small talk with the huge dude in the biker gear. Jeff was friendly, his conversational demeanor contrasting starkly with his don’t-mess-with-me exterior. His prime rib sandwich looked really good.
“I come here a lot,” Jeff says. “I live like 10 miles away. […] My friends in the Cities come down like once a month; they just keep coming and eating. They love the prime rib and the big jumbo shrimp. They’ll come and spend 60, 70 bucks, and say that they would have to pay like $150 for the same stuff in the Cities. So yeah, it’s a good deal, and huge portions. Like, if you get mushrooms on your steak, you can’t even see the steak when it comes out. It’s crazy.”
We figured we’d test out that claim, and ordered an eight-ounce filet with ’shrooms ($29.25), a 14-ounce ribeye ($23.50), and, fine, also the prime rib sandwich ($10.50)—just because Jeff’s looked really damn good, and Bergen’s only offers prime rib on the weekends.
To our left at the bar, we met Tracy and Ron, who each ordered a Michelob Golden Light and promptly poured them over ice. “During the summer, when it’s not quite so hot like this, people are usually all over outside, playing bean toss and things like that while they’re waiting to get in,” says Tracy. “I think their shrimp are the best—he loves the walleye.” Ron chimes in: “Yeah, it’s not unusual to get here around 7pm or 8pm and find 50 people on the waiting list. Hour-and-a-half, two-hour waits: people don’t care, isn’t that crazy? We’ve been coming here for years. We live in Windom, about 15 miles from here.”
In between bites of his sandwich, Jeff elucidated. “We travel quite a bit. Friggin’ we’ve been to Havasu, Vegas, California, and shit like that—people will see me wearing a Bergen’s shirt, and they’ll be like ‘Hey! I’ve been there, it’s that little town in Minnesota!’”
Ron and Tracy laughed knowingly and sipped their iced Michelobs.
We finished up our perfunctory salads (pro tip: at any supper club–style joint with iceberg salads, order both French and blue cheese dressing. When in Rome, etc.), and our steaks arrived—the ribeye, with its side of a Bergen’s famous twice-baked potato (a baked potato scooped out and re-stuffed with its own innards blended with Parmesan and butter, and topped with cheddar cheese and baked again), and the filet, with a side of potato wedges and absolutely covered in a mound of—wait for it—canned mushrooms.
So here we were, confronted with the ribeye, starkly exposed on one of those charmingly weird metal-plate-on-a-wooden-plate thingies you only find in supper clubs; and my filet, hidden (Jeff was on point about that) by limp, leech-like canned mushrooms.
Once the filet was exhumed from its mushroom burial, we found it was nicely cooked—good char on the outside, a proper medium rare on the inside. The ribeye, too—seasoned with what the locals told us was the owner’s secret blend. The twice-baked potato was tasty if a bit bland. And the potato wedges were quite good—crispy, substantial, well seasoned. The sleeper hit, though, was that prime rib sandwich: just bun, prime rib, side of horseradish sauce, and side of au jus. Insanely tender, this sandwich sang when dipped into the zippy horseradish.
In the midst of this lugubrious meat fest, we kept at it with Jeff, and asked if Bergen’s had changed at all recently—we theorized that the lack of activity in the parking lot was due to the extreme heat, which Jeff confirmed was likely, but also that since Bergen’s had acquired a liquor license, there’s been less tailgating action.
“There used to be like 220 people here on a Saturday night, over an hour’s wait all the time,” he says. “People would just hang out in their trucks or whatever, or on the deck, drinking. Lately, during the week, it seems super busy—like in four hours they’ll do 120. They used to just have 3.2 beer and then they got a full liquor license. They just started serving the full bar but let people bring their own stuff still if they want.”
Right then, a server threw open the sliding window behind the bar that looks out over the deck and yells, “ANDERSON PARTY OF TWO!” before slamming it shut.
The charm of Bergen’s started working on us the longer we sat at the bar, joking with servers, and talking to Jeff and the other locals who were steadily filing in. And then, while chewing my decidedly just-fine steak and wondering why people seem to hold this place in such high regard, a realization hit. Standalone oases of hospitality and warmth where you can find simple relief from the dangers and uncertainties of the road are rare and precious spots, especially outside of today’s cookie-cutter interstate exit.
During this reverie, a tall, slenderish guy with narrow eyes walked out of the kitchen, approaching us. “Are you the magazine people? What kinda magazine is it, like a hipster thing? Underground or something?”
This turned out to be Tait, Bergen’s owner and chef. In between tending to the steaks on the grill, Tait didn’t have a whole lot to say—he seemed to be the sort of guy who is disinclined to any fuss and just wants to get on with it. He had an apron around his waist and a T-shirt that read “C’MON VIKINGS, I JUST WANT ONE BEFORE I DIE.”
Tait talked about his history owning the joint. “I started it in 1996—I’ve had it for 22 years,” he says. “Before that it was a bar. Like burgers, chicken strips, shit like that. I used to be a welder and a farmer, then had this stupid idea to run a restaurant! But I can’t take it anymore; it’s too much. My kid’s gonna take over.”
When Tait retreated back to the kitchen, a woman named Debbie—a former Bergen’s server who was there to eat dinner—began telling us how Tait grew up just five miles away, and came from a big Catholic family of nine kids—“real wholesome, good people.” In point of fact, Tait’s family isn’t Catholic and he is one of eight kids, but as she talked, it was clear that Debbie was proud of Bergen’s and its reputation, as were Jeff, Tracy, and Ron.
As Jeff paid his tab, he had one more tale for us. “I used to run a car lot, an auction lot, up by Rogers,” he says. “And once I was taking a leak out there by the lot, and some people saw me and were like, ‘Hey, we saw you at Bergen’s last night!’” Jeff laughs, then continues: “And I’m like, ‘Where you guys from?’ And they’re like, ‘White Bear Lake, we just swung down there to eat.’ And I’m like: ‘You drove two-and-a-half hours to eat?’ And they’re like: ‘It’s good!’ So, it’s got a reputation.”
With that, we stowed our leftovers in styrofoam clamshells and bid farewell to the friendly folks of Bergen’s, just as Jeff’s custom road bike roared to life and echoed down the barren stretch of 900th Street toward an unknown destination.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Bergen’s owner Tait Jensen’s name and misstated that he came from Catholic family of nine children.