I had to go up to North Dakota for a couple days late last year and decided to fly in. After landing in Fargo and grabbing a rental car, I met up with one of my dealers at his store and we decided to go out to grab a bite for lunch. He asked me if I had any idea where I wanted to go and I told him that I've wanted to go to the Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo for some time and have lunch in the HoDo Lounge. He said, "Hey, that's fine with me. Anytime we can go there for a meal, I'm happy!"
I've been traveling to Fargo for over 10 years now. It remains one of my favorite places to visit. My dealer in Fargo has shown me that the Fargo/Moorhead area has some interesting and somewhat eclectic places to eat. On my first trip to the area, my then-new dealer and I had dinner at a small place caddy-cornered from the Hotel Donaldson, a European-style boutique hotel in downtown Fargo. After dinner, we went across the street to have a couple drinks in the lounge at the Hotel Donaldson. It was that evening when I first learned the backstory of the "HoDo" (the local's pet name for the hotel) and the resurgence of downtown Fargo.
Doug Burgum grew up on a farm outside of Arthur, ND, about 25 miles from Fargo. He was a graduate of North Dakota State University and later got his MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. After getting his Masters degree, he moved to Chicago to work for a large global business consulting firm. However, he had the entrepreneurial spirit in his bones and he ended up moving back to Fargo in 1983 to start up a business software company. Literally mortgaging the Burgum family farm to start his company, he founded Great Plains Software to address the accounting needs of small businesses. Great Plains grew to be a large company that eventually provided all types of business software solutions to small to medium-sized businesses around the world. Burgum took Great Plains Software public in 1997.
Pictured right - Doug Burgum. Photo courtesy Fargo Forum.
Microsoft felt they were well behind the curve when it came to business software and the decided the best way to jump into that line of software was to buy an existing company. Great Plains Software had a stellar reputation within the small business world for their business friendly programs, and in 2001 Microsoft bought Great Plains for $1.1 billion dollars. Yes, that's "billion" with a "b". Burgum stayed on with Microsoft as an Executive Vice-President of Business Applications. The Microsoft campus in Fargo is the largest Microsoft facility outside of the state of Washington.
At the turn of the 20th century, Fargo established a Renaissance Zone to revitalize the downtown area. Doug Burgum and his wife, Karen Stoker Burgum, decided that they wanted to put an emphasis on reestablishing Fargo's downtown to the vibrant community it was when they visited the downtown area as children. Doug Burgum established a foundation called the Kilbourne Group that was formed to help revitalize parts of downtown Fargo developing mixed-use properties.
The first thing that the Kilbourne Group did was to buy what was the abandoned Northern School Supply building in downtown Fargo. Burgum's foundation bought the building in August of 2000 and donated it to North Dakota State University and pledged $1.5 million in renovations to the building. Today, the former school supply building is called Renaissance Hall and houses NDSU's art and architecture schools along with offices in the 52,000 square foot building.
Around the time her husband was selling Great Plains Software to Microsoft, Karen Stoker Burgum ended up buying the Hotel Donaldson, a run-down hotel in a building that was originally built in 1894, and had been a workingman's hotel since 1915. When hotels near the Interstate began to pop up in the 1970's and 80's, much of the hotel's clientele dropped off. It became more of an apartment building with a handful of rooms still available for nightly or weekly stays.
Karen Stoker Burgum put over $7 million dollars into the renovation of the place. She turned the hotel into a European-style boutique hotel with 17 rooms. She also established two eateries - the HoDo Restaurant and the HoDo Lounge. Suddenly, downtown Fargo began to have a vision and path for taking old buildings, renovating them into housing, restaurants, retail and office spaces, much of it done by the Kilbourne Group.
Karen Stoker and Doug Burgum divorced a number of years ago. She continued to run the HoDo, while Doug Burgum remained an executive at Microsoft until he left the company in 2007 to focus on the Kilbourne Group and the continued revitalization of downtown Fargo. In January of this year, Doug Burgum announced his intention to run for the Governor's office in North Dakota as a Republican. (Update - Burgum was elected to the Governor's office with 77 percent of the total vote.)
Each room at the Hotel Donaldson features artwork from Upper Midwest-area artists. Works from artists such as Marley Kaul, Susan Morrissey, Gretchen Bederman and Jon Offutt are featured in individual rooms. Paintings from two of Stoker and Burgum's three sons hang in one of the rooms, as well. (Pictured below right.) I've looked into staying at the HoDo on a couple of of occasions, but their nightly room prices skew a little higher than I'm willing to pay for a room in Fargo, ND. Plus, I wouldn't get my Hilton Honors points.
The HoDo Restaurant is the main restaurant in the hotel. It features locally grown food when available and is the only AAA Four Diamond restaurant in the state of North Dakota. But the restaurant isn't open for lunch, so that's why we went to the lounge. We had a little trouble finding a parking spot near the hotel - located at 1st Ave. N. and Broadway (see map) - because of the number of people around the downtown area. I asked my dealer what was going on with so many people downtown on a weekday, he said, "It's like this all the time, man. It's just crazy down here."
I was able to take a look inside the HoDo restaurant after we walked into the main entrance to the hotel. The space had a somewhat contemporary and funky look to the place, and was filled with some interesting artwork.
We were seated at a table in the lounge (above right) and given menus to look over. Our server for the day - Jarad - came over to greet us and see if we wanted anything to drink. I ordered an IPA from the Junkyard Brewery over in Moorhead, while my dealer got an Igor's Horn black IPA from the Drekker Brewery in downtown Fargo. (Click here to see the Road Tips entry on the Drekker Brewery.)
It's a decidedly eclectic, but not a broad menu at the HoDo Lounge. Each day co-chefs Ryan Nitschke and Nick Weinhandl create a new lavosh - a leavened bread with toppings that is a North Dakota favorite. The lavosh that day was a bacon, broccoli, and chopped tomatoes with cheddar cheese. Shareable plates also included bison sirloin bacon fries, fried pickled green tomatoes, a duck confit taquitos - small tacos topped with a tomatillo and lime-habanero salsa.
I started out with a cup of Knoephla (NIP-fla) soup - also a traditional staple of North Dakota dining. It's a sort of potato dumpling soup that features a rich cream sauce and chunks of chicken. Knoephla soup has been a favorite of generations of Upper Midwest residents whose ancestors from what is now Eastern Europe settled in the region starting back in the 1800's. This Knoephla was rich and hearty. It was a pretty cold day outside and it was a nice start to lunch.
I didn't really want to have an entree for lunch - they had a grilled bison hanger steak, a Norwegian salmon dish, and something called General's Chicken that was the chef's take on the Chinese/Hunan favorite General Tso's Chicken with crispy fried chicken, fried rice and a sweet and sour sauce. I ended up getting the Grass-Fed Beef burger topped with Swiss cheese, fried prosciutto, a fried egg and fresh greens, served on a lightly grilled artisan bun with a miso butter spread. The burger came with organic potato fries.
The burger was thick and meaty with a thick piece of Swiss cheese covering the top and sides of the burger. The fried egg is usually served over-easy, but I asked for mine to be over-hard because I didn't want to get too messy with the yoke. The burger was good, very good, to be exact. It was cooked to a perfect medium with a bit of pink in the middle. The Swiss cheese was flavorful and added a great taste to the burger. The bun was a little big for the burger, but it didn't overpower the overall taste of the burger.
And I have to say the fries were also very good. I would like to think they cooked them in duck fat because they had a distinctive taste, but I'm sure they just used a good oil in the cooking process. I didn't eat many of the fries because the burger was filling enough.
My dealer went with the fish and chips - a mixture of deep fried walleye filets and prawns served with red kuri winter squash and deep fried green beans, along with the same organic potato fries that I got. At first, he was a little confused because it didn't really look like it was fish and chips to him. But when he finally realized what was what on his plate, he was fine with it. It was served with a tartar sauce and a spicy Mexican-style crema sauce. My dealer liked what he had. The walleye filets looked meaty and the prawns were pretty good sized. It was a lot of food for lunch.
The food at the HoDo Lounge is definitely upscale for a lunch spot. With the lunch, a couple beers each and a tip, the bill came to about $80 bucks. Ouch! That's a pretty stiff bill. But I wanted to give it a try and while I was happy with the burger and my dealer was happy with his fish entree, I thought it was a little steep in price. Still, there's not a lot of restaurants - or hotels - like what you find at the Hotel Donaldson. I think the next visit to the HoDo Lounge will just be for drinks again.