Sometimes life—like a great meal—just comes together perfectly.
Such was the case for Manger Restaurant and Wine Bar in Bayport. Chef Mike Willenbring had been feeling the itch for something new after years at Revé in Stillwater. He had dreams of starting his own restaurant. But he and his wife Nicole have two young kids, two dogs and a life that’s kept that dream squarely on the “someday” list. He gave his notice anyway, and he and Nicole left for France.
"Literally the day we got back, I got a call from the owners of L’etoile du Nord. They needed someone to take over the space,” Mike says. The little spot on Fifth Ave. in Bayport already had great bones. There was a warm, industrial feel and an open kitchen featuring a beautiful wood stone oven. The couple signed a lease, got the keys and opened their restaurant all within a month and built a brand around a streamlined menu of honest, farm-to-table cuisine.
Nicole, who has a business background, is from Stillwater and Mike is from Marine on St. Croix. They’ve known each other since they were 12, got married young, and at age 28, it felt crazy to go all-in on a venture like this, especially in such a small town. They’d have to make food good enough for people to drive for—and capitalize on cross-promotion with the handful of other local businesses. “We knew we’d regret it forever if we didn’t jump at this opportunity,” Nicole says.
The food is “new and unique, but holds true to the classic French style,” Mike says. “I love to highlight good protein—let it shine.” He focuses on composed entrees, with an intentional menu of options that change with the seasons. The spot is cozy, intimate—in the summer, it spills onto two patios—and is a lot like dining at a friend’s home, if only that friend were a chef with a bevy of creativity and access to the best local ingredients.
There’s pizza on the menu, and a killer burger. And a few “cheffy things,” Mike adds. “But we don’t want to turn people off because they can’t pronounce something. I just want to do things the right way. I want people to smell fresh food cooking and relax the moment they walk in.”
There’s always at least one hand-rolled pasta dish on the menu, with homemade sauce. There’s always at least one lamb dish. But from there, the Willenbrings let the seasons and their culinary whims sing—and they’ve made Manger their own.
Hassan and Dawn Sahouani of Hastings have known the spot for years—as L’Etoile du Nord and Bayport American Cookery before that. “We love the close proximity to other people—you can just pick up a conversation with others near you,” Dawn says. They enjoy the ever-changing menu, but what keeps them coming back is the convivial, laid-back atmosphere that makes dining at Manger so special.
“We walk in and people greet us by name. We feel like family,” Dawn says. “It’s a cool space—not stuffy. It just feels like such a treat to dine there. Where else do you get that kind of feeling?”
The Willenbrings share a deep commitment to sourcing quality ingredients as locally and sustainably as possible—which means the flavors on the menu change often. Here are a few of their favorite local vendors:
The Fish Guys Seafood – This Saint Louis Park-based company is meticulous about selecting sustainable fishing and farming partners around the world—and getting their goods to top area chefs, fast.
Gentleman Forager – When trying to eat locally, it’s essential to make the most of wild produce. Manger uses the St. Paul-based company to source native mushrooms, ramps, and other straight-from-the-ground specialty ingredients.
Goette Farms – Lamb is a staple on Manger’s list of imaginative entrees—and it comes from Bricelyn, Minnesota. “We have two cuts on the menu right now,” Mike says. “It’s a family-run company, and everything is hand-delivered. It’s a cool partnership we have with them.”
Peterson Craftsman Meats – Based in Osceola, Wis., this family-owned company has been in the St. Croix Valley for five generations. Look for their beef and pork on Manger’s menu—including in the fan favorite Manger Burger, or beef from Snake River Farms, which also supplies Manger with American Wagu beef.