Weekend tourists buzz past brick storefronts adorned with garlands and white twinkly lights. Some sip Daily Grind cappuccinos; others savor Leo’s Malt Shop ice cream — yes, even in the winter.
With its ample shopping and dining, the Main Street of Stillwater seems as busy as any major downtown this time of year. But the hustle and bustle nestled into the bluffs of the St. Croix River doesn’t feel harried.
Locals love their hometown and visitors say it feels like home, too — only better.
“Stillwater feels like it’s part of our neighborhood,” said Sally Leighninger, a St. Paul resident who spent a recent evening along Main Street.
It’s the type of place you can’t visit without uttering the phrase “historic charm.” There, now that that’s out of the way, here are the best ways to cozy up to this wintry river town.
A meal worth the climb
Before heading into downtown, start the day “up the hill” at Chilkoot Café and Cyclery. Locals love it. Cyclists loathe it — the hill, that is. At 24 percent grade, the nearby Chilkoot Hill is said to be the steepest in North American bicycle racing. Inside the cafe, order your breakfast, lunch or dinner from the counter while staring into a giant glass case of baked goods. Suggestion: Start your meal with dessert (cherry pie, $3.50). From the four spots at the counter, you also get a close-up view of the in-house coffee roasting operation. The red latte is a must. It’s actually a tea made with a rooibos shot, steamed milk, honey and cinnamon. Tastes like Christmas. (826 4th St. S., 651-342-0429)
From Black Friday to New Year’s Eve, Stillwater’s Main Street is alive with lights, shopping and holiday traditions. Highlights: costumed Victorian carolers every Friday evening; horse-drawn wagon rides Saturday afternoons (through Dec. 20); BierCycle (a bar on a bike) caroling tours Saturday afternoons; Victorian teas at the Lowell Inn; the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Trinity Lutheran Church (Sunday).
And then there’s Käthe Wohlfahrt of America, a must stop for holiday ornaments and whatchamacallits. Handcrafted gifts and collectibles made in Germany include tiny angels to cuckoo clocks. (129 Main St. S., 651-275-1236)
The perfect gift
In search of one-stop Christmas shopping? Main Street has it. A few favorites are Mama Luna Apothecary (natural baby products, handmade gifts), Tremblay’s Sweet Shop (local candy and fudge), Stillwater Olive Oil Co. (vinegar and oil), Cooks of Crocus Hill (high-end culinary) and Alfresco (home decor, gifts, toys).
Once the shopping is done, head to Mara-Mi (201 Main St. S., 651-689-1730), a design wonderland. Is it a gift shop? Stationery store? Bakery? The answer is yes. “A lot of people come in regularly just for the coffee,” said clerk Kimberly Blomquist. “It’s really strong, and it’s really good.” The shop brews the hard-to-find Lavazza, commonly known as “Italy’s favorite coffee.” Pastries are made in-house, and the selection changes every few months. This month’s cupcake flavors include egg nog, peppermint white chocolate, hot cocoa and gingerbread.
Cheese, wine and dine
After vacationing in London, Chris Kohtz decided to leave a 26-year career in radio to bring a little bit of Europe to the St. Croix valley. The Wedge & Wheel (308 Chestnut St. E., 651-342-1687) is a cut-to-order cheese shop and bar that offers an ever-changing selection of artisan American cheeses — many local — and imported favorites. Kohtz loves to tell where each comes from. “We bring in this one from a young couple in Tennessee called Shakerag Blue,” he said, pointing out a big-flavored blue cheese wrapped in whiskey-soaked fig leaves. “It’s inventive and creative and delicious, and they’re just two young farmers trying to make a go of it.”
Take some cheese home or enjoy a flight of cheeses, charcuterie (from Red Table Meat Co. in northeast Minneapolis) and a glass of wine or beer in the shop’s bright, modern space. Whether your palate is adventurous or more of the Wisconsin cheese curd variety, the Wedge & Wheel should have you covered.
What’s old is new
For those on an antique binge, Midtown Antique Mall (301 Main St. S., 651-430-0808) is often the first stop of many (Stillwater boasts 15-plus antique shops). Set aside a few hours. After 15 years the shop has grown to 30,000 square feet on three levels with more than 100 dealers. “The third floor is full of awesome furniture pieces,” said Erin Callahan, 35, a resident of St. Paul. “I don’t care for glassware and china, and it seems this place doesn’t devote as much of their space to that.”
A ‘Cheers’ for knitters
If you’re a knitter, know a knitter or want to be a knitter (all the cool kids are into needle arts these days), then you have to check out Darn Knit Anyway (423 S. Main St., 651-342-1386). Perusing the aisles of alpaca, merino blends and Italian organic linen, you can’t help but warm up and wonder what other puns the owners might have pondered when naming the store. The Knitty Gritty? Knifty Knitters? Knit Pick?
But this place is more than a yarn shop. “It’s like a ‘Cheers’ place,” said Kim Mischler of Woodbury, who learned to knit last year through the shop’s Knitters 101 class. “Everyone knows your name.” While the store is a source for hard-to-find yarns, craft accessories and gifts, it’s also a meeting spot for a thriving crafting community. A group called the River Knitters has its weekly meetup in the back of the store. Volunteers also gather to knit blankets for critically ill children. A volunteer’s shirt read: “There is no knitters anonymous because no one wants to quit.”
Stillwater might not be the first place you think of when you want to shop for a stylish new outfit, but that could be changing. There is a renewed excitement thanks to such shops as Enchanté (224 Chestnut St. E., 651-439-7232), which offers styling services and trendy fashions. “We finally have shopping — and girlie stuff!” said Gwendolyn Marty, a Realtor. “I’m so sick of antique shops I could die.”
A local favorite: Collaborations Boutique (129 Main St. S., 651-430-9100), a sort-of-hidden gem on the second floor above Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop. You’ll find contemporary women’s apparel from Miss Me, Ya, Billabong and Bobi as well as leggings by Lysse, jeans by Big Star, jewelry by Liquid Metal and shoes by Minnetonka Moccasins.
If these walls could talk
With the construction of the new St. Croix Bridge and the resulting road closures, Phil’s Tara Hideaway (15021 60th St. N., 651-439-9850) is a Minnesota classic that could easily be missed. The Tara is part contemporary Greek-Mediterranean cookery, part chef-driven American chophouse. It’s hard to decide which is more interesting — the food or the log cabin’s Old World feel. The gyro melt is piled with 2 inches of thick-cut lamb, cheddar, swiss, fried onion and tzatziki sauce on rye.
Originally built in 1929, the restaurant was recognized as a historic landmark in 2008. Suspected bootlegging and gangster activities have long been part of the Tara’s lore. The Ma Barker Gang, John Dillinger and Al Capone are all rumored to have eluded authorities by taking refuge here. The menu reads: “Today the gangsters are gone, but a small part of their history lives on inside these walls.” If there’s any doubt that the Tara is quintessentially Minnesotan, a sign on the door during a recent visit said it all: “We will be closed … for interior remodeling. We swear it has nothing to do with the Vikings-Packer game.”
Take the stairs
Stillwater’s prime location in the St. Croix River valley means there are plenty of hiking trails with impressive vistas. Rent cross-country skis or snowshoes from outdoor gear store 45 Degrees (229 Main St. S., 651-430-3609) and head to a nearby state park or trail.
Or if you just want to take in the view in your tennis shoes, climb the “Stillwater stairs.” There are a few sets to choose from, but the stairs leading from Main Street to S. Broadway are the lengthiest. If climbing 157 steps (!) doesn’t entice you, you can drive to the top. Park your car and walk east on Pine (toward the river) to Broadway, turn left to the dead end and take in an iconic Americana view.
Get your foodie fix
Go the extra mile past the chain restaurants that dot Hwy. 36 and you will be rewarded. “Stillwater has become kind of a foodie town,” said resident Rebekah Chapman. “It’s a very affluent area, a quaint little town, and the people like their good food.” Domacin Restaurant and Wine Bar (102 S. 2nd St., 651-439-1352) was featured in Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of America’s 25 Best Wine Bars. Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque (423 Main St. S., 651-439-5375) was lauded by Guy Fieri on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
LoLo American Kitchen and Craft Bar (233 Main St. S., 651-342-2461) is another highlight. Its open kitchen lets diners interact with the chef while he prepares his street-food variations on Korean-style beef tacos, duck bacon and crab tater tots. The name LoLo commonly refers to streetside food stands in the Caribbean. For the owners, it also means that the restaurant is “locally owned, locally operated.” It’s a moniker that could epitomize all of Main Street.
Aimee Blanchette • 612-673-1715