Set against sweeping vistas of rolling pastures, rugged stone outcroppings and brilliant waters are the small towns and hidden spots that make the Minnesota-Wisconsin border a magical destination.
Twin Citians have long been drawn here for day or weekend trips to soak up the serenity, chasing discovery around every bend. But stroll on a main street looking for vintage deals and an ice cream cone, and you'll find the tiny downtowns we thought we knew so well are radically different.
And so is the food scene. There's a surprising new crop of places to eat and drink along the way, and even seasoned venues have awoken with new life since the pandemic, with energized management, fresh menus and inspired chefs.
Carrie Summer, co-owner of the Chef Shack, moved from the Twin Cities to open a fine dining establishment steps from the Mississippi River in Bay City, Wis. The eatery has been a constant in the area as the recent burst of new restaurants and bars have followed its path toward a slower-paced, work-life-balanced kind of hospitality.
"The pandemic didn't slow any of that down," Summer said. "If anything, the pandemic broke it all wide open for every kind of possibility for people to think outside the box."
From Scandia down the St. Croix river, around Lake Pepin and into Stockholm, we found families and friends building food and beverage businesses that reframe the way we think of eating and drinking in small towns.
Food truck operator Ryan Kilkelly moved home to Stillwater to be closer to family. Zach Hetrick, a distiller, built a cocktail room on his family's sixth-generation farm. And that's just a start.
Come taste your way through the unexpected gems waiting just up the road and down the way, in Minnesota and Wisconsin's river towns.
Sitting high above the St. Croix, you can't see the water from this ultra-charming — and ultra-Swedish — micro-downtown, with its mercantile, dala horses, Gammelgården Museum and 60-year-old tavern. But it feels a world away.
Rustic Roots Winery
The Sandager family bought the land in 2019 for a production facility and vineyard. Set on 80 handsome acres above the St. Croix River Valley, the winery opened in 2020. A wine pavilion was added last year. Working with both local and out-of-state grapes, Rustic Roots offers tastings from a dry rose to a sweet hard cider. For food, there's a small menu of flatbreads, a picnic of summer sausage and cheese, and, if you're fortunate enough to time your visit to his schedule, hot dogs from a vintage Airstream cart operated by the Sandagers' young son, Howie.
Marine on St. Croix
This little stop right on the river is filled with historic, white-painted buildings and an almost overwhelming amount of charm.
When Änna Hagstrom wanted to change careers, she found a former pizzeria in need of new life. Rather than settle for the expected, learning the doughy arts, she sought to create the bistro of her dreams. Working with locally sourced ingredients, the seasonal menu changes often and it's all prepared in the wood-fire oven in the wall of the building. The dining room sports a soaring roof, giving the small Scandinavian-designed room an airy quality. Large windows afford views of the little main street and the lazy small-town movement outside.
Short of hitting the North Shore, you won't find a more iconic — and postcard-perfect — Minnesota destination for travelers from the cities. Just a half hour from downtown Minneapolis, there are many reasons to grab a patio seat at any of the eateries alongside the St. Croix. But amble onto Main Street and you'll be blitzed by some 30 restaurants on only a few short blocks. While many longtime spots have had a refresh since the pandemic (the Dock and Mad Capper among them), there are many new surprises.
You & Me Cafe/The Wild Hare
"You and me and five bucks." That line from the '90s movie "Reality Bites" inspired this new coffee shop up the hill from Sarah and Dariush Moslemi's growing slate of Stillwater businesses. Since opening in April, You & Me Cafe has become a neighborhood daytime hang with specialty coffee drinks, pastries, sandwiches, a breakfast burger topped with jam, and flatbreads. Signature beverages are named Reality Bites, For Lainie, Before Sunset and Before Sunrise: a sweet mix of oat milk, espresso, cardamom, cinnamon and honey. Besides the cafe, the couple is behind yoga studios, a gothic candle shop, the Velveteen Speakeasy and the Wild Hare. The latter, which proclaims itself a dive with cleaner culinary sensibilities (lots of vegan and gluten-free options), is also devoted to 1990s popular culture, with a mural of album covers (Spice Girls, Jewel, etc.) and a regal painting of Patrick Swayze to boot.
The Good Egg
Ryan Kilkelly was working on getting his own food trailer in Portland, Ore., when the pandemic hit. Cue the major life decisions: he and his wife decided they wanted to raise their family in his hometown of Stillwater. They weren't the only ones. "You can feel it getting younger here," Kilkelly said from the window of his true-blue food trailer. This is the Good Egg's first season, but his thoughts on how to build the perfect egg sandwich have been brewing for much longer. Since everyone's pandemic hobby was sourdough, Kilkelly was determined to get properly fermented, tangy bread to toast as a stage for the eggs. A trip to a nearby market introduced him into the expert sourdough bread from Diamond City in Elk River. He adds runny, rich eggs and all manner of toppings: smoky bacon, ripe avocados, kicky arugula and more. There are a few tables nearby for enjoying the sandwiches — and a Main Street view.
Melt Pizza Co.
Earlier this year, Anthony Gilbert launched Melt as a popular pop-up in the former Lolito on the city's main strip. It has already become a destination for Detroit-style pizza, part of a growing national trend for cheesy-edged deep-dish square pies. "We are busier week after week," Gilbert says. But he's pushing past the implications of the name Melt by reaching into his grandmother's recipe box to share Filipino flavors, such as adobo wings and lumpia. "The Filipino flare to our menu is a significant part of my journey to getting to this point in my career," he says. He and his sister, also a partner in Melt, were partly raised by their grandmother, a Filipino immigrant who cooked all day long and encouraged Gilbert to open his own restaurant — and who died a month into the pandemic. "I reached a point in late 2020 when I decided I wanted to honor my grandmother by following the dream she had instilled on me for all those years," he said. (By the way, if you're wondering what happened to Lolito, fear not; it moved a couple blocks away.)
After quietly taking over longtime dive Whitey's a year ago, couple Caroline Smith (a musician) and Adam To (a chef) finally unveiled the new Howard's Bar this summer. They intentionally kept it infused with the nostalgia of a beloved, old bar. "The Chamber of Commerce and some of our lenders, being from Stillwater, gave us some very good advice: 'Don't upset the locals,' " says Caroline, who grew up at her mother's cafe in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and understands the importance of small-town eateries. So, "we threw our business plan out the window." Adam's background as a chef at both Twin Cities restaurants and Michelin-starred restaurants in California first gave him the idea to take things in a fine-dining direction, but he quickly refocused on making subtle improvements to a humble bar menu that leans supper clubby. "You can come get a sandwich or you can come get a steak, or there might be a fish special happening," Adam says. "But we go one notch past, in terms of what we offer" — like a full brunch, and a meticulous lasagna. "It's kind of a nice surprise when you come in and you're expecting something, and then you get something else."
45th Parallel Distillery
Behind the buildings of downtown's main drag, a copper still glints in the midday sun. When 45th Parallel Distillery opened in New Richmond, Wis., it was at the forefront of the local distillery movement. During the pandemic, a new arm of the distillery opened in a carved-out back room of an unrelated Main Street restaurant. The small bar has a rough-hewn top and a back lined with the spiritmaker's products. Manned by a distiller rather than a bartender, the cocktail room offers a short list of drinks built for sipping, and they come with a bonus: the chance to learn about the processes that brought them to our glasses. When the weather's just right, a cool breeze whisks through from the St. Croix River, making it an ideal place to sit and savor a smooth, local whiskey.
Forge and Foundry
This modern black-and-white taproom, which Andrew Mosiman and Christie Wanderer opened in 2020, offers cocktails that clearly delight in the flavors of the seasons, from an ersatz Dole whip in a pineapple-shaped glass to the Farmers Market, a savory drink made with oil-washed vodka, tomatoes and tarragon tincture. Originally from Stillwater, Mosiman dabbled in home brewing before he and Wanderer landed on opening a distillery. After studying the craft in Seattle, they came home, found name inspiration in the old Forge and Foundry munitions factory, and with locally sourced grains, got to work. Now locals and tourist come for the distillery tours, seasonal cocktails and roof deck views of the St. Croix.
Just over the bridge, downtown Hudson feels like another world — a quaint strip of antique stores and gift shops smattered with restaurants — or is it the other way around? For a town of this size to have so many new places to dine and drink is a feat. We dipped into as many as we could (including St. Croix Baking Co., Black Rooster Bistro, Bennett's Chop & Railhouse) and kept stumbling upon more. Here are some favorites.
Post American Eatery
Located in a former post office constructed in 1939, Post (like the Postmark Grille that operated here before it) emphasizes the history of its cavernous home, preserving the retail counter as a cutout between the bar area and the dining room, and using the postmaster's office as a private event space. A comprehensive menu digs into flatbread pizzas, pasta dishes, burgers and crowd-pleasing apps like calamari. As much as we love the sense of place conjured inside, the front patio has an unbeatable view of the St. Croix River.
A Twin Cities craft beer industry veteran, Brett Splinter headed east last fall to open his dream bar, an approachable dive with craveable grub and zero pretense. "The real reason I wanted to have a place like this is I want to [mess] you up with food and booze, and I mean that in the best way," Splinter said from behind the bar, where the only tap is Miller High Life. "I want you to leave here going, 'I'm happier than I could possibly be.' " Whether they walked in or drove a half-hour, and no matter where they fall on the political-cultural spectrum, customers have been clamoring for the refined cocktails and pours of rare whiskeys, the pull-tab machine, music on the inviting patio, Boomin Barbecue's caveman-sized long ribs and Splinter's Instagram-viral Private Sector burgers. And they're all getting along. "I'm not saying I want this to be a melting pot, but at the same time, it proves that I want everybody to have fun here. We're a fun bar."
Minneapolis' loss is Hudson's gain. This popular barbecue trailer packed up when the city began enforcing a regulation that shut down food trucks' exterior smokers. With Wisconsin's reputation for looser regulations on, well, most things, owner/chef Dylan Boerboom was able to pull into Nova Bar and start hosting pop-ups (they often sold out). Boerboom is now stationed in Nova's small kitchen, with just a window into the bar. But construction is underway to make it a more permanent home, which would allow it to expand its menu and hours. The barbecue Boerboom puts out (the smoked chicken thigh sandwich and the smoked Juicy Lucy are especially popular) has been recognized by the bible of great 'cue: Texas Monthly. And if it's worth a road trip across the country, it's worth the drive from Minneapolis.
The utterly endearing small city is home to a river three-fer: It's at the confluence of the Mississippi, Vermillion and St. Croix Rivers. Historic downtown buildings are a combination of substantive old stone and Victorian beauty. Main Street is dotted with small shops filled with friendly folks ready for weather-related chit-chat and recommendations on where to go while you're here.
Froth & Cork
It had an inauspicious launch, opening a day before the state-mandated COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020. But this cafe and wine bar definitely bounced back. There's usually a line snaking through the late-19th century red-brick stunner across from Hastings' city hall. The beautiful building feels more like a place for Victorian-era high tea than the candy-inspired coffee flights and breakfast toasties on the menu. And yet, the trendy lattes and wine selection keep the place buzzing, both on the main level and up a creaky flight of stairs, or outside on a dog-friendly, string-lit patio. There's even an out-of-the-way enclosed upstairs porch that makes a fun hideaway for kids.
The Quarry Taphouse
A watering hole where you can literally "knock a few back," this new construction-themed stone-throwing bar and restaurant on Hastings' historic main street is a new entry in the eatertainment realm. Rent a bucket of rocks, order a tasty Tattersall cocktail and some over-the-top snacks (bacon-wrapped pork belly, anyone?), and unleash any pent-up aggression. There's a target area at the back of the restaurant where you can toss those stones at metal objects that make a satisfying clang upon impact. A visit here is tastier than therapy, and certainly more fun. Plus, the pictures on the menu of diggers and bulldozers, and a coin-operated excavator you can operate yourself, make it a dream destination for your inner 5-year-old.
Taking Great River Road around Lake Pepin is a popular and stunning way to experience the tree-lined byways and small towns — with Old World charm and Midwestern hospitality — that spring up out of the bluffs. In Stockholm, we found a trifecta of new businesses with old bones, practically forming an artistic village with fresh energy. In Nelson, a sixth-generation family farm branches out into spirits.
Little Larke Bakery
The setting for Little Larke Bakery and its across-the-garden neighbor Hop Dish & Vine gastropub is impossibly charming. Wooden stairs lead from the sidewalk to a little lush valley of grass and wildflowers, set to the soundtrack of babbling water. The springs on the door creak a proper small-town greeting and a small case is filled with freshly baked breads, cinnamon rolls, muffins harboring seasonal fruit, jammy kolaches and more. Leigh Yakaites took the reins from longtime bakery Bogus Creek and put her own stamp on the goods. Her warm smile beams at neighbors and new visitors, happy to chat up all she's already made and sold out of that morning (get there early for the pick of the menu.) With no seats inside, grab a spot out on a secluded little deck with a bird house, where a little lark might just serenade you and your treat.
Hop, Dish & Vine
The afternoon and evening answer to Little Larke Bakery, this gastropub is an easy-going place for people and pooches who appreciate a good bite and a cold beer. There's a lot to love about the funky-friendly taps, cans and bottles list, and there are wine pours available, too. The menu isn't your usual pub deal; there's a local, grass-fed burger, and lots of fresh options for vegetarians and vegans. A popular stop for area musicians, the restaurant often hosts music nights that last as the sun goes down and the dangling bistro lights start to twinkle.
Humble Moon Saloon
Driving into Stockholm, this longtime bar — practically in the front yard of a nearby house — is the first business many visitors see. Fortunately for the homeowners, they also own the bar. Long known as a popular stop for motorcyclists, it has been reborn by two artists, Sarah Smith-Prokosch and Dan Prokosch, as a little bit of everything and mostly whatever they damn please. The two met and blended their families before buying the house and starting the Humble Moon Folkstead, which eventually led to them being bar owners. They make all the food — burgers, sandwiches, pancakes — and designed a cocktail menu stacked with refreshers and tasty N/A mixes. The saloon has a little grocery and gift shop off to one side, a bar made from iron forged by one of the owners that holds up the impressive selection of craft booze bottles, and little menus written out on small legal pads because the idea of bothering with printers wasn't appealing. In the evening, other new neighborhood restaurateurs gather for a beverage and a catch-up on the day's news, all of them living the creative small-town dream.
Township 23 Distillery
From where Zach Hetrick stands outside his distillery, he can see his family's six-generation farmland on both sides of the highway. This new barn-style distillery and taproom isn't just grain-to-glass, it's field-to-glass — growing the grain to make spirits right on the property. But it took a career in the city, and the pandemic, to get him there. Hetrick and his wife could live anywhere, thanks to their jobs going remote. He felt the pull of small-town family life, where his parents, uncles, cousins and grandparents have all worked the land, first as dairy farmers and then pivoting to organic grain. Making the move back to the homestead from the Twin Cities, Hetrick came up with an innovation to keep the family's land producing in a new way: distillation. "We wanted to create that magic for people outside of the city," said Hetrick. In a white barn on a hill with sweeping views of the land, the only product, for now, is a bright and round vodka, mixed expertly in fresh, fruity cocktails. But a seven-botanical gin is in the works, with a blend of aromatics growing just steps from the stills. "The reason why I'm doing this goes back to our story," Hetrick said. "It's literally right here."