The average ticket price between Memorial Day and Labor Day for flights departing Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is $518.
That staycation suddenly becomes exponentially more attractive, doesn’t it?
Particularly when one of the Midwest’s great getaways lies just 25 miles east of downtown Minneapolis.
It’s the St. Croix River, and whether it’s the dramatic basaltic rock cliffs south of Taylors Falls, Minn., or the wooded gorges north of Prescott, Wis., the scenery is one restorative vista after the next.
For day trippers, the other good news is that the necklace of towns that ring Lower St. Croix are dotted with food and drink opportunities, including a top-rated wine bar, picturesque U-pick farms, a fanatic-worthy cheese shop and a world-class drive-in. That’s just for starters.
Your mini-vacation starts now.
A berry good time
The closest brush with agriculture for most Twin Citians is thumbing through the Mills Fleet Farm weekly ad. That is, until those few precious early summer weeks when thousands of city slickers make their annual pilgrimage to U-pick strawberry farms — including the St. Croix Valley’s Afton Apple Orchard, Natura Farm, Pleasant Valley Orchard and Demulling Farms — and happily risk mud, insects and sunburn to fill boxes with plump, juicy, fragrant and vividly red berries. One taste of a just-picked, locally raised strawberry, and their California- or Florida-grown counterparts will forever be second-best. (Find a showstopping strawberry cake recipe on page T6).
Raise your glass
When Lift Bridge Brewing Co. opened the metro area’s first taproom back in November 2011, it sparked a trend that is showing no signs of slowing down. Lined with timbered picnic tables, the knotty-pine refuge is the place for a taste of the brewery’s now-iconic Farm Girl Saison, but take advantage of the proximity to beer-brewing genius and tap into the ever-changing array of quirky, limited release batches, best accessed through four- and six-pour flights ($7 and $10). The root beer? Off-the-charts.
Taste of the past
The nostalgia emanating from Selma’s Ice Cream Parlour is so powerful that it practically forces passersby to slam on the brakes (the chalkboard sign on the front porch that read, “Keep calm and berry on” — a shout-out to strawberry floats, malts and sundaes — was another potent incentive) and check out the beyond-quaint landmark, now well into its second century. The scent of fresh-pressed waffle cones floats in the air, and a platoon of cheery teenagers work the scoop case. The ice cream isn’t made on the premises, although the powers that be have the good sense to import Mint Avalanche, Raspberry Rhapsody and 30 other flavors from the Chocolate Shoppe, a premium producer in Madison, Wis. Try the chocolate-dipped cone.
Stillwater, the rapid-fire round
The St. Croix’s day tripping epicenter is packed with dining and drinking options. Here’s a quick guide.
Patio, sunshine: Soak up rays and river views at the seemingly vast acreage outside the Freight House (runner up: P.D. Pappy’s).
Patio, shaded: Take refuge at the leafy riverside terrace at the Dock Cafe.
Patio, rooftop: Enjoy St. Croix views from the semi-hidden terrace above the Green Room.
Picnic supply: Scour the aisles, deli and bakery at River Market Community Co-op.
Pizza: Select from a long list of ingredients, then let the wood-burning oven at QuickFire Pizza work its magic, in a flash.
Old school: Start with a 1932 log cabin-style landmark with a rumored bootlegger past, insert Greek favorites into a classic steaks-and-chops format and the result is the beloved Phil’s Tara Hideway.
Where locals eat: In the hills above downtown, residents meet and greet over casual counter-service meals (including dessert, a must) at Chilkoot Cafe and Cyclery.
Walking-around snack: Stillwater strolls are best fortified with a bag of Candyland sea salt caramel corn.
Burger: Whitey’s Bar is the place for a nothing-fancy, always satisfying version.
Easy breakfast: See Whitey’s Bar, above, for a no-nonsense weekend meal, served 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Take the kids: Diners of all ages will appreciate the sturdy short-order fare and retro surroundings at Oasis Cafe (and drivers will applaud the handy parking lot, a Stillwater rarity).
Coffeehouse: Located in a century-old grain elevator, Tin Bins, the Dock Cafe’s year-old sibling, starts the day as a coffee destination, then blossoms into a something-for-everyone cafe and bar.
One-of-a-kind setting: Nothing comes close to matching the hand-carved Swiss splendor of the Matterhorn Dining Room (and its all-fondue menu) at the Lowell Inn, although the hotel’s old-moneyed George Washington Room is a lovely spot for a four-course ($15) Saturday afternoon tea.
The primary roadways that skirt either side of the St. Croix have their own distinct personalities. Minnesota’s Hwy. 95 boasts the scenery, in spades. But given its string of Dairy Queen outlets — five of them are sprinkled along the 50-mile stretch between St. Croix Falls and Prescott — Wisconsin’s Hwy. 35 could (and maybe should) be christened Dilly Bar Drive. And yes, thank goodness, we are currently in the middle of S’mores Blizzard season.
Summer and smoke
All noses lead to the Stillwater treasure that is Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar, where chef Shawn Smalley deftly uses pimento wood smokiness to transform pork, chicken, shoulder, beef brisket, shrimp and link sausages, then funnels the results into sandwiches, tacos, straight-up plates and combo platters. Like-minded starters include conch-sweet corn fritters, delicate fried green tomatoes and flatbreads topped with curried goat. The bar has a firm grasp on rum cocktails but also has a way with alcohol-free libations, someone clearly has a knack for unearthing off-the-beaten-path beers and the pair of patios makes for a twice-as-nice summer venue.
Sweets and savories
At Bread Art, bakers/co-owners Chris and Heather Peterson take an admirably wide approach to the neighborhood bakery, conjuring homespun classics (banana bread, layered carrot cakes, cream cheese brownies), a seemingly limitless breads selection (sturdy whole wheat-rye-wild rice boules; a sculpted, rosemary-topped fougasse) and eye-catching laminated dough creations, including a maple-pecan croissant that is almost illicitly delicious. There’s a savory side, most notably on Friday and Saturday mornings, when the Petersons keep their ovens busy with a concoction they call “piazzas,” a kind of handmade Hot Pocket (but approximately 1,000 times better) that’s filled with pizza-esque ingredients or styled as a breakfast sandwich. Soups and sandwiches, too, and a small ice cream scoop case is filled with a handful of flavors from HomeTown Creamery in nearby North St. Paul.
Fresh face on Main Street
Newcomer LoLo’s American Kitchen boasts the kind of convivial surroundings that automatically provoke happy thoughts, particularly if you’ve lucked into the best seats in the house, the ones lining the kitchen counter. Chef/co-owner Brad Nordeen’s re-imagined street food is one welcome surprise after another — tacos stuffed with miso- and Sriracha-marinated aged hanger steak, superb burgers, an artery-clogging bacon-wrapped hot dog — and the bar’s collective prowess makes it Stillwater’s No. 1 cocktail destination. The fizzy house-made sodas include what is easily Minnesota’s most refreshing root beer. As for the name, it’s shorthand from Nordeen and co-owner Joe Ehlenz for locally owned, locally operated.
Wine and dine
The St. Croix Valley’s most accomplished cooking is found at Domacin Restaurant and Winebar, where chef Jeffrey Lundmark works at a level commensurate with the wine cellar’s discerning, around-the-world inventory. The eclectic offerings, frequently bearing a Mediterranean slant, swing from wine-friendly snacks to full-on entrees, and the kitchen gives visitors a reason to hang around Sunday evenings, with a bargain-priced ($30) tasting menu (and $15 wine pairings). The soothing, anti-tourist trap surroundings and real-deal wine service are definite pluses. Friday and Saturday are bonus days for patrons of the adjacent retail shop, when complimentary tastings are offered from noon until 10 p.m.
Living the dairy dream
A serendipitous visit to a London cheese shop nudged radio executive Chris Kohtz into a midlife career change. He’s now the proud (and hospitable) owner of the Wedge & Wheel, a destination cheese shop/cheese bar. Kohtz fills his case with a highly edited blend of regional, American and European names representing the Cheese 101 spectrum, ranging from soft, young styles to heavily marbled blues and aged Cheddars and Goudas. Kohtz and his conversation-friendly cheesemongers are big believers in the power of sampling, and the spare storefront cafe is tailor-made for lingering over cheese samplers and cheese-centric sandwiches and salads, all knowledgeably paired with well-curated wines and beers. “I love the customer interaction,” said Kohtz. “And I love that I’m my own boss.”
Lights, camera, baking
Due to her perch in the front window at stylish Mara-Mi, Corrie Swanson is perhaps Stillwater’s most visible gastronaut. In that watch-me-work kitchen, the pastry chef spends her mornings routing pound after pound of Minnesota-made Hope Butter into crumbly scones, wicked mini pecan-topped caramel rolls and dense coffee cakes, then turns her attention to cupcakes of distinction (her devil’s food spin on the s’more is a bestseller for a reason). Swanson also finds inspiration in the shop’s small selection of Izzy’s ice creams; right now she’s doing the sundae proud by crowning vanilla ice cream with a tangy strawberry-rhubarb compote and crunchy granola.
Stillwater’s best-kept lunch secret has to be the Thursday and Friday noon-hour gatherings around the roomy counter at Cooks of Crocus Hill, where instructor Wade Gregory demonstrates a pair of seasonal recipes, then shares the tasty results. The 60 minutes fly by, and diners/students not only enjoy a fun meal but also walk away with a veritable treasure trove of cooking tips, from the differences between julienne and batonnet to the benefits of slipping parsley into basil pesto. It’s totally worth the $18, and while reservations are recommended, walk-ins are welcome. Another perk: Participants receive a 15 percent one-day-only discount that covers most of the store. (For last week’s Cooks of Crocus Hill recipes, go to page T6.)
The wizard of aaaaaahs
There’s a true artist at work at the St. Croix Chocolate Co. She’s Robyn Dochterman, a former journalist who channels all the Fourth Estate’s trademark persnicketyness into her museum-quality creations. Half the fun of visiting this House of Supreme Temptations is watching Dochterman in action, whether she’s utilizing impressive-looking imported appliances (“I had to learn to speak Italian so that I could talk to them,” she said with a laugh) or relying upon her hands and know-how as she crafts genre-defining sweets from superior — and frequently local and hand-picked — ingredients. Do not, under any circumstances, leave without a cache of the curvaceous strawberry-balsamic chocolates, or Dochterman’s sublime dark-chocolate version of the turtle. Oh, and the enthusiastic smile behind the counter? It belongs to Dochterman’s spouse and business partner, Deidre Pope.
Also in Marine on St. Croix
The spiritual heart of the Cutest Town That Ever Lived is the Marine General Store, the kind of folksy but well-stocked outfit that picnic provisions-seeking weekenders hope to encounter but rarely do; there’s an adorable ice cream shop out back. A few doors to the north, bicyclists climb off their two-wheelers and caffeinate at Marine Cafe, where the kitchen also whips up creamy quiches, well-stuffed strata and a hearty granola; on weekends, expect such rib-stickers as corned beef hash topped with a pair of eggs. And at the aptly named Brookside Bar & Grill, take a seat at the water’s-edge patio for roadhouse burgers-and-pizza fare.
St. Croix secret
Diners wanting to experience the St. Croix in its most picturesque state should set their GPS to Marine Landing b.o.t.m. Surrounded by a small marina, the restaurant’s sunny deck offers nearly 360-degree vistas of the wooded gorgeousness — and cool breezes — that epitomize this federally protected waterway. The food is your basic greasy-spoon fare: two eggs any style with toast, crispy malted waffles heaped with strawberries, burgers and hot dogs, a stacked-to-the-stars BLT, all lovingly prepared. It’s staffed by the nicest people, who could easily double their bargain prices, that’s how high the setting rates on the enchanting-o-meter.
Celebrating car culture
The Drive-In certainly earns full marks for authenticity, right down to the poodle-skirted carhops (if they were wearing roller skates, the place could serve as a location for a “Grease” remake). The moderately priced menu covers all the fast-food basics — burgers crafted from obviously fresh beef patties, grilled sandwiches, corn dogs, crinkle-cut fries, onion rings — and features a few State Fair-esque battered and deep-fried delicacies. Like any self-respecting drive-in — particularly one that uses a gigantic rotating foam-topped mug as its calling card — the root beer, with its deep caramel and vanilla flavors, is made on the premises. It’s good, clean (literally, as the place is spotless) family fun. Burn off any car-trip antsiness with a few rounds of mini-golf.
Stumbling upon chef Jeff Halverson’s big-city cooking on the main thoroughfare of tiny Taylors Falls is a chief delight of Tangled Up in Blue. There could be firm, snowy white mahi mahi, blanketed in a colorful avocado-mango salsa and paired with a creamy mushroom risotto, or maybe succulent wild-caught salmon baked in pepper-coated puff pastry, or a spicy-for-Minnesota jambalaya brimming with shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage. Portions are startlingly generous, and spouse Kathleen Halverson’s vivacious manner keeps the front of the house humming. It goes without saying that every shade of blue is represented in the snug dining room, and no, the restaurant’s Bob Dylan-esque name wasn’t the Halversons’ idea; it’s a holdover from a previous owner.
Meanwhile, across the river
The Halversons recently returned to their status as a two-restaurant couple. After losing the tenant (Grecco’s on the St. Croix) in their across-the-river property last year, the couple decided to leave the landlord business and become operators. They quietly opened the Bistro on the St. Croix last month, adapting a casual lunch and dinner format. The treetops-level deck, within earshot of water raging over a nearby dam, is particularly pleasant. Just down the street, a sandwich board touting vegetarian and vegan fare is not exactly what the unsuspecting day tripper might expect to stumble across in rural Wisconsin. But there it is, the Vegetarian, the Bedi family’s modest remake of their former northeast Minneapolis restaurant of the same name and a source for a lengthy and affordable (and frequently gluten-free) list of Indian standards.
Star of the prairie
The fish are pretty much always biting at Star Prairie Trout Farm — supplier to some of the Twin Cities’ top restaurants — and every aspect of the operation is designed to make trout-fishing a hassle-free experience. A no-license/no-limit rule applies at the farm’s pristine, spring-water ponds. Rods, reels, nets and buckets are supplied free of charge (don’t forget a cooler); visitors purchase bait ($3). Expect to pay $7.50 to $9 per pound for your catch, with reasonable per-fish fees ($2 to $3) for cleaning and filleting. The picturesque, picnic-ready grounds make renting a grill, charcoal and utensils a no-brainer. Don’t leave without stocking up on the sublime smoked trout — truly one of Wisconsin’s great farmstead products — and a package or two of the trout dip mix.
Naples on the St. Croix
It’s difficult to imagine visiting Hudson and not diving into a hot-from-the-oven house specialty at Bricks Neapolitan Pizza. Twin Cities pizza fanatics — particularly those well-acquainted with the specifics at Punch Neapolitan Pizza — will immediately recognize all the right signs: a wood-burning (and yes, brick) pizza oven that yields blistered, chewy crusts, a fealty to time-honored techniques and a dedication to following ingredients protocol, right down to the sauce’s crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Follow the menu’s suggested variations — brightly seasoned house-made sausage with roasted red peppers and basil, or asparagus, red onion and pine nuts — or select from nearly 30 design-your-own toppings. The daily early bird special, available 4 to 6 p.m., is a doozy: a free glass of wine or a small salad with the purchase of any pizza.
Hudson at a glance
The gift-shop-per-capita ratio may be the Midwest’s highest, but downtown Hudson also sports plenty of dining options.
Nova Wine Bar doesn’t have a sexy river-view address, but its real estate shortcomings are outweighed by a parade of easygoing (and shareable) plates, an over-the-top beef-bacon burger, a handful of appealing $20-and-under dinner entrees, a fine by-the-glass wine list and a sweet patio.
The sprawling patio at Pier Five Hundred draws crowds for its riverfront views, outdoor bar and reliable, All-American fare.
For a more dialed-down open-air experience, consider the back-yard patio at San Pedro Cafe, a snug and romantic platform for enjoying the kitchen’s lively Caribbean-inspired cooking, much of it pulled from a busy wood-burning oven.
For a polar-opposite meal, tuck into sausages (made at nearby RJ’s Meats), a half-dozen pork schnitzels and other Germanic specialties at basement-level Winzer Stube (the three-course dinner, served Monday through Thursday evenings, is a steal at $15).
Nothing against the dizzying variety of chocolate temptations (including a buttery, don’t-miss toffee) made on the premises at aromatic Knoke’s Chocolates, but here’s a little secret: Pastry chef Erin Nelson’s expertly prepared pies (sold whole or often by the slice) really take the cake.