My Wisconsin hometown is easy to miss — the real Eau Claire, that is. Take any of its three I-94 exits, 90 miles east of the Twin Cities, and you’ll find gas stations, fast-food joints, chain hotels, a shopping mall. Nothing too memorable.
But head a few miles into the core of this sprawling city of 68,000, to the rivers that gave it its identity and purpose, and you’ll find a thriving, active, happy place in the midst of a remarkable rejuvenation.
First settled in 1845 at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, the community was born as a bustling lumber town. In 1917, a huge tire factory began its rise along the Eau Claire River — it became the city’s top employer until it was shut down by Uniroyal in 1992. Today, part of the red brick plant has been converted to shops and offices.
But the nearby downtown is where vitality, commerce and appeal are building in dramatic fashion.
After a huge Phoenix Steel plant was razed in 1985, city officials met with citizens to determine the best use for the resulting brownfield.
A strong desire for a farmers market was fulfilled in 2005. It now attracts roughly 7,000 visitors a week in warmer months. An open-air concert space abuts the marketplace, as do biking/hiking trails, all part of the appropriately named Phoenix Park.
Apartment buildings, a coffee shop and restaurants have sprung up, buoyed by two major businesses that decided to locate there — JAMF Software and Royal Credit Union’s world headquarters.
Just across the Eau Claire River, ground will be broken this fall for a $45 million performing arts center, a shared project with the city and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, whose pretty campus lies just downstream.
But not all of Eau Claire’s attractions are found downtown. Let’s look around a bit.
Water Street district
The city’s nightlife epicenter is historic Water Street, just across the Chippewa River from the university, linked by a footbridge. In well-preserved 1880s storefronts, you’ll find bars, restaurants, gift shops, coffee emporiums and a bike shop, all within a few blocks.
You must visit the legendary Joynt (322 Water St., 1-715-835-6959), a bar that for years managed to attract big-name blues, folk and jazz artists to its tiny confines. Today the music comes only from a cool jukebox, but the hippie-era mojo remains in the form of celebrity photos, old beer cans and a neon sign that screams “NO LIGHT BEER.” Legend has it that Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s parents first met at the Joynt. I’d believe that.
Perhaps the opposite of the Joynt is Mona Lisa’s (428 Water St., 1-715-839-8969, monalisas.biz), often cited by locals as their favorite Eau Claire food/drink experience. Offering more than 20 wines by the glass and a rotating roster of specialty beers, it has a cozy atmosphere, an adventurous menu and a sweet patio.
At the western end of Water Street is a perfect example of Eau Claire’s down-home vibe. Ray’s Place (838 Water St., 1-715-832-3991) is the real deal, a time-capsule tavern with knotty pine paneling, friendly regulars in plaid flannel shirts, not-too-fancy beers and a limited food menu. Ray’s hot beef sandwiches, split pea and bean soups are outstanding and very affordable. Although they’re messy with gravy and melted cheese, sandwiches are served on a napkin and a square of waxed paper — who needs fancy-schmancy plates? Clear your sinuses with the horseradish-laced house mustard.
At Riverside Bike & Skate (937 Water St., 1-715-835-0088, riversidebikeskate.com), rent a kayak, canoe, bike or skates, the last of which can be put to use during open skating hours at the next-door Hobbs Municipal Ice Center.
Just around the bend is Carson Park, crown jewel of Eau Claire’s park system, a wooded, 130-acre peninsula that juts into an oxbow lake. Trails, playgrounds and picnic areas abound, but the park’s central feature is its sports complex — a football field where teams from the university and local high schools play, and a charming WPA-era ballpark where Hank Aaron, Joe Torre and Bob Uecker once played as part of the Milwaukee Braves’ farm team.
Today the stone-walled stadium is used by the Northwoods League’s Eau Claire Express (northwoodsleague.com/eau-claire-express), as well as amateur and high school baseballers.
Carson Park also is home to the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum (paulbunyancamp.org), the regional-history Chippewa Valley Museum (cvmuseum.com) and a half-mile miniature train ride (chippewavalleyrailroad.org) that operates in the summer.
Bike and hike
The city maintains about 30 miles of trails (visiteauclaire.com/things-to-do/trails), including several river crossings, plus 4 miles of mountain-biking trails in Pinehurst Park on the north side. In addition, the Chippewa River State Trail (pass required) offers a pleasant paved route out of the city and follows the river 30 miles to the southwest, where it connects with the crushed-limestone Red Cedar State Trail.
Food and drink
Besides Water Street’s copious consumption options, good eats are to be found downtown at Houligans (1-715-835-6621, houligans.net) and Ninja (1-715-598-7088, ninjaeauclaire.com), both on S. Barstow Street.
Just off Barstow is the country-themed Livery (316 Wisconsin St., 1-715-833-7666, theliveryec.com), a great place for a juicy burger and a frosty craft beer; its huge patio features a daily bonfire at dusk. Or tickle your Cajun taste buds at the funky/tasty Stella Blues (306 E. Madison St., 1-715-855-7777, stellablues.biz) on the north edge of downtown.
Cross the Madison Street bridge and check out the charming Czech-themed Lazy Monk Brewing taproom (97 W. Madison St., 1-715-271-0848, lazymonkbrewing.com), known for its Bohemian Pilsner and Dark Lager. A few blocks north in the up-and-coming Cannery District, the Brewing Projekt (2000 N. Oxford Ave., 1-715-214-3728, thebrewingprojekt.com) is making news both for its highly innovative brews and ambitious expansion plans.
Rest your weary head
Further embodying downtown Eau Claire’s resurgence are two hotels brought back from near-death thanks largely to two local champions: JAMF Software’s Zach Halmstad and indie-music star Justin Vernon.
Halmstad led an investment group that pumped $21 million into rebuilding an aging civic-center hotel now reborn as the Lismore Hotel (333 Gibson St., 1-715-835-8888, doubletree3.hilton.com). It offers 112 posh rooms, some of which have expansive views of the riverfront, and a rooftop bar.
On nearby Galloway Street, Vernon and other partners are working to rescue the former Green Tree Inn, rebranded as the Oxbow Hotel (theoxbowhotel.com), a 30-room boutique hotel that promises a locally sourced gourmet restaurant, bike and kayak rentals, and jazz-centric live music. Sadly, its opening will not come in time for this year’s Eaux Claires music fest (Aug. 12-13).