Lavender lattes, Liège waffles and kombucha on tap are all on the menu at Shift Cyclery & Coffee Bar (1-715-514-5060; eaushift.com), a hip spot fashioned from a crumbling auto shop. As mechanics grease chains and adjust brakes, customers can watch and chat, or peruse the shop’s Retrospec and Kona bikes. Artisan products, such as cycle-themed greeting cards and Askinosie chocolates, are also available.
“This is a lifestyle place for people who like coffee and cycling,” says Shift co-owner Aaron Salmon, who opened the spot in March with three others. The vibe they’re aiming for, he says, is “very upscale but not full of itself, organic, bright, natural and a little raw.”
Sounds like some hipster joint in Minneapolis or Portland, but it’s just one of the latest businesses to open in Eau Claire, Wis., a city that is continuing its eyebrow-raising renaissance.
The city of 68,000 already has a reputation for music, thanks in large part to native son Justin Vernon of the indie-rock group Bon Iver and his popular Eaux Claires music festival (July 6-7). But it’s also turning heads for its vibrant arts scene. The biggest game-changer is the Pablo Center at the Confluence, the new art center for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Created in collaboration with the city, it’s set to open later this year. Yet there are numerous other contributing players.
Take Tangled Up in Hue (1-715-855-0090; tangledupinhue.com), on increasingly trendy Barstow Street downtown. The work of some 150 local artists is sold here — an exciting mélange of painting, pottery, woodwork, textiles and jewelry, like Wisconsin-foraged birchbark earrings.
Owner Erin Roesler says she often fields comments from customers who compare her shop to ones in cities such as San Francisco or New York. Roesler and business partner Jamie Kyser are also the forces behind Eau Claire’s Artist Market (tangledupinhue.com/artist-market), an annual event for local creators that runs Saturdays from late May through mid-September, concurrently with the popular producers-only Farmers Market (ecdowntownfarmersmarket.com). Both events are held at Phoenix Park, a nine-acre patch of green space that hugs the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in the heart of downtown.
Art crawls and tours
Another sign of a thriving arts scene is the Final Fridays Studio Crawl sponsored by Artisan Forge Studios (artisanforgestudios.com). On the last Friday of each month, the public is welcome to wander throughout the facility for a meet-and-greet with its 25-plus creators, who sell everything from jewelry and prints to metal sculptures and wooden ducks.
And then there’s Sculpture Tour Eau Claire (sculpturetour.org). For eight years, the nonprofit has been placing a new collection of several dozen sculptures in frequented areas of the city each May. The sculptures, which are for sale, are created by artists from around the region, the country and the world. Walking-tour brochures are affixed to lightposts, along with ballots; everyone is encouraged to vote for their favorite. The winning sculpture is announced in October, when Sculpture Tour Eau Claire purchases the piece and gives it to the city.
“The creative economy is thriving here and the young people are driving it,” says Julie Pangallo, the tour’s director. “It’s so exciting to see.”
Banbury Place, a sprawling multiuse complex, was birthed more than 20 years ago from the city’s soot-stained Uniroyal tire factory. Lately, a flurry of makers is setting up shop in the redbrick facility’s Building 13 — places like Becki’s Mediterranean Olive Salsa (1-715-225-0289; beckisolivesalsa.com), Claymore Pottery (1-715-839-8709) and Forage (forageeauclaire.com), a culinary incubator, commercial kitchen and event space. Check Forage’s events calendar if you’re coming to town; you might be able to take advantage of a wine-pairing dinner, crêpe-making class or pop-up restaurant serving Venezuelan arepas.
Around the Banbury complex’s back side, in Building 6, is the Mural Art Gallery (1-715-836-6828), where an eclectic collection of large, brightly colored murals graces the hallways. The 4- by 8-foot paintings were created more than a decade ago to cover broken windows in a decrepit downtown structure. When the building was later purchased for redevelopment, the artwork was moved to this specially created gallery.
Food, drink, shops
Strides are being made in Eau Claire’s culinary arts and shopping scene, too. A block west of Banbury Place, the Local Store (1-715-552-0457; localstore.org) celebrates Eau Claire and Wisconsin by featuring unique products produced by, or relating to, the community and state. So you can find cherry bark vanilla-flavored bitters here, bitters being an integral ingredient in an Old-Fashioned, the state’s signature cocktail.
Over at Red’s Mercantile (1-715-271-3065; redsmercantile.com), you’ll find a carefully curated collection of made-in-America modern home goods and accessories, with a focus on women, clothing and apothecary. The boutique also hosts poetry readings, shows and workshops on crafting clay bowls or eucalyptus wreaths.
Foodies will appreciate options like the Lakely (1-715-839-0601; thelakely.com) and the Nucleus (1-715-834-7777; nucleuscafe.com). The Lakely, located at the boutique Oxbow hotel, has won accolades for its Midwest-centric menu, craft cocktails and local brews. This is the spot where you’ll enjoy dishes like fried native-harvested wild rice cakes with cauliflower roasted garlic ragout and tomato cherry sauce, plus cocktails like the Koldt Vintner, a concoction of Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, lemon juice, simple syrup, horseradish and lemon peel. The Nucleus is the place to grab lemon ricotta hotcakes, hash brown scramblers and Cajun crab omelets.
Craft beer fans are cheering places like the Brewing Projekt. (1-715-214-3728; thebrewingprojekt.com). Opened in 2015, it quickly outgrew its digs thanks to carefully crafted beverages such as the Stole Mile, a session golden ale brewed with basil, lemongrass and fresh lemon zest. Its new riverfront site includes outdoor space for relaxing and noshing on eats from various food trucks stationed nearby.
Where to stay
The Lismore Hotel is in the heart of downtown Eau Claire, just a few blocks from Phoenix Park and the Farmers Market. Besides 112 industrial-chic rooms, it’s home to the elegant rooftop Dive Bar and the Informalist restaurant (1-715-835-8888; doubletree3.hilton.com).
Eau Claire is 90 minutes east of the Twin Cities via Interstate 94.
Melanie Radzicki McManus wrote “Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail.” She lives near Madison, Wis. (melaniemcmanus.com).