Looking for a day outside the city? Take the short drive to this riverside town for a gentler, quieter vibe.
By Lauren Cutshall
Main Street, U.S.A. is epitomized in the street heading into historic downtown Stillwater. An iconic mural advertisement for Wrigley’s Spearmint gum adds a colorful panel to a weathered brick wall. Steep hillsides and narrow roads highlight the massive St. Croix river running just behind the old-town street. A tight path of storefronts line Main Street on both sides, a welcome sight for people of every age.
Locals may reference small-town Stillwater, MN as being “in the valley,” but it’s really nestled alongside the St. Croix River, not far from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Downtown Minneapolis may be known for its skyways and bustling city life, but a mere 25-mile drive east to Stillwater rivals an experience in small-town New York, with rolling hills and rocky bluffs.
Though there’s enough to do in the small city to stay for a weekend, you can easily see all Stillwater has to offer in a day, spending your morning perusing antique shops and your afternoon eating at one of the many restaurants on Main Street. With only 20,000 people living in town, you can take a walk through quiet neighborhoods or spend your time outside by the river; either way, you’ll be pleased to find a charming and historical vibe such a short drive from the Minneapple.
Over the past few years, Stillwater has gained statewide attention for its growing food scene. With new restaurants opening alongside specialty food stores—Stillwater Olive Oil, anyone?—this city is outpacing many of its local counterparts.
“It’s becoming a very good food city in general,” says Chris Kohtz, owner of local cheese shop The Wedge and Wheel. Chris says four or five new restaurants have opened since he opened his own in early 2014—and he doesn’t see it stopping anytime soon.
The Wedge and Wheel is a small shop just off of Stillwater’s Main Street, offering a variety of local and international cheeses. In opening his shop, Chris says that his inspiration came from the “old world” British cheese shops he familiarized himself with on his trips to the United Kingdom.
“Unless you grew up in New York City, you didn’t grow up with an old world cheese shop,” Chris says. While names like “Cloud Cap” and “Good Thunder,” can be intimidating at first, Chris says it’s all about being open to new things and taking note of the types of cheeses you tend to like—soft, hard, or someplace in between. And, if you’re at a total loss, just ask. Chris loves to talk about cheese.
In another foodie niche, there’s a market for mid-level dining and LOLO American Kitchen is taking full advantage of it. LOLO—which stands for “Locally Owned, Locally Operated”—is one of the newer and most popular restaurants along Main Street.
Head chef and co-owner Brad Nordeen says the LOLO theory came out of a desire to balance a fine dining experience with the approachable menu of casual restaurants.
“Our whole concept was a gourmet interpretation of American street food, in a contemporary way,” Brad says.
Serving lunch and dinner, along with a special happy hour in-between, LOLO tries to keep its menu simple to be accessible while staying high-end to introduce new flavors and culinary concepts that weren’t previously in Stillwater.
“I think keeping it simple is one of the things we try to do; making the food so it’s interesting but it’s not too chef-y,” Brad says.
Among Brad’s favorite dishes are the fish tacos and the triple pork tacos with Korean BBQ. “[We’re] not going to remind you of Mom’s home cooking or anything,” Brad says.
In addition to a rise in foodie restaurants, Stillwater’s brewery scene is also growing. Maple Island Brewing Company, located on Main Street, is hard to miss. Maple Island opened in the building that used to house a hardware store, and before that, a creamery. Now brewing just under 10 beers, their draft list is paced with cleverly-named brews.
The Tightrope Hefewiezen has a lower hop addition than most Hefewiezens, but the Belgian Juggler IPA includes four speciality malts, several spices and hops, and, you guessed it, Belgian yeast. If you’re looking for something on the sweet side, check out the I Scream Brew, which is made with local Nelson’s ice cream, or maybe the Cup of Joe Freakshow, which is Maple Island’s take on an oatmeal stout with cold brew coffee.
The taproom is closed Mondays, but has plenty of local live music on the weekends, and surely, an entertaining open mic night on Tuesdays.
And, if you’re done drinking like a German, head to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store for authentic German gifts. The decor will transport you to a picturesque Christmas wonderland straight out of small-town Germany. In fact, this shop comes directly from the owners of the largest Christmas store in Rothenburg, Germany, a stunning medieval village. The Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village is an iconic stop for Christmas enthusiasts all over the world, boasting handmade Christmas ornaments, traditional German beer steins, and any Christmas decoration you can imagine. The Stillwater location is no different and it’s the only year-round Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store open in America.
On your way out of town, take note of the Oasis Cafe from decades passed or drive across the famed lift bridge. If you head up and away from the river, be sure to take a moment at the top of the bluff: The sleepy view of the valley from above is breathtaking.
Whether you plan to visit Stillwater for a day and grab delicious meal on Main Street or a long weekend exploring the quaint neighborhoods, Stillwater is sure to charm you in the way only a small town can. Find a new antique to add to your collection, pick up snacks at the River Market Community Co-op, or have a picnic by the St. Croix river and enjoy the respite from big city life.
Explore Stillwater through photos:
Lauren Cutshall is a freelance photographer and food writer based in Minneapolis.