Friends don’t let friends eat mediocre meals. So, when likeminded buddies told us about the culinary scene in Stillwater, Minnesota, my husband, Brian, and I stepped up to the plate on our next free weekend. We flew into Minneapolis-St. Paul and made the short drive out to Stillwater. Thirty-plus restaurants and pubs within walking distance would be our playground.
Our first tastes of Stillwater came from Minnesota’s seventh-largest craft brewery. Brian nursed his Farm Girl Saison—a smooth Belgian ale and one of Lift Bridge Brewery’s flagship pours—while I sipped a rich and frothy house-made root beer. We agreed our drinks set just the right tantalizing tone. Attention to artistry was obvious.
While partaking in the brews, Brian and I perused the restaurant menus that the brewery had on hand for guests who wanted to order in. Our dinner plans were already decided, so it was leisure reading for us. We found a brochure for Stillwater’s Foodies on Foot tours. We practically salivated just reading the highlights from behind the scenes at some of the area’s best dining establishments.
Remembering what our friends had told us about LOLO American Kitchen & Craft Bar serving chef-inspired street food, we didn’t even need to see a menu to decide on dinner there. Our bar seats probably could have been sold as front-row seats to a five-star culinary talent show featuring synchronized slicing, dicing, searing and sautéeing. Thanks to the open-kitchen concept, we watched the chefs prepare and plate dishes that required no photo filter.
At LOLO—short for locally owned, locally operated—we devoured Korean fried chicken with batter so delicate and crispy we wondered how it could contain the intense explosion of sweet Korean chile and juicy meat inside. The chef apparently spared no time or effort on the tater tots either. Dusted in Parmesan and accompanied by curry ketchup, the treat left us wondering how we’d ever eaten tots any other way.
After our meal, we window-shopped through the historic downtown. The many boutiques caught our fancy and made for easy conversation: fashion, home décor, art galleries, gifts. I loved how the majority of them have independent owners, offering the chance to shop local for treasures we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.
We tend to go light on breakfasts, so our first significant meal was midday. With its bright-blue, striped awning and a chalkboard sign reading “Let’s grow mold together,” Stillwater’s artisanal cheese shop—The Wedge & Wheel—welcomed us for lunch. After the owner, Chris, talked and tasted us through his extensive collection of cheese that only a cheesemonger would know, we decided to split the mother of all grilled cheese sandwiches. One bite of the fried mortadella and Foenegreek Gouda sandwich with black tea fig preserve, and I was asking if The Wedge & Wheel had a loyalty program.
Because that much indulging is best balanced with a side of veggies, we also ordered the “Lift Bridge.” The salad had such robust blue cheese crumbles and crunchy pecans dressed with maple, oil and vinegar, the nutritious mixed greens simply made for an added bonus.
You don’t get to experience a subterranean speakeasy every night. Unless you live in Stillwater, home to The Velveteen. Brian and I quickly realized this establishment is more classy than covert. The elegant backlit bar boasts bottles of obscure spirits and glass jars containing infusions, herbs, tinctures and house-made bitters and syrups we’d never heard of, let alone tasted.
I relished the refreshing floral finish of my lavender-infused vodka. Brian found comfort in a cocktail marrying buttered popcorn-infused whiskey with nutmeg and egg white. And because it’s not a good idea to drink on an empty stomach, we had a tapas-style dinner of bacon jalapeño poppers in a puff pastry so flaky it melted on our tongues, and oven-roasted tomato and balsamic crostini toasted to absolute perfection. Finally, there comes a time in every diner’s life when they’re tempted by a pork belly slider topped with an exotic Asian slaw. We caved. No regrets.
As the server cleared our plates, I overheard someone mention that Stillwater has two wineries. At that point, we were a bit too full to experience either of them. But by then, we knew we’d be returning to Stillwater, so I mentally added them to the itinerary for next time.
Since ambience can be just as important as flavor, our final meal in Stillwater was a floating meal. A four-person Dixieland band greeted us as we boarded the St. Croix Boat & Packet Co.’s stately triple-decker paddlewheel riverboat. After two trips to a buffet that certainly warranted seconds, Brian and I sat on the upper deck, listening to Louis Armstrong covers drifting up from below and studying the bridges above. The boat glided downstream, passing other historic paddlewheel riverboats painting the whole scene an idyllic shade of nostalgia.
Comfortably full, we spent the remainder of the cruise reflecting on everything that had crossed our discerning palates in Stillwater. From first sips at the brewery to last crumbs from the boat’s freshly baked rolls, and every bite in between, our friends’ recommendation of Stillwater proved to be a delicious gift.