Where to Eat, Drink, Shop, Bike, and Pick Blueberries in Stillwater
By Andrew Parks
With gas prices hovering at an all-time high heading into the summer of 2022, Explore Minnesota has decided to dust off our old travel guide series Trip on a Tankful as a surefire way to seize the day along the many open roads and winding streets that stretch across our state.
This week's dawn-to-dusk itinerary is built around the blink-and-you'll-miss-it berry picking season just outside Stillwater, but our day trip picks make just as much sense throughout the spring, summer, fall, and — if you're truly adventurous and want to experience a metro area mainstay in the offseason — winter. Much like the rest of Minnesota, Stillwater doesn't let declining temperatures get in the way of a good time. To give you an idea of just how serious the city is about embracing the cold, The Zephyr Theatre turned its outdoor area into the country's largest ice maze just last year. Fingers crossed it'll be back in 2023!
The hours (8 a.m. till noon typically) and days (Monday through Friday) are limited at Summer Kuehn's lovely farm, but don't let that keep you from visiting Stillwater during the week. As Kuehn told us one recent morning, her u-pick operation is for people "who don't want to deal with a mosh pit" and want more of a meditative experience from a family-friendly activity that got a bit too popular during the pandemic.
Forget Portlandia. The dream of the '90s is alive at this newly opened "natural dive fusion" restaurant in downtown Stillwater. While the menu appears to be a burgers and fries affair at first, a closer look reveals nods to the Mediterranean notes of executive chef Dan Cunningham (formerly of Phil's Tara Hideaway) and the cocktail-slinging background of co-owners Sarah and Dariush Moslemi (also of Velveteen Speakeasy). Not to mention Sarah's experience running Studio One Yoga.
Put all of those competing factors together and you'll find a fantastic Casablanca Burger crowned with cumin lemon pepper seasoning, harissa aioli, piperade, goat cheese, and greens; cheese curds dusted with a delicate ras el hanout spice blend; freshly blitzed smoothies; a wide range of vegan and gluten-free dishes; and secret weapon sips like the Phantom Menace (gin, yellow chartreuse, pineapple shrub, and cucumber agua fresca).
And to hammer the '90s theme home, there's Sublime and Everclear on the speakers, Spice Girls and Stone Temple Pilots sleeves on the walls, and Total Request Live-type music videos on the TV. Frankly, we can't think of a better place to wear flannel this winter.
When our Wild Hare bartender said "there's just one big hill" about this nearly 5-mile pedestrian and bike path, we figured it was totally doable in about an hour tops. What we didn't expect was the steep 8% climb directly after Stillwater's iconic Lift Bridge — a stretch so tiring we turned our road bike around halfway up, huffing and puffing every pedal of the way.
If you're like us and merely think you're in shape, you're probably better off tackling this newly opened trail with a rental ($45 for two hours) from Herman Electric Bikes, a life saver tucked in the back of the nearby Greenbridge Coffee Shop.
A proud, self-proclaimed "real, honest-to-goodness brick & mortar bookstore," Black Letter specializes in rare, used and out-of-print titles you won't actually find on Amazon. A gently loved first edition of Through the Looking Glass was fetching more than $100 during our visit, but most of the shelves were stocked with such reasonably priced selections as photo books on Belfast Punk and the rather picturesque Barns of Minnesota, looks at underground icon Lydia Lunch and Latin American kinetic art, and a hefty collection of Japanese short stories featuring a foreword from best-selling author Haruki Murakami.
If you spend more time in the gift shop at the American Swedish Institute than the galleries, you'll be floored by the broad selection of biodegradable dish cloths, sustainably harvested reindeer hides, artisanal licorice, sleek raincoats, teardrop-shaped candles, and idiosyncratic, transatlantic imports at Scandinavian North's spacious flagship. (It has a Duluth location on deck for next spring.) Think: Ingebretsen's with a design degree and a great deal of style to spare.
The sign outside this downtown staple says it all: "65+ dealers, three floors, 30,000 square feet!" Serious thrift shoppers could spend hours canvasing every corner of a well-curated space crammed with vintage clothing, housewares, furniture, jewelry, and nearly every kind of collectible (and not-so-collectible) item one could imagine coveting from the past century. Dig a little deeper and you might discover a one-of-a-kind dealer like Friendship Harmony founder Yukiko Miyokawa. A Japan native based in St. Paul, Miyokawa specializes in pale green Fire King Jadeite pieces and antiques from throughout Asia, including cast iron chests, woodblock prints, and various ornate vases, plates and bowls.
Walking into Lisa and Joseph Robbins' new home decor store feels like stumbling upon an HGTV set for a reason; the couple has five decades of collective experience in architectural and interior design. If you don't have the time or the money to tap them for a proper home build or rehab, shopping here is the next best solution. It's hard not to leave inspired by their beautiful, carefully arranged collection of artisanal candles, mid-century-inspired wine glasses, brass flatware, sleek dining room sets, and plush textiles. Not surprisingly given its aspirational aesthetics, a second Brick + Linen shop is set to open in Wayzata later this year.
Local favorite Lift Bridge has been around much longer — since 2008, as opposed to since last May — but that shouldn't keep you from ordering a couple rounds at Harmony and Brian Carlson's complete reboot of the prime Saint Croix location that once held Maple Island Brewing. (It closed in 2021.) With one of its former assistant brewers (Tony Freeman) now at the helm of a seven-barrel system, River Siren plans on churning out small batch spins on familiar styles like brown ales, hazy IPAs, and nitro-infused stouts. We capped off our day with a nod to its very beginning: an Upstream Flow Hefe with a slight hop bite and smooth blueberry finish.
Make it a 2-for-1 deal by swinging by Forge & Foundry Distillery right next door. It opened in September of 2020, becoming Stillwater's first legal distillery since Prohibition in the process. Current in-house cocktails include a refreshing Hawaiian Buck (vodka, cream of coconut, lychee, lime, ginger beer) and the savory vs. sweet mashup that is the Farmers Market (olive oil-washed vodka, tomatoes, white balsamic vinegar, lemon, and an herbal thyme and tarragon tincture).
Located just up the street from Teddy Bear Park and a key stretch of Stillwater's historic stairs hike, Lora is a dog-friendly boutique hotel with excellent drinking (The Long Goodbye) and/or dining (Feller) options for ending the day on a high note alongside smoked trout fritters, county-fried duck, pecan-crusted walleye and a couple cutting-edge cocktails.
Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.
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