Where to Eat and Drink in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon's hometown has rather quietly become a Midwest capital of cool. And how's the food?

The Lakely
Photo: Courtesy of VisitEauClaire.com

Spend some time traveling around Wisconsin, and you learn a thing or two — about the astonishing, ongoing evolution of cheesemaking in America, about the importance of cured meats to one's daily diet, but also about being cautious when making gross generalizations, about resisting the urge to paint places with broad brushes.

For a state with such a strong, singular identity — they're the ones that went ahead and branded themselves as America's Dairyland, not us — there sure is a lot to unpack here. There are so many Wisconsins, from progressive Madison to stubborn, old (but working on it) Milwaukee, from hippie vibes in the Driftless region to the fishin', huntin' wilds of the Northwoods to the nearly Cape Cod-like summer scene in Door County, not to mention the honky-tonk, dinner-and-a-show Dells, where generations of Midwest children have been driven in the back seats of family sedans for their school vacations. Wisconsin seems to contain a little bit of almost everything, which you may take or leave as you wish, it is all the same to them. On reflection, this is quite in line with what one expects to find in a state this confident and industrious, particularly one settled so heavily by Germans, never the sort to shy away from a little bit of collective self-belief.

Mona Lisa's Restaurant
Courtesy of VisitEauClaire.com

Then there is Eau Claire, which is nothing like any of the above. Located hours away from the bigger Wisconsin cities, Eau Claire sits down in a valley and along a particularly scenic stretch of the winding Chippewa River. It was first a French fur trading post, then a lumber town, and for most of the 20th century known as a place where tires were made (a whole lot of tires, to be precise). A suddenly post-industrial Eau Claire sort of drifted toward the turn of the century in search of purpose, along the line becoming a magnet for musicians, artists, and urban escapees (Minneapolis and St. Paul are not much more than an hour away). All of this has lent it an almost mythical, would-be Marfa, Texas-like air, turning what was until very recently a no-bull factory town into a somewhat dreamy, vaguely cosmopolitan capital of regional cool. That is, if you know where in town to look.

Because it all happens in flashes, in little pockets and on certain days, or even merely at certain times of the day — this is a city with a population of just 65,000, after all — the uninitiated visitor might not immediately grasp just exactly what is going on. When they do, they might be taken by surprise, wondering how a relatively quiet town like Eau Claire could vibe so modern, so cool, and not just college cool (there's a big state school here), but so much more than that.

Check into The Oxbow, a terrific little hotel with an Ace-goes-to-the-woods energy and design, or the very modern Lismore, with one of the best penthouse suites (with floor-to-ceiling windows) that money can buy between Chicago and Minneapolis, and you'll no doubt be wondering — who is this for? Who is behind all this? The Oxbow, it turns out, is owned by a sizable group of Eau Claire believers, the most famous being musician Justin Vernon, Eau Claire native and the man out front of indie folk outfit Bon Iver, not to mention the Eaux Claires music festival, held each July in a field just a few minutes from the university campus.

Mona Lisa's Restaurant
Courtesy of VisitEauClaire.com

The rest of the year, things are relatively quiet, in a relaxing, forget-about-the-outside-world kind of way. The granola set talk shop at the pint-sized Menomonie Market Food Co-op, cyclists pumped from their rides kick things into even higher gear with cortados at Shift, a popular bike shop and coffee bar, just steps from the river.

After a short time here, it's easy to see the city evolving, growing into something quite special, a low-key hive of creativity in the body of an old industrial town. Eau Claire seems poised, ready for its next chapter, making significant strides on things like the downtown waterfront, which welcomed a beautiful new performing arts center in 2018 near the bustling Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market. Coming here feels like you're in on the ground floor of something good. Curious? Come and see for yourself. Here are some of the best restaurants in Eau Claire.

The Informalist
John R Nelson

The Lakely

Located on the ground floor of The Oxbow, The Lakely is easily the city's best-known restaurant. Nathan Berg's studiously farm-to-table restaurant and bar (with plenty of live music) is a weekend clubhouse for Twin Cities types, and a laidback restaurant elevating Midwestern favorites the rest of the week.

Mona Lisa's

Opened in 1994 (in case the exposed brick didn't give it away) at a very different time in Eau Claire, seasonal Italian spot Mona Lisa's remains one of the city's most essential restaurants, carrying you away from Water Street to some less-flashy corner of Sonoma (those do exist), where you can sit down and enjoy all the seasonal ingredients and attention to detail without the fuss — or the tourists. Comforting osso bucco made with free-range veal, creative vegetable dishes, and imaginative seasonal pastas are all fine choices.

The Brewing Projekt

We're guessing Leinenkugel — still produced just up the road in Chippewa Falls — isn't feeling threatened or anything, but beer is kind of a big deal in Eau Claire. The Brewing Projekt is one outfit you will hear a lot about and rightly so. Stop by the relaxed taproom, right in the actual brewery, for their hazy, New England-style IPA (Dare Mighty Things) or their smoothie-style sour (Smoofee). Plus, you know, whatever else they've got going on — these guys always seem to be up to something.


One of the most interesting restaurants in Eau Claire isn't a restaurant at all but rather a small food business incubator and event space where very good and delicious things are happening, deep inside the defunct Uniroyal plant. Friday fish fries, First Wednesday wine dinners, pop-up restaurants, a pho-making class taught by a Hmong home cook — things stay lively at Forage, with many of the events (particularly the pop-ups) run as casual, stop-in-for-a-plate affairs.

The Informalist

Modern downtown restaurant The Informalist has toned things down, way down, since the splashy 2016 launch (the opening chef, Amy Huo, was a former contestant on Food Network's Guy's Grocery Games). It has since evolved to become more of a hotel canteen (you'll find it on the ground floor of The Lismore). Still, this isn't your typical boring business hotel and neither is this your typical hotel restaurant. It boasts a decent happy hour, nice pizzas, and thoughtful breakfasts in a room that takes on an abundance of natural light, even on grey mornings. On your way in (or your way out), stop next door at ECDC, a popular-with-locals coffee shop that flows directly into the hotel's appealing lobby, or, if it's the right time of day, sneak upstairs for a drink at Dive, a cocktail lounge with a rooftop terrace.

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