Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon's hometown has rather quietly become a Midwest capital of cool. And how's the food?
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, such a 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, this industrious, particularly one settled so heavily by Germans, never the sort to shy away from a little bit of collective self-belief.
Then there is Eau Claire, which is nothing like any of the above, something of a world out on its own, a large town located hours away from the bigger Wisconsin cities, down in a valley and along a particularly scenic stretch of the winding Chippewa River. 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 and artists and urban escapees (Minneapolis and St. Paul are not much more than an hour away), lending it this 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, much of it geographically divorced from the city center, where so many of the most interesting things have happened, lately—the uninitiated visitor might not immediately grasp just exactly what is going on, and 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.
The rest of the year, things are relatively quiet, in a relaxing, forget-about-the-outside-world kind of way—shoegazers waiting in line for the various on-brand musical acts playing at the gorgeous old State Theatre, the granola set talking shop at the pint-sized Just Local Food Cooperative, cyclists, totally pumped from their rides, kicking things into even higher gear with cortados at SHIFT, a popular new bike shop and coffee bar, just steps from the river.
Sure, it might be early days, but after a short time here, it is 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, like a beautiful new performing arts center, also right there along the river, not to mention the thriving (and essentially full to capacity) farmers market. Coming here now, it feels like you’re in on the ground floor of something good, with more to come. Curious? Come and see for yourself. Here’s where to eat and drink.
Located on the ground floor of The Oxbow and easily the city’s best-known restaurant, Nathan Berg’s studiously farm-to-table, Midwest-celebrating 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; for dinner, the fairly priced, six-course chef’s tasting menu ($55) is the way to go.
Opened in 1994 (in case the exposed brick didn't already give it away) at a very different time in Eau Claire’s life, this earnest, seasonal Italian spot remains the city’s most essential restaurant, 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.
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 here, with many of the events (particularly the pop-ups) run as casual, stop-in-for-a-plate affairs. Keep up to speed via their very full event calendar.
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 right now; this is the outfit you will hear the most about, and rightly so. Stop by the relaxed taproom, right in the actual brewery, for their West Coast IPA (Gunpowder), a hazy, New England-style IPA (Dare Mighty Things) or their stout (Midnight Oil). Plus, you know, whatever else they've got going on—these guys always seem to be up to something.
This attractive, modern restaurant on a prominent downtown corner has toned things down, way down, since the splashy launch (the opening chef, Amy Huo, now runs a popular seasonal food truck), evolving 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—a decent happy hour, nice pizzas, thoughtful breakfasts in a room that takes on an abundance of natural light, even on grey mornings—all good reasons to stop by. 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.