When you see a little child come in, and their eyes go up to the ceiling in awe—that says Christmas every single time, according to John Schiltz, owner and chef at Lake Elmo Inn.
Since 1983, he and his staff have created a year-round dining experience that’s unlike others in the Twin Cities. A far cry from the days Schiltz lived upstairs and enlisted his regulars to help decorate, the restaurant has become a local destination. And at Christmas, he and his wife and catering director Christine lead a team that creates a little holiday magic right here in the valley.
Filet Mignon with large mushroom cap and a New York strip topped with crispy onion straws.
“We call ourselves the ‘special occasion destination,’” Christine says, explaining how the wow factors at the restaurant also spill over into the catering and event side of the business. And it all begins with great people. “We’re careful about hiring people who have the right personality, because you can’t train that. Our staff needs to be able to go into homes or to tables and make people feel comfortable.”
Something’s working, because holiday seatings at Lake Elmo Inn book up a year in advance. Some families have dined at Lake Elmo Inn or ordered its holiday catering for decades and counting. Guests know they’ll be treated like royalty: handed a hot towel to wipe their hands, a dollop of cold sorbet to cleanse their palates and a complimentary chocolate-dipped strawberry to finish off their meal.
Lobster Roll with a superfoods salad in the background.
“The hospitality industry is a fickle thing. We’re creating an experience, going the extra mile for people,” John says. “The first month we opened, I told my staff we were going to be about great food, great service, and great ambiance. It took a while—and a few additions and renovations—to get it all right. But our restaurant stands out among all the others in the Midwest. We’re not the cheapest and certainly not the most expensive—but we’re the best value. The quality of the food and service are second-to-none.”
Sunday brunches are a production all year, with ice sculptures and white tablecloths setting the mood. Dinners are always an experience. But the team really doesn’t mess around this time of year. The Christmas decorating ritual begins in mid-November, with a foundation of trees, greenery and garlands. After some 900 guests filter through on Thanksgiving Day, the rest of the decorations are pulled from storage and layered on top. The Kohler Room gets a whimsical Dr. Seuss treatment. The all-glass, heated veranda gets covered in Christmas lights, “like you’re inside a snow globe,” John says. There’s a room full of those, too, and another chock-full of nutcrackers.
And the bar, sparsely decorated decades ago, becomes a quirky, visual manifestation of the thousands of diverse guests who’ve shared a meal at Lake Elmo Inn through the years.
There are no corners cut—and none left empty, for that matter. But for Schiltz and the team, pleasing loyal guests is worth going the extra mile.
Grasshopper pie with other dessert options.
Plan an Event at Lake Elmo Inn
With the new year comes wedding planning season! The Lake Elmo Inn Event Center can host 300 in its banquet room, or in four break-out spaces. Plus there’s a yard and garden that come with a rental. When the event space was added in 2004 and Christine became catering director, the team made a commitment to creating the same high-quality culinary experience for large numbers of guests as they do for families who dine in the restaurant.
Christine recalls event center guests insisting the food had been made in the restaurant kitchen, because it was exactly how they’d remembered it—down to the signature strawberries. “It was really a seamless transition,” she says. The vast majority of catering business is still done off-site, though, with white glove service and plated or buffet meals available for up to 1,000 guests at venues across the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.
Throw a Party, the Lake Elmo Inn Way
The Schiltzes have been specializing in hospitality and great food for decades, so they have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to at-home entertaining, too. Pull off a great party, without pulling your hair out, by doing things the Lake Elmo Inn way:
Don’t overextend yourself.
Lake Elmo Inn might be known for going a bit over the top service-wise, but at home the Schiltzes keep it simple so they can enjoy their guests. Last year, they did homemade pizzas for Christmas. The year before? Caviar. They look at their guest list—and how much time they have to prep—and create a night that fits.
Keep things flexible.
John and Christine rely on stations that allow guests to serve themselves, come and go, grab seconds, and mingle along the way. Pulling from her bag of catering tricks, Christine suggests having at least one cold and hot food station, one for liquor and mixers, and one for coffee and dessert. She uses small, chillable trays that are easy to store in the fridge and swap out quickly. “Keep it easy when guests are in the house,” she insists.
“There are really nice, heavy-duty disposable dishes these days—take a load off!” Christine says. “Entertaining is stressful—not for John, but for most people.” Dishes are one thing you can cross off your list.
Serve one signature drink.
The key word here: one. Create a festive, premixed drink that’s presented in a pretty, yet self-dispensing vessel. From there, get a red and a white wine, a middle-of-the-flavor-road local beer, a soft drink or two, and water. Stir sticks. Ice. Glasses. Done.
Lake Elmo Inn’s original Holiday Manhattan.
Be fashionably late.
Because of all the overtime at the holidays, Lake Elmo throws its staff party in February. And, since everyone’s social calendars are so crazy around Christmas, too, it’s a welcome change. Throw a New Year’s Day brunch, a Valentine’s Day soiree, or other early-2020 party. It’ll give everyone something fun to look forward to after the new year begins.
Add a “wow” factor.
At Lake Elmo, there’s hot towel service, an intermezzo course of sorbet, and an après dinner chocolate-covered strawberry that come with every meal. You don’t have to go to those lengths to swoon your guests, but pull out a great digestif or a special dessert to top the night off—and guests will be sure to leave on a high note.
Lake Elmo Inn by the Numbers
height, in feet, of the nutcracker that stands by Santa’s side in the veranda. See him at Brunch with Santa on December 14 or Christmas Eve with St. Nicholas.
nutcrackers in the Lake Elmo Inn collection
“I had nothing, so I started asking regulars to help decorate,” John recalls. He gave a free drink at the bar in return for an ornament.
ornaments they have today.
hours it takes to hang them.
Christmas lights used outside. “If we did [have a power outage], we have a generator, so we’d stand out like the Star of Bethlehem.”
months in advance the Holiday Manhattans are mixed up. They’re aged in oak barrels that get ceremonially tapped at the holidays.
signature Manhattan recipes made annually. Look for barrel-aging classes hosted at the Event Center throughout the year.