A Culinary Adventure Through Autumnal Flavors and Fun in and Around the St. Croix River Valley

Where to stop for great local food while celebrating autumn on the St. Croix River.

River lovers know the St. Croix Valley shines in all seasons, but maybe never as much as when the leaves turn in autumn. Crisscross the river with us as we suggest eclectic local spots to eat and drink —and a few community gems, events and adventures to add even more color to your wanderings.

Taylors Falls, Minn.

Taylors Falls offers its own favorite attractions: Hiking up and down picturesque river banks and the Wild Mountain alpine slide, for example. Start your day early with coffee and fresh croixnuts (doughnut-fried croissants), almond bear claws and elephant ears at the Rocky River Bakery. “We’re on the corner just as you enter town,” says co-owner Bill Hughes, who owns the bakery with wife Beth. Catch a classic lunch or dinner at the Drive-In. Manager Beth Peterson calls the nostalgic, retro-style joint “a blast from the past. We have car stalls with tray service, and all the waitresses wear poodle skirts,” she says. Order a burger or hot dog, and don’t forget a homemade root beer in a frosty mug. For a special occasion, or to start your own tradition of an autumn color pilgrimage, make a reservation at Tangled Up in Blue, “an eclectic food and wine bar,” says entrepreneur and executive chef Jeff Halverson. “I take dishes and put a unique spin on them.” Examples include individual beef Wellingtons and coulibiac of salmon, a Russian dish featuring salmon in a pastry shell.

Osceola, Wis.

Osceola comes complete with “hiking, biking, and the river, the river, the river,” says the Watershed Café’s Rita Rasmuson, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Steve; they started this farm-to-table space in 2014. Relationships with local producers of cheese, beef, lamb and produce assure that “we get really good, fresh, local food, and we keep it good,” Rasmuson says. She also puts in a good word for neighbor restaurateurs Dominic Dimler and Kelly Meunier, who own Brickfire Pizza. “We make our own pizzas, all hand-tossed with fresh ingredients,” Dominic Dimler says. Sit in the dining room and get a view of pizza tossing, or take out such specialties as the bacon cheeseburger pizza, “complete with hand-cut french fries on top,” Dimler says. He also points out a few other local attractions: the Osceola train station with seasonal oriented old-school train rides up and down the river. Or plan an outing with one of his favorite local businesses, Riverwood Canoe.

Scandia, Minn.

The Gammelgarden Museum in Scandia is a place where visitors can step back in time and experience the lives of early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota. Make a day of it and add a specially reserved luncheon, which reduces the entry fee for the museum’s five historic (1850s) buildings (including the oldest Lutheran church and the oldest Lutheran pastor’s home in Minnesota). You’ve got to reserve two weeks ahead for lunch, with a group minimum of 15 people. “We’ve hosted book clubs, party groups, the Red Hats” and many others, Lynne Blomstrand Moratzka, director of the Gammelgarden Museum, says. Three menus are available—Swedish smorgasbord, American picnic and chicken salad—and each is a full buffet-style meal. Come for the fall colors and a unique look into the history of Swedish immigration to Minnesota.

Somerset, Wis.

Although you’ll probably find October weather too fickle for Apple River tubing, Somerset’s Everyday Café is as reliable as rain. Says Shontel Parnell, co-owner with her husband, Clint, “We’re open seven days a week, every day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., serving breakfast all day.” Local favorites include the Big Oink stack and the Benny Mess—a skillet-style version of eggs Benedict—and, says Shontel, “If you save room for dessert, you need to have a piece of our carrot cake, an old family recipe. We are a small, old-school café—filled with locals on both sides of the counter.”

 Stillwater, Minn.

One of the St. Croix Valley’s anchor cities, Stillwater has more diversions and eateries than you can count, but have you tried Thai? Thai Basil Restaurant and Bar has been open for about a year and is owned by couple John and Pooh Soderquist. “We serve mostly authentic Thai, but also a few Lao favorites, like papaya salad,” waitress Lin Lin Aung says. The most popular dishes include the gluten-free pad mee karee kai (noodles stir-fried with curry powder, broccoli, pea pods, celery, cabbage, onions, carrots, coconut milk, bean sprouts and egg), spicy tuna salad, and the famous egg rolls. For dessert, why not stop by Nelson’s Ice Cream? If you put away the ice cream gargantua known as the Lumberjack (five softball-size scoops of ice cream), you might qualify to have your photo taken and displayed with other conquerors of this frosty mountain. If your appetite is a little less hearty, come anyway. “We provide the best value of anywhere I’ve been,” owner Dave Najarian says.

Bayport, Minn.

Although waitress and manager Amy Usher of Not Justa Café and Not Justa Bar laughs when we ask her what there is to do in Bayport, she says their café and bar offer “fantastic food and a fun atmosphere.” Looks like Woody’s Bar and Grill has the same idea: Make your own fun! Manager Mary Tickner says, “We are a bar and grill in Bayport that has eight lanes of bowling, 27 large-screen TVs and great food,” as well as burgers, pizza, sandwiches and daily specials. “You can see from our Facebook page that our signature fully loaded bloody Mary is a huge hit in the Valley.” 

Hudson, Wis.

On to Hudson, where Mike Fredericksen, part-owner of Pitchfork Brewing, counts Willow River State Park and changing seasons on the St. Croix River as the best reasons to visit—second only, of course, to a visit to his brewery. “We are the true definition of craft brewing,” he says, having produced 29 different styles of beer in the small, five-barrel system in the first year; they currently have 40. Popular varieties are the Pitchfork pale ale, Straw German Pilsner and a Barn-Door brown. Fredricksen runs a very green business, re-using all of the chilling water, for example, and much of the interior décor is upcycled or repurposed as well. As to his beer, “I only use whole-leaf hops,” Fredericksen says, which he buys for his U.S. beers from four local farmers. And he has a special message for the beer nerds out there: “We fill anybody’s growler.” If you’re looking for a sweet treat to round out your Hudson visit, stop by Knoke’s Chocolates and Nuts. Business manager Susan Tierney says the ever-expanding store hand-makes about 75 different chocolate confections. Special for autumn are hand-dipped caramel apples, finished with chocolate drizzle, and rolled in Spanish peanuts and peanut and cashew brittle.

Afton, Minn.

“People love a fall getaway,” Afton House Inn and Hotel co-owner Kathy Jarvis says; as such, she suggests booking a room at the inn along with a fall color cruise, many of which launch from Afton. If you’d like food on your cruise, varied-menu voyages (including Italian dinner, Champagne brunch, and fajita and Margarita) run through the end of October. Otherwise, there’s fine dining at the inn. And who can beat pumpkins, apples and raspberries in autumn? Come to Afton Apple Orchard and pick your own, then snack on hot dogs, cider brats, apple fritters and more before hauling your harvest home. 

Prescott, Wis.

Leah Nesbitt-Miller of family-owned Nesbitt’s Nursery and Orchard wants you to come to Prescott to try out the inaugural season of pick-your-own apples; pumpkins also will be available through the end of October. Afterward, sate your appetite at the family’s on-site Oasis Eatery, where the operative word, Nesbitt-Miller says, is “local-icious”: everything homemade, from scratch, seasonal and local. Oasis is known for its pie and weekly specials, one of which is a Friday night fish boil. If, on the other hand, you’re more in a biker (motorcycle-biker, that is) mood, check out No-Name Saloon and Monkey Bar. There’s a Tiki bar with swings, live music, and a big bloody Mary, known far and wide.

Red Wing, Minn.

Celebrate the last stop on our autumn St. Croix Valley tour with a glass of wine six miles south of Red Wing at Flower Valley Vineyard. The Mohn family started growing grapes here in 2002 and sold them to other vineyards until 2012, when they decided to open their own tasting room. Now they offer 14 different wines, says Mary Mohn, the most popular of which are the Frontenac gris, cranberry wine, barrel-aged white wine (Prairie Bloom) and a full-bodied red Frontenac. Wine tastings in October are paired with food-truck visits, an art exhibit and a quilt show.