On a summer weekend, Brookside Bar and Grill easily serves that many in a day—more during the art fair or motorcycle rallies. The restaurant is one of just a handful of businesses in the tiny town off busy and scenic Highway 95, and it has a cult following among bikers, classic car and music enthusiasts, and anyone in need of a slice of garbage pizza or a pint of craft beer after a day on the water.
Managing partner Matt Miller admits he drove right past on his first visit in 2010, when he was considering buying in after years working in commercial real estate development.
“I didn’t know much about running a restaurant, but I had gotten to know a lot of business owners and had hung out in a lot of bars and restaurants,” Miller says. The economy was taking a downturn, and the restaurant—despite nearly a century in business—had gone through a rough spat with several owners in just a few years. The building was in disrepair and in need of a renaissance.
So Miller joined forces with business partners Matt McHenry, who had cooked at Brookside when it was run by the Meisters in the late ’80s; Carlos Cuellar, whose father Guillermo makes custom pottery dishes for the restaurant; Grayson Taylor and Mandi Harrington. The employee-owners invested heavily in their early years running the show, and one of them was there every minute the Brookside was open.
“It was a challenging time,” Miller admits. But the team pitched in and took a collaborative approach to the business. To this day, there’s no one on the small staff who has one specific task, and they’re all given the same instructions. “There are just three things you gotta do well in a restaurant: good food, friendly quality service and consistency,” Miller says.
At Brookside, that’s exactly what you get. The food is tasty, but not fussy—fried curds, good burgers, classic pizzas, seasonal entrées—and the service is laid-back. It’s a fun and casual feel, especially in summer, when customers spill over onto an expansive patio around a second outdoor bar—there is also a bandshell for live music. The patio features a home-like space, tree-lined and private, with visitors’ prized classic cars and motorcycles visible on the street lining the back of the building.
Visitors hold beers as they toss beanbags or sprawl out on the grass. Some eat pizza in lawn chairs around a fire pit. The vibe is relaxed and timeless; in the middle of what Miller calls “cabin country” with a working general store across the street, sometimes it’s hard to know what year it is.
The whole area is steeped in history. Marine was one of the first settlements in Minnesota, and the remnants of the state’s first lumber mill are just across the street. There are dozens of historic sites in town, including Brookside’s building. In 1930, it opened as a creamery, but has been a bar and restaurant since 1939—under the name Neilsen’s, Meister’s Brookside and now just Brookside.
The name “Brooktop” might actually be more fitting, because a stream runs under the building’s lower level—cutting right under the ladies’ room—and was visible to visitors until it had to be enclosed and reinforced. Seating just more than
60 inside—and about as many on the patio in summer—the place is packed just about all the time, year-round.
In the summer, there are lots of vacationers, road-trippers and weekenders. In the off-season, the crowd skews toward familiar faces; it’s the kind of place where barstools swivel to eye up anyone who comes through the double doors into the bar.
“The local community is a huge support for the business—in the off-season, they’re our bread and butter,” Miller says. The regulars come for the pizza, 24 rotating taps and delicious bloody Marys, fish fries and hot dish. There’s cribbage night in the winter, and Brookside even hosts a Thanksgiving potluck for locals. Some regulars have recommended their own menu items, and the staff has obliged. Regular John Nelson suggested “totchos”—tater tots topped with chili and cheese, or nacho toppings—and the swine and cheese was suggested by customer John Landrith.
The patio dress code ranges from church outfits to swim trunks—it’s lake country, after all. There’s perpetual chatter as people linger under real, mature trees the kind you don’t see often over restaurant patios. “What you get at Brookside is a sense of community that you just don’t get at other places,” Miller says. “I think we’re kind of
Last Sips of Summer
A classic cocktail from the Caribbean.
Smalley’s Caribbean BBQ and Pirate Bar in Stillwater keeps the summery vibe going all year, with a stellar happy hour, build-your-own barbecue combos, and deliciously dangerous blistered, lime-and-sea-salted hot peppers (free by request). Craving a taste? Bartender Todd Nelson shared a favorite easy-to-make Smalley’s boozy concoction to help you savor the last of summer and ease into fall.
Dark and Stormy:
Lime, cut into wedges
Gosling’s ginger beer
Gosling’s Black Seal rum
Muddle three lime wedges in a pint glass, and fill with ice. Pour ginger beer to about the 13–14 oz. level, then top with enough rum to fill the glass. The dark rum will float on the top, hence the ominous name. Arrrgh!