When it comes to Mallards on the St. Croix, the imagery is right in the name. Located in the Bayport marina with inspirational views of the river and the Wisconsin border to the east and 200 boat slips just south of the restaurant, the St. Croix Valley restaurant and lounge is a full reflection of Minnesota-Wisconsin waterway culture. With a menu inspired by water-sourced foods of all kinds, it borrows from New England (lobster rolls), San Francisco (cioppino), the Gulf of Mexico (jambalaya) and right here at home (fried walleye). The St. Croix is the restaurant’s heart, but that doesn’t mean it goes cold in winter.
There’s a misconception that the restaurant is seasonal like the water-focused neighbors in the marina. “We’re definitely open all year,” general manager Zachery Suddath says. With the river frozen, Mallards transforms, keeping the same core menu and atmosphere, but in a more intimate setting (the closed patio takes seating from 250 to 150).
First, he notes, the core holidays fall in the winter, and they provide a natural boost to the already cozy atmosphere. The 2015 Christmas Eve Italian-influenced Feast of the Seven Fishes was a huge draw that the team hopes to repeat. Other special days get special menus, such as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.
Large groups are a big draw year-round, from wedding rehearsals to anniversaries and private parties, and with fewer river activities in the winter, Mallards can focus more energy on large groups. “We’ve done murder mystery dinners, plated dinners, all sorts of things like that,” Suddath says.
Mallards is a destination restaurant. Customers come to try the specials for a leisurely meal, not to grab a bite between shopping or outdoors activities. While thematic evenings are part of the annual cycle, it’s the atmosphere that defines them. Summer is vibrant and whimsical, dependent on the water and weather outside. In the winter, it gets dark earlier and the ambience is more relaxed and enclosed. The view is still scenic, looking on the trees that line the St. Croix shoreline, but it’s quiet and serene, and often dotted with ice houses. “You feel like you’re at a resort or on a beach in the summer—in the winter you’re in the north woods,” Suddath says.
There are more specials offered during the winter season, and the menu has a 30 percent turnover to try new foods. In a smaller setting, off-menu specials are more common, and Mallards will sometimes feature four-course chef dinners.
The menu remains true to its water theme. With fish sourced from Alaska, Canada, Maine and more, the supply doesn’t change with the season—it’s mostly the sides and salads that change with the weather. In Minnesota tradition, December is fish-fry season, when Mallards modifies its fish and chips entrée into a bottomless feast of cod (fried or broiled), French fries and coleslaw, available every Friday night.
Suddath, a Kansas City native, says, “I’ve tried fish and chips between here and Kansas City,” singing the praises of Mallards’ hand-battered fish. The tartar sauce is made in-house, as is the crunchy batter that balances with the fluffy cod fillets.
Mallards opened in 2013 and brought concepts of fresh water and salt water together. With St. Croix river life permeating the region, the seasonal cycles of the river flow through Mallards as well. Boats, bocce ball and bean bags might represent life in the summer, but the river is equally relaxing in wintertime—just from a heated distance with pristine views and greater indulgences.