Good conversation doesn’t always pair well with a hearty meal, as a full mouth quickly becomes a silent one. This pause in pronunciation is a welcome one if the food is delectable enough to create its own story.
Phil’s Tara Hideaway is a legendary landmark in Stillwater—an institution steeped in local lore, once rumored to have ties to the 1930s mob, kept alive through grandparents, moms and dads, aunts and uncles who continue to share this wonderful eatery with younger generations. It’s an endeavor to keep a restaurant like Phil’s “in the family,” while occasionally letting the word out to a close friend that there’s a cozy log cabin of a diner high up on the hill, and if you can make the hike, your reward is a juicy steak or burger.
Manager Nik Barbatsis says that the word-of-mouth renown is intentional: “We’re a destination place. People have heard about us, they know about us. We’re secretly, purposefully kind of hidden,” he says. Climb into a cozy chair by the window and settle into the low-candlelight environment. Conversation is encouraged, and the fun of uncovering stories of mafiosi from days gone by is hearing them from the lips of Phil’s regulars.
After stopping at the bar for a glass of red or white from the deep wine list, sample a couple of delicious appetizers. The gyros are a flavorful nod to the Mediterranean, melding the ingredients of shaved lamb spiced to perfection with soft pita and cool tzatziki to warm the taste buds up for the meal to come ($9). Or if you’re feeling more Americana, the breaded onion rings and Wisconsin cheese curds are classic Phil’s comfort foods ($7 each).
Barbatsis speaks highly of head chefs Dan Cunningham and Dustin Cross, saying, “It’s hard to find anything on our menu that we’re not really proud of, otherwise it wouldn’t be on our menu.” That means a focus on Mediterranean steakhouse style, and space for the flavors of their Tara steak, top sirloin or New York strip to assert themselves ($17–$25).
Their pride is in fresh, quality products, exemplified by the creamy, tangy pasta Adriatica with feta and olives, artichoke, spinach and tomato, bell pepper and onion, chili flake for a nice kick, and a white wine sauce with which to douse the arrangement ($12; add chicken for $4 or shrimp for $7). Or keep that hometown cabin feeling alive with fresh-caught walleye prepared any way you like. It comes broiled, pan-fried, batter-fried or even prepared with hazelnut ($18–$19).
After relishing the flavors of a delicious cut of beef or a freshly caught fish, there’s little left to do but sit by the fire and enjoy a tale of Stillwater’s past. Many occupants will tell you, and certainly not for the first time, that Phil’s Tara Hideaway was a favorite stop for the likes of John Dillinger and Al Capone during Prohibition.
Perfectly situated as the last stop outside of St. Paul, the Hideaway prepared food and drink for some of the most famous mobsters, who we can only hope were paying customers. “Dillinger was here quite a bit,” Barbatsis says. He won’t divulge more, even after I press him, choosing to play it cool. “I like the folklore being itself,” he says. But the stories remain, and history breathes within the restaurant, kept alive by a conversation with neighbors over a hearty meal.
Ganache in a Glass: Tara’s Chocolatini
1½ oz. Stoli vanilla vodka
1 oz. dark crème de cacao
1 oz. Godiva chocolate liqueur
Chocolate ganache drizzle
Fill a shaker with plenty of ice. Add a double dose of chocolate with the dark crème de cacao and Godiva liqueur. Add the Stoli vodka for a refreshing hint of vanilla, and shake vigorously until your inner chocoholic takes over, then pour into a martini glass. Drizzle with a double drip of ganache, and sip a dessert-cocktail infusion of pure bliss.
“We are known primarily for our wine,” says Nik Barbatsis, but notes that he and the other bartenders are thrilled to make inventive concoctions like the Chocolatini for diners with a sweeter tooth.
The Drink: Chocolatini
The Bar: Phil’s Tara Hideaway
The Tender: Nik Barbatsis