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Eau Claire Cancels All Those Quaint Wisconsin Cheese Curd Cliches

·11 min read
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

When I booked my trip to the little town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I mostly thought of cheese curds. And beer. The state, fondly known as America’s Dairyland, is famous for these fantastic homegrown products (as well as copious amounts of grassy farmland). However, Eau Claire sets itself apart as an artist incubator with an innovative foodie scene, all set against the backdrop of a Hallmark movie.

Eau Claire was a city I wasn’t expecting, especially considering the uneventful drive from Minneapolis—tall concrete buildings gave way to lush green pastures with small farms scattered throughout. Loan billboards offered ad space, available for purchase. The bridge across St. Croix River presented a break from the greenery and teased of the many bridges I’d soon find in Eau Claire.

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As we neared the city, I could sense a shift in the air. The quiet of the country road gently rose to the sounds of flowing water from the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers that converge downtown. The scattered farms turned to clusters of houses before finally making way for the town’s urban heart.

All around town are reminders that this is an innovation hub from creative sculptures to Vietnamese food trucks to employee-owned grocery stores and artisan markets. Forage is a space for local food creators to develop their ideas, while Wonders of Nature ensures CBD gets to those who need it. The more time you spend in the little city, the more it seems as though every business is interconnected, each sourcing from the others. It didn’t take long to understand that Eau Claire is a thriving town, with more than its fair share of mom-and-pop boutique shops. Ramone’s, a vintage ice cream parlor with local craft sodas, malts, ice cream, and pie, was a personal favorite. With gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, and vegan options, the parlor ensures every visitor can have a sweet treat.

Lucky for those of us who aren’t as geographically savvy, Eau Claire’s streets are reasonably easy to navigate with grid-like layouts and easily recognizable structures. With more than a dozen bridges, Eau Claire’s nickname is the City of Bridges. From historic wooden bridges dating back to 1889 to modern cable constructions, there seems to be a whimsical river crossing in every corner—a beautiful way to experience the water and the outdoors.

The Oxbow Hotel in the middle of town is an ideal starting point to any Eau Claire getaway. Giant lettering at the front allows for easy sighting if you happen to get lost, though Google Maps may be just as convenient.

Oxbow treats its guests to all the usual offerings of a traditional hotel—complimentary wifi, coffee and tea, and onsite parking—but that's where the similarities end. However, that’s where Oxbow’s resemblance to a conventional hotel ends. Built in 1947 and renovated in 2016, the Oxbow has an intimate artist cabin vibe, with local art hanging on the walls and cedarwood furniture made from nearby trees. Details like the record players in the rooms and the upscale toiletries stood out, subtly elevating a guest’s experience.

The property’s artist residency program and the boxes of vinyl records ready for checkout are evidence of the hotel’s role in nurturing local talent. It’s no wonder, as one of the co-owners of the Oxbow Hotel is none other than Eau Claire native and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon.

The Grammy winner still lives in Eau Claire, and while I didn’t catch a glimpse of him during my trip, his impact on the town is apparent in both little and big ways. For example, Vernon hosts a two-day art and music festival called Eaux Claires in the summers, drawing 20,000 festival-goers from around the country. In 2022, he’s bringing the festival downtown. He was also a prominent supporter and donor for the $60 million Pablo Center, a modern arts venue that offers a stage to emerging artists.

It was only fitting that I borrowed one of the Bon Iver vinyl records from the front desk and played it in my room to get the full experience, a melancholy soundtrack of nostalgia to my otherwise upbeat trip.

The town itself is modern and innovative, as seen by the creative concepts that flourish as viable businesses. The foodie scene is no exception, with an emphasis on farm-to-table.

The Lakely, attached to the Oxbow, serves up a locally sourced, seasonal menu—classic Midwestern dishes with an artistic twist. At each table was a note: Tipping at The Lakely is no longer expected. Menu pricing had been adjusted since the pandemic began, and restaurant workers would now be paid above minimum wage. It’s not just at the Lakely either. Multiple restaurants around town have this no-tipping standard.

The most memorable dish on the Lakely’s menu was the Koldtbord, a charcuterie-like, build-your-own board with your choice of a dozen Scandinavian meats, cheeses, and other foods. Thankfully, this dish is a staple on the menu and doesn’t change with the seasons. I usually gravitate toward clear spirits for alcoholic beverages, but my waiter insisted I order a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, and thus I did.

This cocktail is unlike any other you’ll find in the United States. Usually, an Old Fashioned consists of bourbon, sugar, bitters, and an orange twist. However, when you order a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, you’re met with brandy and a splash of 7-Up, squirt soda, or a mix of 7-Up and club soda.

As the unofficial state cocktail, the Wisconsin Old Fashioned has a different flavor at almost every bar. It’s also the drink to try if you’re in the state.

Not far from my hotel was the brightly lit Haymarket Plaza pedestrian bridge. You could spot the romantic arches from far off in the distance, thanks to hundreds of LED lights all around the bridge.

I went for a walk over to the Haymarket bridge one evening. Leaning over the edge to watch the watery reflections on the dark Chippewa river, I could almost imagine myself as the main character of a Hallmark movie, ready to move to Eau Claire to restore the family bakery. All I needed was some snow. And a bakery. Of course, the fantasy ended when I got to Haymarket Plaza on the other end of the bridge. Instagrammable art installations reminded me that this city is very much in step with the times.

These installations are part of the U.S.’s second-largest outdoor sculpture tour (the largest being in Sioux Falls). However, rumor has it that with an addition of 20 more sculptures from local artists, Eau Claire will be stealing the title of largest outdoor sculpture tour this year.

One of my favorite ways to experience the local culture is through the cafes, where eavesdropping is less conspicuous and knowledge passes through like water in the Chippewa River. Eau Claire has its fair share of these diverse gathering places for both locals and tourists alike. Eau Claire Downtown Coffee (ECDC—yes, a nod to the band AC/DC) serves a variety of caffeinated beverages along with enormous breakfast burritos and delightful macarons.

And that cleverly named coffee spot is not the town’s only way of showcasing its love of music. Revival Records, an indie record store that has thrived amid the pandemic, is another Eau Claire staple. I watched in awe as dozens of record aficionados lined up outside hours before store opening on National Record Store Day to snag limited-edition vinyl. The store holds an impressive collection of records, especially for a small Midwest town. Perhaps my Hallmark movie would include a record shop rather than a bakery.

Don’t be fooled by the innovative streak that runs through Eau Claire though: just beyond the city’s outskirts are classic Midwest farms that remind you you’re still in Wisconsin.

The local restaurant community is big on knowing where their food is sourced. I witnessed this first hand as I attended a catered lunch by Farm Table Foundation at Together Farms, just 35 minutes outside of Eau Claire. Together Farms is where the socially-conscious meat-eaters hang out.

In true Wisconsin style, I connected with my inner farmgirl, feeding piglets that roamed on the land and enjoying a jostling tractor ride around the 160-acre farm. I was surprised to hear owner Stephanie Schnieder share her journey with the symbiotic food chain, intensive rotational feeding, and the importance of meat raised right. Her passion for her farm wasn’t just about the animals but about a healthier, more sustainable planet.

This kind of intentionality is infused into every part of Eau Claire culture. So is alcohol. Every few steps, you’ll pass a bar with a quirky personality. The Fire House, a craft beer bar, has made its home in an old firehouse. The Grand Illusion is an old-fashioned pub with absolutely, strictly no TVs. Dive gives locals and tourists a retro atmosphere alongside impeccable cocktails, and The Joynt lets patrons find their (cash-only) way among mismatched decor, ridiculously cheap beer, and eccentric artwork. When it comes to bars, you name it, Eau Claire’s got it. Looking for live music? That won’t be hard either, as local bands play across town on any given night.

Visitors can further experience the hoppy personality of Eau Claire in its thriving indie breweries found all over the city. I stopped by the Brewing Projekt, one of 8 craft breweries in town. Of course, I was familiar with seeing dogs in this setting, but the families surprised me. Beer culture is so deeply ingrained in Wisconsin families that drinking around children is normalized in a way I hadn’t seen before. In fact, underage children can buy or consume alcohol in Wisconsin as long as they’re with a parent, guardian, or spouse of legal drinking age.

If you are an indecisive beer drinker like me, go for a flight of their funky flavors. I chose to try out a flight of creative, colorful beers. I tried a stout with milk sugar, raspberry, and cacao nibs (Ssslurppp: Chocolate Raspberry), an imperial stout with milk sugar, cinnamon, pecans, salted caramel, and butter pecans (Sticky Icky), and a Gose-style ale with pineapple, mango, and sea salt (Storm Tide). These were just a few quirky flavor pairings, with others incorporating green tea, lemongrass, marshmallow, and more. I found out later that sometimes there are even food trucks at the brewery. From the top deck of the Brewing Projekt, I could trace the Chippewa River Water Trail, where people were tubing lazily down the river.

Stay on the water long enough, and you’ll be stunned by the sunset as it casts its reflection across the river. Stay in the city long enough, and you’re bound to hear that Eau Claire means clear water in French.

Less water-inclined? Try your hand at a game of Kubb. Not quite sure what Kubb is? Neither was I before visiting Eau Claire, the Kubb Capital of North America. Kubb, pronounced coob and also known as Viking chess, is a Scandinavian yard game that consists of knocking wooden blocks down for points. Legend says that Vikings used to play the game with skulls and femurs of their enemy!

Visit at the right time (specifically in July), and you’ll find yourself among hundreds of Kubb enthusiasts. Eau Claire has been hosting the annual U.S. National Kubb Championship since 2007, the second-largest Kubb tournament in the world.

On my last day in Eau Claire, I borrowed one of the hotel’s bikes and took a ride down the street. I wanted to see what was on the outskirts of town.

Eau Claire is as beginner-friendly as it gets with trails, with 30 miles of biking paths across the city. Wide trails, built for walking or biking, take you right by the river and under the same bridges that light up at night. As someone who doesn’t usually bike, I was initially intimidated, but I soon hit my stride as I explored the outskirts.

I passed all the stores I’d grown familiar with over the past few days and all the art murals bedecking the buildings throughout downtown. All the red brick buildings slowly morphed into Victorian-style houses that earned their spot on the National Register of Historic Places, a gentle reminder that the city hadn’t always been so youthful.

As I made my way back, I spotted yet another thriving and eclectic storefront: SHIFT Cyclery and Coffee Bar, a specialty coffee and bike shop combo. Next time, I’ll be stopping in that cafe, maybe in the winter, maybe with some snow.

STAY: The Oxbow Hotel

EAT: Girolamo's Court'n House Bar & Grill

SEE: Leinenkugel Family Brewery

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