Let’s face it: We all like food. We eat it all the time, and we prefer for it to be good. But when traveling, eating used to mean driving around a town until you saw a place that seemed to be a restaurant, and trying to judge from the style of the sign and how many cars were outside whether it would be a place that would meet your culinary expectations, or at least not poison you. It was like food roulette – sometimes you discovered greatness, and sometimes you wished afterwards you’d just thrown your money down the sewer drain.
Well God bless the Internet. And God bless Foodies. Here in Winona, we love you both.
Define Foodies, you say? OK. The tourism industry likes to call them “culinary travelers”, a rather aristocratic-sounding title that conjures images of pâté-spreading, wine-swishing food critics searching the land for the perfect bonne bouche. But you know who you really are… You are the folks who, when visiting a town, will drive past the chain restaurants in search of the Holy Grail: something uniquely local with a quirky burger, an interesting beer lineup, a famously delicious piece of chocolate cake, or maybe even pâté, as long as it was masterminded by the guy cooking on the other side of the wall and not some test kitchen.
Not only have Foodies created some Ah-Mazing eateries tucked into unexpected nooks and crannies all over the place, but when other Foodies find those spots, they write all over the Internet about it. Driven by an insatiable craving for something authentic, Foodies will drive farther and spend more for a great meal, and they will talk about their discovery down to the smallest detail so the next poor soul looking for good eats need only check review sites on the Web to pull back the curtain on a restaurant and see what they will find inside.
Foodies, or, ahem, culinary travelers, don’t necessarily choose a destination based on what restaurants are there, but they definitely are scouring the web for local gems wherever they go.
Here in Winona, we say scour away. This town is chock full of deliciousness – things you will absolutely never eat anywhere else – and you’d have to come back over and over again to taste it all. Or you could eat straight from the time you arrive to the time you leave, but I don’t recommend it because, well, it will make you sick.
By no means an exhaustive list, and in no particular order, here are some of the places you must add to your bucket list of culinary adventures:
Signatures/The Grill: On one side it’s a stylish grill serving up gourmet comfort food (lobster mac and cheese – crazy good), and on the other side it’s a swanky restaurant serving an epicurean delight of gourmet fare (mostly sourced locally) that has left those pâté-nibbling, wine-swirling food critics swooning. And the wine list will knock your socks off.
The Boat House: This, my friends, is a Foodie adventure. Chef Doug dreams up food like Whitman dreamed up poetry, and the changing menu, cool vibe, and hot toddies will keep you coming back again and again. The beautifully decadent breakfast poutine (house cut fries topped with homemade sausage gravy, thick cut bacon, cheese curds, sour cream, scallions and two fried eggs) will make you weep.
Lakeview Drive Inn: Since 1938, these folks have been serving us homemade root beer that is to die for. Even better, a carhop will bring it to your car window in one of those huge, frosted mugs that weighs about as much as a dying sun. Trust me – if you even hold a tiny place in your heart for root beer, you want a glass of this.
Rubios Food Truck: I know what you’re thinking – a food truck? But I’m telling you, if you are in the vicinity of downtown on any given night and see one of these big beasts out, treat yourself to some of the most delicious walking Mexican food you’ll ever have. Beef and rice burrito – killer.
Blue Heron Coffee House: A bright, beautiful little spot with unique breakfast and lunch items, organic ingredients, and a chill vibe. Everyone raves about the breakfast frittatas (with olives – yum), but I’ve seriously even heard people rave about the oatmeal. If you forgot something to read, no problem – there is a bookstore attached that’s fun to browse.
Bloedow Bakery: The best bakery in Minnesota, and we’re not just saying that. Saveur Magazine said it. So did Twin Cities CBS-affiliate WCCO. And Country Living. And every person who’s ever put one of their donuts in their mouth. I don’t know what kind of magic they put in these things, but a maple long john is a transformative experience.
Poot’s Sports Palace: It is the smallest bar you’ve ever been in, and it’s hidden on a side street that you will have to use GPS to find – but this place makes a Pootza (like a pizza, only better) unlike anything you’ve ever had. Done from scratch right in front of you, these little delights come in all kinds of varieties (love, love love the buffalo chicken), or they’ll let you invent one on the spot from whatever ingredients they have. This is without a doubt one of Winona’s best kept secrets.
Oh – there’s more… hometown brewpubs and seriously good Thai, Chinese, and Mexican, charming little coffee shops and interesting sandwich places – you can browse them all on the Visit Winona website, or better yet, browse them all from a seat inside while you soak up this cool little city. But better bring your stretchy pants, because your taste buds will thank me, but your waistline probably won’t. It’s OK though – we have hiking trails… but that’s another post
You could while away a whole day in the Blue Heron Coffee Shop.
I have to say, living next to one of the country’s most beautiful waterways has a few perks. For starters, it’s beautiful, and there is likely no one who has ever passed this way who doesn’t recall the crystalline blue water that hugs Winona. If you haven’t seen it for yourself, trust me, it’s spectacular.
But this river is not just eye candy. It’s like a whole microcosm of things to do, one of those ‘something for everyone’ places, and I really mean everyone. If you doubt – let me tell you what I saw on the river Saturday:
Weathered old men and chattering families and boats full of buddies drifted in the gentle backwaters casting for the day’s catch, but with so many nooks and crannies to explore, each seemed as if they’d found their own perfect spot. Kayakers were out too, silently gliding through the full bloom of water lilies to create a scene that would make most postcards jealous.
Faster boats stuck to the broader channels, hauling squealing kids on tubes and flashy wakeboarders doing tricks. I was on a fast boat with a flashy wakeboarder, but doing neither of these things myself because, well, I’m terrible at it. Someday perhaps I’ll post a photo of me trying to barefoot water ski, which basically consists of me clinging with total panic to a boom off of the boat. So yeah, anyway, it’s fun to watch, but I’ll be the one with the camera.
And speaking of cameras, there is no shortage of wonder to capture out there on the Mississippi River. Besides the blooms of water lilies and plumes of wild rice and desolate swatches of uninhabited beach, blue herons dotted the shallows, eagles and flocks of pelicans soared overhead, and shy turtles on sunny logs slipped into the water by the hundreds as we cruised by.
If you want it, there is plenty of socializing to be had on the river, with popular sandbars lined with cruisers and houseboats rented for the weekend. And I’m not saying we did or didn’t go there, but there are a few watering holes along this stretch that you can dock a boat at for a cold one if you’re in the mood.
And if you get a wild hair, some helpful souls have installed a rope swing or two on some of the islands you’ll pass by. If you decide to stop for a jump, my advice is that you are NOT holding onto the knot second from the bottom when you jump out of the tree, or you will find your body being dragged across the ground before you flop face first into the water. I may or may not have done this. And it may or may not be on videotape.
But even with knees plastered with Band-Aides, the river is an awful lot of fun, and it’s big enough to share with all comers. What are you waiting for? I think everyone deserves a river day, and you can make it into whatever you want. But bring Band-Aides, just in case.
This town is so cool. Everybody has Fridays, right? Yeah, big deal. Winona takes that whole Friday thing to a new level with its Fringe Fridays, occasional cut-loose-and-get-around-town days that spring up to fill art galleries and coffee houses and local haunts with stuff, stuff and more stuff.
Last Friday was just such a day, the kind of day with so much going on that I wished I could clone myself. And quit my day job. Okay, not really, because I kind of need that, but seriously, who WOULDN’T want to sit and Blooming Grounds and decorate cupcakes on a Friday afternoon and then eat them. Yeah.
There was so much going on Friday that I couldn’t even keep track of it all — it wasn’t a matter of finding where there was something, it was a question of where there wasn’t. The event was dubbed Flooded River Fringe Friday because, aside from the fact that we’re a little flooded down here in these parts right now, you couldn’t swing a stick and not hit a musician, an artist or a poet in Winona that day. But please don’t try that – the stick swinging part I mean, because, well, it’s mean, and you could hurt somebody. Just trust me on this one.
I have to take my hat off to the group behind all this, or groups, I should say. The instigator is the brain trust of the Frozen River Film Festival – Crystal Hegge, who I ran into at the tail end of Fringe Friday listening to Gospel Gossip at Ed’s (no name) Bar. There’s a chick who needs to be cloned – how she kept those juggling pins in the air all day long I have no idea.
But while the impetus may come from Frozen River, the action comes from the growing number of artists and businesses in town who have taken up the mantra that it is time to reinvent this river town into a music mecca.
Truth is, they’re doing a pretty good job. Crystal and I were ruminating about a few years ago when on any given night you were unlikely to find live music anywhere, much less a choice between places. Aside from occasional coffee house performances and bands at The Bar in Goodview there really wasn’t much of anything. Nothing against coffee house singers or foot-stomping in Goodview, but Winona needed more.
At the same time, a curious thing was happening in town. Maybe it was because of the Great River Shakespeare Festival or the Minnesota Marine Art Museum or the Beethoven Festival or Frozen River or those fabulous blue heron statues in the Blue Heron Project, or maybe it was a mystifying twist in people’s psyche, but people started talking about art. More artists were hanging out shingles, more musicians made themselves known, and Winona was starting to take on the vibe of a really cool place.
What happened last Friday wouldn’t have been in the faintest imagination of people here four years ago. Galleries all over town opened their doors for musical performances and socializing, coffee houses and bars hosted full line-ups too, even Yarnology, a trendy little knitting shop, had music. Seven Hawks Vineyard donated wine that was given away, photographer Shannon Porter (my brutha from anutha mutha – just ask him) took free Fringy Photos, Bluff Country Co-op donated proceeds, Beno’s Deli gave double punches… Oh yeah and there were poets and readings and a midnight showing of a film — I’m telling you, this town was humming.
I love, love, love what this coming together of great minds is doing to Winona. What is so incredible, so amazing about the success of it all is that it completely organic – from the people for the people. There is no committee at City Hall or the Chamber of Commerce pushing this effort forward, it is bubbling up from people who live, work and play here who really, really want this town to be a little more awesome. I love you guys. Thanks for giving me a fun town to live in. And please, please tell me when the next Fringe Friday is, and tell my boss I’ll be sick that day.
No, this is not a post about horror movies, silly. It’s a post about music, namely the Midwest Music Fest, although I realize my Sound of Music reference title might be dating me a bit.
Yeah, I am outside the age range one typically imagines when you hear the words “music festival” — a term likely to conjure up images of hip 20-somethings with little square glasses, a couple of extra piercings, a degree in earth science and a taste in alternative music far cooler than I’ll ever understand.
Well yes, the Midwest Music Fest appeals to those cool alternative music aficionados, and they have plenty to love over the weekend’s festivities, which this year are scheduled for April 15 and 16. But the beauty of this festival is that it’s even cooler than that.
Last year in its inaugural year, Midwest Music Fest swept into Winona like Zeus’ Hecatoncheires (which, for those of you not up on your Greek mythology, were 50-headed, 100-armed giants who fought with Zeus against the Titans. They were also enemies of Uranus because he forced them back into their mother, Gaea’s womb, but let’s focus here…). For two days, Winona’s venues large and small were filled with music of every style – 14 venues and 77 groups in all – and more than 1,100 people came to hear it play.
This year promises to be bigger with more venues and new musicians, and what is the coolest part of it all is that the proceeds from the festival go to local charities. Last year they gave away about $7,000, not a small chunk of change, which might make one think it’s kind of spendy to partake of these musical festivities.
Twenty five bucks. You can see every single performer, listen to music to your heart’s content for two days, for $25. AND the money goes to charity. Seriously folks, if that doesn’t get you out of the house, maybe the lineup will. Local favorites like Patti Darbo, Gregg and Nat, Chris Kendall and the Beef Slough Boys perform at local favorite haunts like Blue Heron, Acoustic Cafe and Blooming Grounds, with bands and performers from all over joining them there and at other cool venues like Ed’s No Name Bar, the Winona History Center, the Masonic Temple, even churches and art galleries.
This is not just a music festival – it’s like music-palooza with melodies drifting from every conceivable doorway in town. April 15 and 16 the hills WILL be alive with the sound of music in Winona, and if you don’t come I think the only thing missing from this music-packed event will be you.
See for yourself here: www.midwestmusicfest.org — you can buy your pass there and even sign up to volunteer, either of which will undoubtedly help your taste in local and regional musicians become a whole lot cooler.