Wisconsin boasts its share of quaint little towns worth stopping by for a quick brat and beer when out on a leaf-peeping weekend.
Eau Claire is not one of them. Not any longer.
Once you catch the infectious vibe of the small city (population 67,000) 90-some miles east of Minneapolis, you’ll be hooked for the weekend.
True, during the ’80s, Eau Claire’s youngsters spent their graduation checks on the fastest tickets to Austin or Portland to join the ranks of hip. Today those folks are moving back to Eau Claire to catch the wave of its new-born creative spirit. It’s leading the Wisconsin Renaissance as magnet for artists of all flavors.
And that’s no accident.
“Today, it’s a disruptive town. ‘Alternative’ is positive,” said Greg Johnson, one of a triumvirate of visionary entrepreneurs who helped turn the downward spiral up.
They eavesdropped on the plight of Mayo, which operates a clinic here, and JAMF Software: Both had trouble attracting smart new hires with nothing to do outside the cubicle but snooze.
Mixing it up
In response, Johnson launched Artisan Forge in a former trucking facility to pull lonely, fragmented artists together in collaborative studios alongside a sales gallery and a performance space.
Today it’s a center for talent and a booster of citywide cultural attractions.
Classes are offered in every medium imaginable, including pottery, metalwork for women and glassblowing, to name a few.
“We discovered there were 40 glassblowers in town. Who knew?” said artist Ed Dubick, who relocated here with his wife, Kendra.
More studios are in the works at the Artisan Forge, too, along with a new a coffeehouse.
Nick Meyer is another one of those making things happen. He publishes Volume One, the city’s arts/entertainment paper, housed above a shop he fittingly named The Local Store, sourcing all things witty and Wisconsin.
A year ago, Meyer, along with other Eau Claire entrepreneurs, converted a ho-hum hostelry into The Oxbow Hotel, a hipster’s haven, tricked out with an art gallery and a restaurant/bar with live local jazz. Every guest room features a record player with a cache of vinyl LPs.
Festivals and beer flights
That record collection was curated by a third man who’s been instrumental in the turnaround — local musician Justin Vernon of the indie-folk band Bon Iver.
He’s a major player in one of Eau Claire’s six sizable annual music festivals — Eaux Claires, with upwards of 15,000 in attendance. It doesn’t hurt to have the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire music department in cahoots, which each year partners with Eau Claire Jazz, Inc., to host one of the largest jazz festivals in the country. (The U boasts five jazz bands, a polka band and a harp choir.)
The U is collaborating with city, state and private funders to build a new venue, the Confluence Arts Center, to open on the riverbank in 2018.
Speaking of riverbanks, where the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers ramble, so do more than 30 miles of popular biking/hiking trails (in the city limits alone) that pass a lively farmers market and craft breweries such as Brewing Projekt. (Flights of three cost $4. Take that, big cities!)
Lazy Monk — another brewery, which launched in 2010 — favors traditional-style lagers in a German-style setting.
“No TVs, no Muzak: This is a place for meeting friends,” said owner Teresa Frank.
The young maverick behind Infinity Beverages opened his winery/distillery in 2010 (at age 23) to produce products “you won’t find anywhere else.”
And that is? Vodka made from sugar beets and apples, rather than the usual grain and potatoes.
Another young couple runs Autumn Harvest Winery, where apples share the glory with grapes. Pick your own Honeycrisps, put together a picnic (cheese and sausage available) and sit awhile to listen to live music.
The valley’s fabled bike trails (70 miles in all) spurred another wily youngster to launch Shift, a new bike shop turned coffeehouse.
Revival Records, stocking 25,000 LP albums “from ABBA to Zappa,” represents the marriage of passion and vision of young Billy Siegel.
Down the street, a couple of veteran entrepreneurs figured out how to keep their Micon Downtown Budget Cinema movie theater abreast of the times. They remodeled the interior with club seating for drinking beer and eating pizza during shows. (Tickets are $4, big spenders.)
You won’t find tired-saying T-shirts and tacky coasters shopping here.
Step into Tangled Up in Hue for another dose of local talent in the form of artisan-crafted antler jewelry, crocheted cacti, felted vases, bicycle-spoke bracelets and more. (Men, if you’re not enchanted, head over to the new model train store down the street, instead of yawning.)
Approach nearby Antique Emporium with a U-Haul: If you collect it, they’ve got it. Janet Carson Gallery showcases a cleverly curated handful of artists. Back at The Local Store, you’ll also find Wisconsin everything: Drink Wisconsinably bottle openers, road-map blankets, loon cookie cutters, plus CDs and books by local authors.
Nearby you’ll find Red’s Mercantile, which introduced Eau Claire to stylish women’s duds when owner Becca Cooke, who’d fled to California, returned to her invigorated home town.
Dining and kindness
The city’s self-guided sculpture walk, meanwhile, features 42 sidewalk creations to admire. Which calls for a cuppa, right?
Rest your feet at ECDC (homemade pastries, too, including dangerously delicious macarons).
It’s housed in the Lismore Hotel, boasting a cool bar called Dive, atop the former rooftop swimming pool.
Back on ground level stands the town’s most inventive kitchen, The Informalist, where espresso-chili-rubbed pork belly with pickled-ramp pesto and a fried green tomato Benedict are stars on the menu, which includes wood-fired pizzas, too.
Mona Lisa’s is the go-to for carefully executed Italian fare. Owner Lisa Aspenson did “local” before anyone else got the message, in dishes like osso buco, pork tenderloin with fig chutney; gnocchi with autumn veggies; wild-mushroom ravioli; and all breeds of pizza.
When a burger craving hits, steer to Classic Garage. You’ll spot it by the pink Cadillac the owner, Rick Payton, parks by the pumps. His baby-blue Caddie sits just inside, another sexy advertisement for his Fifties menu, served on Formica tabletops.
Payton is one of those Austin émigrés who settled in Eau Claire, as did four of his acquaintances when he spread the word.
“People are kind and respectful here,” he notes. “Coming from Texas, it was kind of unsettling.”
Unsettling, yes indeed. Alternative, too. And as exuberantly disruptive as those more-famous capitals of cool.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the globe. She lives in Uptown.
Plan your trip
To satisfy your inner rebel, consult visiteauclaire.com.