The Marine General Store has been serving Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, since 1870, when it opened as the company mercantile for the state's first commercial sawmill. The town is home to nearly 700 residents, and the store anchors its commercial district, a wide spot in Highway 95, about halfway between Taylors Falls and Stillwater. A good share of Marine on St. Croix is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and nothing but the sound of a passing motorcycle pack tends to break the town's quaint traquillity.
Marine on St. Croix has long been home to several eateries worth a pit stop en route to William O'Brien State Park or a day trip from the Twin Cities. But within the last year, the arrivals of a new wood-fired pizza joint, a bicycle-centric coffee shop, and a gourmet chocolatier have turned the town into a bona fide dining destination.
Marine General Store
101 Judd Street, Marine on St. Croix
A paper sign on the Marine General Store's front door lets visitors know that tickets to the sixth-grade play are sold inside, along with the grocery items, drain plugs, linden-scented hand lotion, and refrigerated nightcrawlers. Marine General has some contemporary upgrades, including new solar panels on the roof, but it still sells old-fashioned penny candy—though those syrup-filled wax bottles and candy cigarettes will now set you back 25 cents.
As you walk through the narrow merchandise aisles, the hardwood floors ripple like river currents. Head to the deli in the back of the store, which prepares a variety of scratch-made sandwiches and salads. If you're lucky, you'll find the cheeseburger soup, an exemplar of Midwestern crock pot cooking (think spicy beer cheese soup blended with chunks of potato and ground beef). During the summer tourism season, baked goods are made fresh daily and priced to sell: doughnuts, caramel rolls, cookies, and pies, as well as the cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled rounds of leftover pie crust known as Elephant Ears. If weather permits, tote your rations across the street to the city park for a picnic.
Brookside Bar & Grill
140 Judd St., Marine on St. Croix
From the outside, the Brookside looks like it belongs in Bavaria, with its beautiful carved wood facade. But inside, it's your basic American bar and grill, spiffed up a year ago when new ownership took over. Interestingly, the Brookside's building originally housed a creamery, and the small brook that, believe it or not, actually runs through the building's basement was believed to have been used to keep the milk cool.
The Brookside is open daily for lunch, dinner, and late-night reveling, and it has become known as a popular gathering spot for motorcyclists, who sometimes blanket the restaurant's backyard with denim and black leather. (The outdoor seats are enhanced by several shade trees, a fire ring, and a small stage set up for bands to play on the weekends.)
The grill menu consists of greasy bar foods like cheese curds and tater tots to pair with sandwiches and burgers. The best thing to order is a delicious mess called the Hunter's Extreme, which tops a half-pound beef patty with American cheese, smoky bacon, and caramelized onions.
Marine Landing, b.o.t.m.
10 Elm St., Marine on St. Croix
Better not to rely on the Force to find Marine Landing. If you plan to arrive by land, start at downtown Marine on St. Croix and follow these directions: Head down Oak Street, make a left on Second, then a right on Elm. Park next to the dry-docked pontoons adjacent to the garage and walk down the hill. From the middle of the 19th century until the mid-1950s, the secluded, leafy site you'll come upon served as a ferry crossing between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now it's a restaurant attached to a small marina, where sea dogs refuel their boats and their stomachs.
Megan Kavanagh and her husband, Mike Zajac, took over the restaurant last season, and you'll typically find her waiting on tables while he's stationed behind the grill. (True story: Kavanagh first worked at the restaurant when she was a teenager. After several unsuccessful attempts to get a job there, the plucky gal just grabbed a broom and started sweeping. When the owner told her, for the umpteenth time, "I don't need you," she swept a pile of dirt to his feet and replied, "Yes, you do.")
Kavanagh and Zajac have put Marine Landing "back on the map," as they say, returning what was most recently Norman Quack's into something closer to its original form: a breakfast-and-lunch spot of unfussy fare, where the favorite spices, Zajac likes to say, are salt, pepper, and garlic.
Marine Landing is open only during the summer, Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, Wednesdays through Sundays. On Fridays the restaurant serves barbecue rib dinners, from 5:03 to 8 p.m., according to the sign painted on the window—a family inside joke about what time Megan shows up for work. (If you're wondering about the other sign, "Boozer slept here," it refers to the town dog, a stray basset hound that the community ended up adopting. Boozer was so popular among residents that he acquired his own T-shirts and bank account, so he could bail himself out of the pound.)
Marine Landing's breakfast items include basic plates of eggs, hash browns, and toast, along with malt-infused waffles topped with fresh strawberries. If you're dining during the lunch hour, the dish to order is the pulled pork sandwich, a Southwestern-style pile of shredded meat piled onto Texas toast with fresh cilantro, rings of raw onion, avocado slices, and a spicy chipotle adobo mayonnaise. It's the most unusual thing on the menu, and it's absolutely fantastic.
The restaurant's patio sits mere inches from the water—dangerously close, it would seem. In fact, the building has been flooded many times in its century-long existence and so far has pulled through in every instance. Marine Landing's Facebook page displays photographs from this spring's flood, capturing Kavanagh and Zajac's children canoeing inside the building!
Even the Village Scoop's own employees aren't sure if it actually has an address, but fortunately it's easy to locate: Just look for the large ice cream cone and the arrow pointing behind the Marine General Store. The tiny operation typically scoops more than 20 kinds of hard ice cream, including that nostalgic childhood favorite Bubble Gum, into cones, shakes, malts, and sundaes. Because the Scoop is staffed by so many teenagers, it's not open its full hours, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, until school lets out in June.
11 Judd St., Marine on St. Croix
Last summer Jason and Kelley Bailey opened Olive's wood-fired pizzeria, cooking their artisan pies in a brick oven imported from Italy. The dining room has high ceilings and plenty of windows to let the outside in, but there's also a spacious deck attached to the side of the building. The back of the shop's interior is the coziest spot, where diners can watch pizzas slide in and out of the oven, cooked by the heat of burning logs.
The thin-crust artisan pizzas cost about $20 apiece, but they're more than enough to feed two. Toppings include standards like the Italian-style Margherita or the American Supreme topped with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions, olives, peppers, and cheese. Olive's offers pies styled after Greek and Mediterranean regions, but it's hard to resist the Alaskan, made with fresh dill, plump capers, sweet onions, cream cheese, and smoked wild-caught salmon. (If you're having trouble deciding, go halfsies.)
During warm weather, Olive's serves dinner Thursday through Sunday, as well as lunch on the weekends. But even with the restaurant's newly added patio seating, the place tends to fill up fast. While you're waiting for your pizza, try a pint of the local favorite summer beer, Farm Girl Saison from the Stillwater-based Lift Bridge brewery.
The Bikery du Nord
41 Judd St., Marine on St. Croix
To combine his interests in baking and cycling, in 2008 Belgian native Olivier Vrambout opened the Bikery in Stillwater as a hybrid cycle shop and café. He opened a second outpost, the Bikery du Nord, in downtown Marine on St. Croix last summer. Du Nord combines a coffee shop with bike and Nordic ski sales and service, as well as spin classes and club rides.
The café is decorated with a display of bicycle wheels suspended from the ceiling, and the walls are covered with vintage bicycle ads, bicycle-themed artwork, and jerseys. Vrambout's mother, Maryse, can often be found behind the counter, selling several types of European pastries, including croissants and galettes. Her French accent is as delicious as the dark-chocolate-topped profiteroles (cream puffs) and moliere (a gourmet version of the standard coffeehouse mocha made with rich, not-too-sweet Belgian chocolate ganache).
This summer, Olivier Vrambout is taking his operation mobile with a new Bikery truck that's designed to haul bikes and serve food, including dense, chewy, Liège-style waffles and espresso. The truck is co-sponsored by Cooks of Crocus Hill and Nina's coffee shop, and Vrambout plans to take it to the streets of St. Paul, area bike races, and other events, so check the Bikery's website to track it down.
St. Croix Chocolate Co.
261 Parker St., Marine on St. Croix
The St. Croix Chocolate Shop resides in a converted home on the south end of downtown Marine. Chief chocolatier Robyn Dochterman says she hasn't ever slept at the shop, but, after opening on Father's Day last year, during the height of the town's tourist season, she had to pull a few all-nighters to keep up with demand.
Dochterman turns chocolate from all over the world into elegant truffles, using cream and butter from the nearby Crystal Ball dairy to create the candies' soft, luscious centers. She has about 30 flavors in her repertoire, with at least a dozen selections available in the shop. Some of her truffle flavors are inspired by local, seasonal ingredients, including foraged black raspberries and violets. For the latter she blended the chocolate with crème de violet and candied the flowers to decorate each piece. Dochterman covers the basics, such as chocolate-peanut butter and chocolate-caramel, but she also likes her flavors funky. Via a recent Facebook poll, she asked the shop's fans, "Would you try a chocolate-covered dill pickle if we made them?"
St. Croix's gem-like confections almost look too beautiful to eat, as many are decorated with colored cocoa butter designs that have been painted into molds or screen-printed onto acetate and transferred to the chocolates in the manner of temporary tattoos. Passion fruit-filled truffles look like glass marbles; Mango Habanero squares are topped with a whisper-thin thread of chili pepper.
Dochterman's latest project involves edible art. She has asked a tile maker to create custom molds for her chocolate bars, and she plans to use another illustrator's images to decorate her confections. Soon you'll find these items at the St. Croix Chocolate shop, which is open Wednesday through Sunday during the summer. And if you won't make it back to Marine for a while, fortunately you can re-order your favorites online.