When it comes to Lake Minnetonka, the numbers always impress: The state’s ninth-largest lake contains approximately 130 billion gallons of water, covering the equivalent of 18,000 football fields. The shoreline winds for about 125 miles.
Even its name, derived from the Dakota language phrase for big water, has a Chamber of Commerce ring to it.
While it starts roughly 15 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, this history-laden district of imposing estates, suburban ranch homes and humble beach cabins feels a world away.
And while the area has long been a water-centric retreat for day-trippers, weekenders and summer residents, the past few years have witnessed the development of another draw to Minnetonka’s shores. Namely, food.
Starting in Excelsior. On a per capita basis, tiny Excelsior, population 2,188, rivals anything in restaurant-centric Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Doubters need only walk Water Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, and start counting. Sprinkled among the one-of-a-kind shops are more than a dozen independently owned eating-and-drinking establishments.
At the top of the food chain lies Victor’s on Water. After landing a prime corner location, owners and first-time restaurateurs Janel Olson and Eric Paulson made all kinds of brilliant hiring decisions, including Snow Kreilich Architects, which deftly converted what is formerly (and most famously) known as Bacon Drug into a sleek, stylish space. More wisdom included signing on general manager Matt Bolles (a previous familiar face from Morton’s) and chef Phillip Becht.
Since the day the Italian restaurant opened in November, Becht has been quietly dispelling the tired notion that the suburbs are a dining wasteland. His sharp, straightforward, vegetable-centric cooking is exciting and deeply satisfying.
Colorful, beautifully rendered pastas are at the heart of the dinner-only menu, but Becht, a Modern Cafe vet, is also a skilled pizza maker, and he transforms familiar animal proteins — salmon, chicken — into special events.
A few doors down in another historic storefront lies Coalition, where chef Eli Wollenzien’s eclectic menu — and craft cocktailing — perfectly suits this modern-day neighborhood eatery. Slow-roasted pork on steamed buns? A smear of sweet peas and mint-infused ricotta on rustic bread? Spinach tossed in a warm mustard dressing, with bacon and potatoes? Tender, crispy-crusted walleye? Finger-shaped strozzapreti pasta doused in a rich lamb sugo? They’re all here, and more.
A tall, cold one
Around the corner, Excelsior Brewing Co. is proving the enduring value of the so-called Surly bill, the 2011 legislation that launched the taproom craze.
Housed in what was originally a 1920s Ford dealership, the brewery has proved to be a huge vitality booster to downtown Excelsior, with beer lovers filling the funky and fun-loving taproom for a crack at head brewer Niles Lewin’s skillfully produced Munich-style brown ale, citrusy blond ale and limited-run seasonal brews, all best explored in handy $7 and $9 flights.
Celebrate the brewery’s third anniversary this weekend — with a pint of its signature Bridge Jumper IPA, naturally — at a tent party on Friday (4 to 10 p.m.) and Saturday (noon to 11 p.m.).
Excelsiorites should also consider themselves fortunate that the Bredeson family brought its Patisserie Margo to town.
Parents Margo and Eric and kids Collin, Sam, Joe and Lena started in Edina 17 years ago and expanded to Water Street about a decade later, introducing western suburbanites to the glories of buttery laminated doughs (don’t miss the spiraled, cinnamon-laced morning buns and the beautiful fruit-packed Danish), first-rate quiche (these people know their crusts), pretty tarts, knobbly hand-cut scones (insiders know to ask for frozen versions that can be baked off at home) and chewy, colorful French macarons.
Weekenders, listen up: The Bredesons devote their Saturday and Sunday morning energies to wildly popular cinnamon rolls, fashioned from their distinctive oatmeal-wheat bread and lavished with icing.
“We usually sell out by about 10:30, so arrive early,” said Collin Bredeson. Duly noted.
Sure, the lake offers plenty of opportunities for ice cream. Pick up scoops of Sebastian Joe’s at Lord Fletcher’s and Tommy’s Tonka Trolley. Lost Lake Creamery stocks a dozen flavors of Cedar Crest, and Licks Unlimited showcases frozen goodness from Madison, Wis.-based Chocolate Shoppe.
All fine, but for a made-on-the-premises experience, nothing comes close to another Excelsior landmark, Adele’s Frozen Custard. The egg yolk-enriched stuff, as dense and creamy as gelato, is cranked out all day in 3½-gallon batches (watch as it’s extruded out of a stainless steel machine in ingot-shaped blobs). One voluptuous taste, and it’s hard to go back to plain old ice cream.
There’s always vanilla, and chocolate, and two changes-daily flavors (they’re posted on the shop’s website). Calorie counters can count on a vanilla yogurt, but Adele’s is a total when-in-Rome kind of experience, so go all in. Oh, and here’s a secret: Give Adele’s 24 hours notice, and they’ll produce custom flavors, in gallon increments.
Fresh air and sunshine
In the Lake Minnetonka patio wars, there are three clear victors. Party-central Maynard’s wins for sheer size, an outdoor footprint of Mall of America proportions that sprawls, across multiple levels, on a prime piece of glistening lakefront. The reasonably priced, something-for-everyone menu impresses for its quick service and attention to details, and the bar(s) takes pains to craft summery cocktails (blood orange margarita, anyone?) and tap highly drinkable beers.
In Wayzata, a pair of high-concept restaurants are duking it out for supremacy. With its postcard-quality views — indoors and out — Cōv Wayzata re-imagines Lake Minnetonka as Nantucket. The kitchen then proceeds to specialize in crowd pleasers, ranging from prime rib and wood-smoked baby back ribs to creamy guacamole packed with juicy lobster and a category-killing crabcake. On the dessert side, a minty strawberry shortcake really captures the essence of what makes July a pinnacle Minnesota experience.
6Smith isn’t content to present a single patio (dockside, and marvelous) to its guests. No, owner Randy Stanley also places diners on the roof, doling out some major Lake Minnetonka scenery in the process.
Down in the kitchen, chef Angel Luna follows a contemporary steaks-seafood format, turning out such memorable dishes as snappy shrimp brushed in black bean sauce, succulent sea bass glazed with tangy miso, sweet and skillfully caramelized scallops, thick-cut bacon infused with bourbon and cherries, a boldly beefy rib eye. Luna’s spouse, Finesse (is there a more suitable name in the hospitality industry?), keeps the service staff running smoothly.
Another Wayzata high point is Sushi Fix, where chef/owner Enkhbileg “Billy” Tserenbat is nudging the local notion of what it is to be a sushi restaurant in exciting new directions. Tserenbat obsesses over the source of his pristine seafood, cutting it with the prowess of a longtime couturier and presenting it with a Noguchi-like simplicity. His attitude toward rice is similarly fanatical, and in his newly expanded bar, his collection of — and enthusiasm for — Japanese whiskeys is second to none.
The restaurant grew out of a now-dormant food truck, and Tserenbat, who logged a number of years across the lake at Yumi’s Sushi Bar in Excelsior, couldn’t be happier for choosing to sink roots into Wayzata.
“When you run a restaurant from the heart, you can run into obstacles,” he said. “But the people here, they cheer me on. They support me.”
Drive west out of downtown Wayzata and you’ll encounter the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. In 2002, Minneapolis architect James Dayton gave the 63-year-old institution an instant landmark of a building, carving room among the studios and galleries for a small get-away-from-it-all cafe.
Chef Melinda Alves, a talented scratch cook and baker, is the cafe’s one-woman cooking show, preparing a sandwiches-soup-salad menu that changes weekly. The affordable, everyday fare impresses for its creativity and integrity.
Another reason to visit? The art center is near two Lake Minnetonka green-thumb destinations: Noerenberg Memorial Gardens, an open-to-the-public respite at the former lakeside estate of the family that founded Grain Belt Brewery (and now managed by Three Rivers Park District), and Kelley & Kelley Nursery, surely the metro area’s most enchanting gardening retailer.
Following in the tradition of the massive resorts that once lured vacationers to the region, the lake has its fabled institutions, including the supper club-meets-rollicking patio that is Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge, and the dining cruises at Al & Alma’s and the Bayview Event Center. Then there’s the quintessentially all-American Minnetonka Drive In.
Now in its 54th year — but looking as if it’s a fraction of its age — this former A&W has been the cheery province of four generations of Bennyhoff family members. Co-owner Dave Bennyhoff still prepares the double-patty burgers, crispy-skinned pressure-fried chicken, can’t-eat-just-one onion rings, sweetly sauced ribs, frothy house-made root beer and other made-from-scratch delicacies from his father Gordon’s decades-old recipes.
Even the setting — pretty much unchanged since the Kennedy administration — has a time-travel quality.
“We’re an authentic 1960s drive-in,” Bennyhoff said. “We’ve kept up with the demands of the health department, but otherwise everything is the same as it has always been.” Drop in on Thursday evenings (starting around 4:30 p.m.), when the place is flooded with classic automobiles of all shapes and sizes.
With a pair of heavily traveled trails running through the area — Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail and the Dakota Rail Regional Trail — it’s no surprise that a several restaurants cater to bikers and hikers. The Minnetonka Drive In, and its steady stream of chocolate-vanilla soft-serve twist cones, comes to mind.
But nothing suits the needs of trail users better than Dakota Junction. Co-owner Stephanie Bolles designed her casual restaurant to resemble the small-town train stations of yesteryear, and she and her husband, Matt, treat their welcoming establishment like the main street cafe that Mound has so desperately needed.
The chalkboard menu hits plenty of appetites. Flavorful slow-roasted pork is funneled into tacos and panini; just-picked fixings from nearby Gale Woods Farm are used to build a superb BLT, and there’s a memorable rendition of that pride of Iowa, the loose meat sandwich. A wicked-good plate of huevos rancheros could fuel a 50-mile bike trip; ditto the stick-to-your-ribs stuffed meatballs (get them with a side of house-made Tater Tots). Oh, and talk about a family affair; the packed-with-goodies carrot cake, a model of layer cake goodness, is the work of Bolles’ mother-in-law, Margaret Bolles. There’s a well-chosen beer and wine selection, as well as a freezer stocked with treats from Izzy’s Ice Cream.
The area is blessed with several farmers markets. Newcomer Wayzata Farmers Market is in its inaugural season, open on Thursday afternoons. The Minnetonka Farmers Market comes together Tuesday afternoons, and Saturday mornings are the time for the Mound Farmers Market. The granddaddy of them all, the well-stocked Excelsior Farmers Market, takes over a block of downtown Water Street every Tuesday afternoon.
Water Street is also lined with browsible boutiques, some with a food-and-drink emphasis. The standout is Wine Republic.
“We’re doing the SOB here,” said owner Patti Judalena, talking in wine-speak for sustainable, organic and biodynamic. She fills her shop with nearly 500 labels from around the world, plus beers and spirits that match that same framework.
“In the beginning, we were wondering if we’d be able to fill up the store,” she said. “But that has not been a problem, and people are excited about the focus. We’re not looking back.”
Best time to shop? Friday afternoons and Saturdays, when Judalena offers tastings (the $5 fee is funneled back into a coupon), based on a changes-weekly theme.
Lake Minnetonka, the lightning round
Breakfast: In accordance with the wellness theme of the rest of the complex, the nutrition-minded cafe counter at the Marsh speaks in buzzwords such as gluten-free and multigrain with its array of omelets, scrambles and hot cereals, all served in a dining room (and sunny deck) that overlooks an unspoiled, wood-lined wetland. Also, 318 Cafe makes mornings shine with a well-made pork/black-bean breakfast burrito, a scrambled-egg/guacamole pizza, baked temptations imported from Rustica and caffeine from Dogwood Coffee Co. and TeaSource, all best enjoyed on the restaurant’s cute sidewalk patio. Two more: the big-plate breakfasts at Lunds & Byerlys Kitchen and Hazellewood Grill and Tap Room.
Dessert: There are plenty of reasons to check out Cast & Cru at the Old Log Theater (including the room’s handsome remake, as well as Wednesday’s cheap date night, chef Matt Ellis’ three-course, $20-per-person meal that changes weekly), but one that definitely rises to the top is the dynamic and, yes, dramatic work of pastry chef Melinda Norman.
Doughnuts: A Navarre branch of Hans’ Bakery is stocked with the same classic, well-made selection of sugary, deep-fried delicacies (including the Beehive, a pastry cream-filled extravaganza) as the original Hans’ in Anoka, but there’s one happy difference: This location lacks the zoo-like quality of the always-jammed north suburban mother ship.
Happy hour: Snack on peel-and-eat shrimp, fresh oysters, fish and chips, fish tacos and more at the Blue Point, 4 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Kid-friendly: Sure, the place looks like a modern-day sports bar, but the Suburban caters to 12-and-under appetites with a fine array of dishes — pepperoni pizza, cheeseburger sliders, hot dogs, mac-and-cheese, all served with Tater Tots and a scoop of Sebastian Joe’s ice cream — at a highly reasonable $7 a pop. Oh, and while parents can peruse the discerning 18-tap beer list, their offspring can revel in the utterly refreshing root beer from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewing Co.
Patios, sidewalk: Off the lake, there are plenty of sidewalk cafe experiences to be had. Hit the trifecta in downtown Wayzata — on the same block, even — at McCormick’s Pub & Restaurant (amiable gastropub), Sakana (all-purpose Japanese) and Gianni’s (Gold Card steakhouse).
Pizza: Options abound, including the hearty slices ($3.25 and $3.75) the size of a VW Bug at Joey Nova’s and the thin- (bordering on cracker-) crust, rectangle-shaped and generously topped wood-fired pies at Olive’s Fresh Pizza Bar.
Sweets: Chocolate souvenir hunting? Think about the carefully crafted and surprisingly affordable truffles (orange cream-filled butterflies, caramel-centered pharaohs) made on the premises at Truffle Hill Chocolates. And don’t overlook the “Bite Me!” bars (especially the dark chocolate with salty roasted almonds), a highly shareable $2-ish treat from Laketown Chocolates.
Wine: Three cheers to the wine program at Spasso, with its 60-plus by-the-glass options and an around-the-world bottle list that pulls more than 100 labels from the adjacent shop and sells at retail prices.
The area continues to reinvent itself. A few weeks ago, Birch’s Restaurant & Bar chef/owner Joseph Burton closed his seven-year-old downtown Long Lake location. He’s reopening in early September with a new format — house-brewed beer and a supper-club-style menu — at a new lakeside location (the former Billy’s Lighthouse) and with a new name: Birch’s on the Lake.
The former Birch’s won’t stay dark for long. By August, restaurateur Tony Ostlund will launch Primo Plates & Pours, a pizza-pasta-cocktails spot.
Meanwhile, in Excelsior, get ready for Miyabi Japanese & Asian Fusion, opening soon in the complex that also includes a new Kowalski’s Market (opening July 29).