Reporting Sara Pelissero
One of the best ways to explore a city is by eating your way through it. At least, that’s the motto of a mother-daughter duo from Stillwater that’s been showing off their beloved city – one plate at a time.
About a year and a half ago, Nancy McNulty and her daughter Liz came up with the idea to host culinary walking tours through their fine city as a way to show both newcomers and locals alike, there’s plenty to discover in Stillwater.
Liz took a similar tour in New York City a few years ago and came home with rave reviews for her mother. Not long after, the family signed up for a food tour while traveling in St. Augustine, Fla. for a wedding. That’s when Nancy had an epiphany.
“So I started thinking, you know, this is really cool and maybe a good idea for Stillwater because Stillwater has everything – we’ve got great restaurants, we’ve got the culinary specialty shops, we’ve got the winery … and we’ve got Lift Bridge up on the hill, plus the history,” she said. “So we were like, let’s give it a shot.”
In March of 2012, Nancy and Liz led their very first culinary walking tour – combining the history on the birthplace of Minnesota with stops at lesser-known restaurants and downtown culinary shops. Now, 18 months later, Nancy said they’ve seen a huge increase in interest and attendance.
“We had no idea we would be as busy as we are,” she said. “We’ve had well over 2,000 people on our tours already.”
Nancy said they’re hoping to eventually turn the tours into a full-time business and maybe someday, into a franchise. The pair has looked into the possibility of extending the tours into other cities in Minnesota, such as Lowertown, Hudson, Wis. and White Bear Lake, but for now, nothing is planned.
The three-and-a-half hour tours, which are primarily scheduled on the weekends, can vary but typically include a mix of local eateries and local markets. On a recent tour in July, our tour group visited four restaurants and two specialty shops.
At each stop, there’s food – from tasty gourmet chocolates to dishes that would qualify as a full meal. Trust me, you won’t go hungry. Or thirsty, for that matter. Each restaurant stop also includes a beverage – a wine or beer pairing or non-alcoholic drink of the diner’s choice.
“Everybody loves to eat. Everybody loves a cocktail or glass of wine,” Nancy said. “We’ve always liked to eat small bits, you know, we’d go to different restaurants and have a little tapa here or appetizer there. So this just kind of fits into the way we like to eat instead of one big meal.”
The all-inclusive “Savor the Flavors of Stillwater” tour is $60 and includes a “passport” to Stillwater, with coupons and information about all of the places you’ll visit, plus others that are involved with Foodies on Foot. The tours are held rain or shine (they have umbrellas, if needed) and each tour is unique. As Nancy pointed out, for many chefs, this tour gives them the opportunity to try a new dish and get some input from diners before placing it on the menu.
To give you an idea of the experience, allow me to share the experience of our recent tour in July.
The tour begins with a brief chat about Stillwater’s history and a chance to meet your fellow diners. Then it’s off to the first stop.
Stop 1: We begin the tour at QuickFire Pizza — a place that takes its name seriously. These made-to-order pizzas are ready in 90 seconds thanks to a mammoth wood-fired grill that wasn’t the easiest to bring home. Co-owner Ryan Lettner gave quite the tale about what it took to bring their extremely heavy oven from Italy into their kitchen. Then, we dug into the mac & cheese pizza and the Thai chicken pizza, paired with local beers and wines.
Stop 2: After filling up on delicious pizza, it was on to the Spice & Tea Co. shop to sample cookies made with fusion sugars, paired with their new gourmet coffee blends from Guatemala.
Stop 3: Once we were fully caffeinated, we headed over to Shanghai Bistro, to enjoy Stillwater’s scenery from their expansive patio. Here, we dined on a full salmon filet, topped with a mint pesto, with a side of bacon fried rice. And yes, I said bacon fried rice.
Stop 4: From the patio, we walked in picture perfect weather to the Cooks on Crocus Hill cookware shop and culinary school. Here, we tasted the difference between your run-of-the-mill semisweet chocolate chips and the real deal. We’re talking about Valrhona’s fine French chocolate, sold for $16 a pound at the store. It may seem steep for a bag of chocolate, but if you’re looking for a perfect ganache, this is what you want.
Stop 5: The Green Room opened its doors in 2011 and since that time, they’ve taken pride in serving worldly flavors with local ingredients. During our visit, the chef prepared a chicken breast with garlic and sauteed mushrooms.
Stop 6: For our last and final stop, it’s time for dessert. At Reve 324 on Main Street, the sweets coming out of the kitchen are a true spark of light. Inside Stillwater’s historic Grand Garage, we’re served an assortment of mini cheesecakes with a side of chocolate, caramel and fire.
As the tour wraps up, and the diners fight off a food coma, our faithful guides pass out comment cards and thank the group for their participation. Nancy then offers suggestions for those sticking around town, who may be looking for their next destination and the group departs.
For tourists and locals alike, the tour offers an excuse to get out of your comfort zone, try something different and meet some new friends along the way. And for Nancy and Liz, it’s a chance to share their pride for Stillwater and rediscover downtown.
For a list of the Foodies on Foot schedule, other tours and more information, click here.