Lismore DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel underwent a $21
million renovation and is an now an upscale hotel in
Eau Claire, Wis. It features 112 guest rooms with
generous windows and repurposed barn boards in the
suites and named after Eau Claire's sister city
Wisconsin hometown is easy to miss — the real Eau
Claire, that is. Take any of its three I-94 exits, 90
miles east of the Twin Cities, and you’ll find gas
stations, fast-food joints, chain hotels, a shopping mall.
Nothing too memorable.
head a few miles into the core of this sprawling city of
68,000, to the rivers that gave it its identity and
purpose, and you’ll find a thriving, active, happy place
in the midst of a remarkable rejuvenation.
settled in 1845 at the confluence of the Eau Claire and
Chippewa rivers, the community was born as a bustling
lumber town. In 1917, a huge tire factory began its rise
along the Eau Claire River — it became the city’s top
employer until it was shut down by Uniroyal in 1992.
Today, part of the red brick plant has been converted to
shops and offices.
the nearby downtown is where vitality, commerce and appeal
are building in dramatic fashion.
a huge Phoenix Steel plant was razed in 1985, city
officials met with citizens to determine the best use for
the resulting brownfield.
strong desire for a farmers market was fulfilled in 2005.
It now attracts roughly 7,000 visitors a week in warmer
months. An open-air concert space abuts the marketplace,
as do biking/hiking trails, all part of the appropriately
named Phoenix Park.
buildings, a coffee shop and restaurants have sprung up,
buoyed by two major businesses that decided to locate
there — JAMF Software and Royal Credit Union’s world
across the Eau Claire River, ground will be broken this
fall for a $45 million performing arts center, a shared
project with the city and the University of Wisconsin-Eau
Claire, whose pretty campus lies just downstream.
not all of Eau Claire’s attractions are found downtown.
Let’s look around a bit.
city’s nightlife epicenter is historic Water Street,
just across the Chippewa River from the university, linked
by a footbridge. In well-preserved 1880s storefronts, you’ll
find bars, restaurants, gift shops, coffee emporiums and a
bike shop, all within a few blocks.
must visit the legendary Joynt (322 Water St.,
1-715-835-6959), a bar that for years managed to attract
big-name blues, folk and jazz artists to its tiny
confines. Today the music comes only from a cool jukebox,
but the hippie-era mojo remains in the form of celebrity
photos, old beer cans and a neon sign that screams
"NO LIGHT BEER." Legend has it that Bon Iver
frontman Justin Vernon’s parents first met at the Joynt.
I’d believe that.
the opposite of the Joynt is Mona Lisa’s (428 Water St.,
1-715-839-8969, monalisas.biz), often cited by locals as
their favorite Eau Claire food/drink experience. Offering
more than 20 wines by the glass and a rotating roster of
specialty beers, it has a cozy atmosphere, an adventurous
menu and a sweet patio.
the western end of Water Street is a perfect example of
Eau Claire’s down-home vibe. Ray’s Place (838 Water
St., 1-715-832-3991) is the real deal, a time-capsule
tavern with knotty pine paneling, friendly regulars in
plaid flannel shirts, not-too-fancy beers and a limited
food menu. Ray’s hot beef sandwiches, split pea and bean
soups are outstanding and very affordable. Although they’re
messy with gravy and melted cheese, sandwiches are served
on a napkin and a square of waxed paper — who needs
fancy-schmancy plates? Clear your sinuses with the
horseradish-laced house mustard.
Riverside Bike & Skate (937 Water St., 1-715-835-0088,
riversidebikeskate.com), rent a kayak, canoe, bike or
skates, the last of which can be put to use during open
skating hours at the next-door Hobbs Municipal Ice Center.
around the bend is Carson Park, crown jewel of Eau Claire’s
park system, a wooded, 130-acre peninsula that juts into
an oxbow lake. Trails, playgrounds and picnic areas
abound, but the park’s central feature is its sports
complex — a football field where teams from the
university and local high schools play, and a charming WPA-era
ballpark where Hank Aaron, Joe Torre and Bob Uecker once
played as part of the Milwaukee Braves’ farm team.
the stone-walled stadium is used by the Northwoods League’s
Eau Claire Express (northwoodsleague.com/eau-claire-express),
as well as amateur and high school baseballers.
Park also is home to the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum (paulbunyancamp.org),
the regional-history Chippewa Valley Museum (cvmuseum.com)
and a half-mile miniature train ride (chippewa-valleyrailroad.org)
that operates in the summer.
city maintains about 30 miles of trails (visiteauclaire.com/things-to-do/trails),
including several river crossings, plus 4 miles of
mountain-biking trails in Pinehurst Park on the north
side. In addition, the Chippewa River State Trail (pass
required) offers a pleasant paved route out of the city
and follows the river 30 miles to the southwest, where it
connects with the crushed-limestone Red Cedar State Trail.
Water Street’s copious consumption options, good eats
are to be found downtown at Houligans (1-715-835-6621,
houligans.net) and Ninja (1-715-598-7088,
ninjaeauclaire.com), both on S. Barstow Street.
off Barstow is the country-themed Livery (316 Wisconsin
St., 1-715-833-7666, theliveryec.com), a great place for a
juicy burger and a frosty craft beer; its huge patio
features a daily bonfire at dusk. Or tickle your Cajun
taste buds at the funky/tasty Stella Blues (306 E. Madison
St., 1-715-855-7777, stellablues.biz) on the north edge of
the Madison Street bridge and check out the charming
Czech-themed Lazy Monk Brewing taproom (97 W. Madison St.,
1-715-271-0848, lazymonkbrewing.com), known for its
Bohemian Pilsner and Dark Lager. A few blocks north in the
up-and-coming Cannery District, the Brewing Projekt (2000
N. Oxford Ave., 1-715-214-3728, thebrewingprojekt.com) is
making news for its highly innovative brews and ambitious
your weary head
embodying downtown Eau Claire’s resurgence are two
hotels brought back from near-death thanks largely to two
local champions: JAMF Software’s Zach Halmstad and indie-music
star Justin Vernon.
led an investment group that pumped $21 million into
rebuilding an aging civic-center hotel now reborn as the
Lismore Hotel (333 Gibson St., 1-715-835-8888,
doubletree3.hilton.com). It offers 112 posh rooms, some of
which have expansive views of the riverfront, and a
nearby Galloway Street, Vernon and other partners are
working to rescue the former Green Tree Inn, rebranded as
the Oxbow Hotel (theoxbowhotel.com), a 30-room boutique
hotel that promises a locally sourced gourmet restaurant,
bike and kayak rentals, and jazz-centric live music.
Sadly, its opening will not come in time for this year’s
Eaux Claires music fest (Aug. 12-13).
lodging: visiteauclaire.com. For dining and entertainment