Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources website has a map detailing leaf color change progress throughout the state. You can even sign up for email or text updates with leaf color change notifications. Most of northern Minnesota is at peak autumn leaf color as we speak, according to this chart, but the St. Croix River Valley is mostly at 25-50 percent. Having spent Sunday driving up and down Highway 95 or meandering through Interstate Park, I’d say that sounds about right.
All through the valley, greens are fading into yellows and reds are starting to show. When you drive up 95 from Stillwater, the St. Croix Boom Site will be your first stop; the areas around the Albertson Farm offer exciting teasers as you cruise past. They’ll keep you going, but stop at the Marine Cafe for a Milan-style espresso and a chocolate chip cookie. That’ll really keep you going.
You’ll pass Slattengren Farms, where they’ve got bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup for sale and a stern warning: PUMPKINS AHEAD. You’ll pass the Franconia Sculpture Park (we come back to this in a later post), and head east at the roundabout.
A minute or two after that, as you’re coasting downhill on US Highway 8 into downtown Taylors Falls, you’ll see what you came for. It’s a breathtaking, beautiful surprise. It’s enough to send your car into the metal side railing if you lose your composure, and you might. You’ll probably scramble for a second and try to figure out a good way to photograph it, but there isn’t one. You can’t Instafilter beauty like this. You just have to see it.
So you’ve found Taylors Falls, and gotten through that Highway 8/Bench St. intersection without getting T-boned. Now where do you eat?
Classic eats are your only option on Bench St. You’ve got Romayne’s, serving cheeseburgers in a repurposed house. I had a burger there many moons ago, and it was okay. There’s the Chisago Club, with a big banner on the side the building advertising their Saturday night all-you-care-to-eat prime rib special. I haven’t yet been, but that collision is imminent. When given the choice, I care to eat quite a bit of prime rib.
When you’re hungry in downtown T-Falls, you’re probably deciding between a malt and a plate-sized slice of pizza on one end of the main drag, or a burger basket and root beer at the other end.
The Schoony’s Malt Shop website has a front landing page, and that’s it. Their official Facebook page doesn’t exist. Who cares. Everything you need to know about Schoony’s, they’ve got taped up to the front window on signs. They’re celebrating their 24th year in service (thanks everyone!). You can buy 1919 Root Beer in kegs(!). They sell pizza by the slice. They’re open today.
They don’t offer WiFi. In fact, the opposite: they offer relaxation from WiFi. They offer a break from good phone camera lighting, too. Basically: just shut up and eat.
You might notice at the ordering counter that their pizzas are only cut into four slices. If you missed it, don’t worry: you’ll get your slice of pie and think ‘Wow. This pizza really ties the paper plate together.’
The pizza is fat, foldable, cheesy and chewy. It’s the bad behavior pizza, the kind with sloppy sauce and orange grease that will find its way onto you. Good stuff. I shook the sh*t out of the red pepper and powder cheese when I readied my slice, and I don’t meant that hyperbolically. I needed two napkins to clean the counter up afterward.
My chocolate peanut butter malt was a Reese’s turned up to 11. It was rich, smooth, like is that peanut butter flavoring or peanut butter straight from a creamy jar? I drank mine like I was my 22-year-old self sucking a margarita fishbowl dry back in Superior. Some malts require a half-straw, half-spoon show that can feel surgical sometimes. The most difficult part about a Schoony’s malt is stopping yourself. My suggestion: don’t.
They sell Chicago dogs, ice cream to go, and 1919 root beer by the growler (in case a keg is too much). The floorboards are scuffed up and creaky, but the big hanging Coke signs inside are clean as a whistle. The music they play in the restaurant is constantly what plays when Jessica Rabbit appears on a movie screen. You don’t need to be told to relax here. You come in here and just do it.
If your last unchecked box for this summer involves eating from a window-mounted food tray underneath a giant, spinning bottle of root beer, you’d better get moving. My waitress at the Drive-In estimated the restaurant will be closing around the third week of October.
The Drive-In has been hitching metal trays to car windows since 1956. The root beer’s got brand recognition, but the Drive-In makes their own on site. You can tell: whereas most of the root beer you buy is fizzy, syrupy, and barely distinguishable from the rest of the bottled pop fridge, a frosty mug full of craft root beer is a doo-wop soundtrack you can drink.
Local breweries like Stillwater’s Lift Bridge and Hopkins’ LTD Brewing are making some nice root beers in-house. You’d think root beer was making a comeback, but then you drink root beer at the Drive-In and remember that root beer never left. I’m not even a soda guy, but I order root beer mechanically at the Drive-In.
Wade and Carol Vitalis bought the Drive-In 30 years ago, and have expanded since. There are locations in Grantsburg, Wisc., and Milltown, Wisc. The Taylors Falls location was also expanded to include a mini-golf course. If you want to see classic cars, classic neon signage, and big ol’ menu boards, you go to the Drive-In. If you want burgers, fish baskets, or patty melts, you go to the Drive-In.
I ate at the Drive-In alone, but I don’t know if I’d recommend sitting in your car by yourself and eating. It’s hard not to feel like the weirdo you pull up next to in a Taco Bell parking lot, who’s plowing a seven-layer burrito in the driver’s seat of his light brown Corolla while you get out of your car. Yeah, I kept busy by following football scores; and yeah, I killed time by taking a photo of my food through my side mirror, but I could easily picture myself watching myself and thinking “What is that creep doing now?” at literally everything I did during my visit.
You’ve probably heard about the Drive-In Burger, the half-pound cheeseburger with three cheeses and the classic toppings piled sky-high. You probably saw Jason DeRusha baaaarely get his mouth around it. What they say about that burger is true; but they make a good serving of battered cod if you’re, say, a hack food writer pretending to watch his cholesterol intake. They’re like giant plank fries, and they come with that yellowish tartar sauce that seems more like a fancy mayonnaise than anything specifically made for fish. Very satisfying.
They point out strongly the local farm from whom they get their beef, and you can get that beef on a Frisco burger (mayo, tomatoes, Swiss, and bacon on sourdough) or a bleu cheese burger. They’ve got bison, turkey, and veggie burgers, too. They’ve got a few chicken sandwiches, the sides you’d expect, and fish dogs!? Yeah, fish dogs!
You can find the complete menu and more information on the Drive-In website.
And that’s when you head down into Interstate Park, gazing down glacial potholes and strolling up leafy pathways. There’s the usual side-stepping of wannabe photographers, and the walking in areas where a sign may have specifically told you “Don’t walk here.” It’s too big and winding to be crowded, though. You’ll find a empty chunk of rock to sit on and think. You’ll find a walkway all to yourself. You find a park bench with a nice view. It’ll take you a minute, but you’ll find a way to cross Highway 8 legally.
If you’re like me, four hours will be easy to kill in downtown Taylors Falls – and you’ll depart with much more yet to explore. You’ve still got the coffee shop, the sculpture park, the maple syrup, the iconic Scandinavian donuts, and the tiki bar hidden 15 miles away.
There’s work to be done ’round these parts. The commute isn’t as bad as the maps might make it look, and the office view will blow you away.