Imbibe Lake Pepin: Prescott to Bay City
The Great River Road begins near Itasca in Northern Minnesota. But I like to pick it up at the Minnesota-Wisconsin junction in Prescott, Wisconsin. To get there, take 61 south out of Cottage Grove — it’s an easy day trip to explore the first leg of this journey. You’ll begin in a river town no further from the Twin Cities than Hastings.
If you’re adventuring with us, please note that this sequence works best on a Sunday morning, but will work in part any day of the week.
Once in Prescott, you may find it similar to a miniature Hudson — lots of boats, a well-loved beach, motorcycles, and a bit of a seasonal feel. Prescott also has a stunning railroad bridge and pleasant walkability.
If you’re starting this trip mid-morning or earlier, which I suggest, you’ve got two fuel options: coffee or breakfast. For coffee, the Twisted Oak Coffee House offers the standard coffee options in a cozy space. The entry smells like old telephone poles and looks like a saloon. Service is pleasant and efficient, just what you want when starting a road day. Linger for a bit or take your coffee to the antique store across the street.
If real food is in order, check out Kitchen Table. Though the place gets a lot of local love, take it from an outsider that this place deserves it. Weather permitting, the outdoor seating is a great perch from which to watch life go by on the main drag. Equally successful were the Red Flannel Hash (below) with its chunky corned beef and perfectly cooked beets, as well as The Dinghy breakfast sandwich. Hollandaise, a mark of restaurant prowess, was spectacular and every egg on our table was blonde and properly seasoned. The place was slammed and service was not fast. However, the coffee was great and it held us over until our meal arrived.
When you’ve had enough, head south. The route is quite obvious and you’ll soon be out of the tiny downtown. Within minutes, follow signs to the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center. Here, walk behind the building and allow the scenic overlook to help you get your bearings. If you’ve only encountered the urban Mississippi, note how broad and untamed it is after joining with the St. Croix.
From this spot, the drive continues for several miles without stops. The road follows the river, then winds briefly through farmland and remains mostly flat. It soon joins with Diamond Bluff, and that’s where the cliffs and tree-lined turns begin. Diamond Bluff is a speck of a town with less than 500 residents. I suggest stopping here if the weather is pleasant since it’s a good chance to see and touch the river. If you’d like to exit the car, now is the time. Often times residents can be seen fishing in Sea Wing Park.
Sea Wing Park is named after the ship of the same name. History buffs may recognize Sea Wing for its epic nautical disaster. On July 13, 1890, the ship left Lake City and capsized in Lake Pepin due to strong winds, killing 98 of its 215 passengers. The Sea Wing accident is one of the worst inland waterway disasters in US History.
If you opted for the coffee-only option during the first part of your morning, rest assured that food (and drink) is on its way. You’ve got a Choose Your Own Adventure ahead: Turn to the next page for a giant chicken and picnic tables. Skip ahead for sophisticated cocktails and French fare.
I think its fair to say that the enormous, anatomically appropriate chicken at the one and only intersection in Hager City turns heads. What may be less obvious is that the fried chicken and coleslaw at the Hager Heights Drive-In is some of the best road food anywhere. Let me be clear: this broasted chicken alone is worth driving for. It’s amazing. It’s cheap, authentic drive-in fare with sides that are sold in quantities normally reserved for ice cream.
During our visit, we saw a number of approaches. Some families actually drove-in. There’s a drive-through counter as well as several old-school bays for cars from which orders will be taken. Other people walked up to another window, and either ordered individual meals, or made epic family style portions do the heavy lifting. There are picnic tables, benches, and grass for sprawling.
Broasted Chicken was invented in Wisconsin and holds a place in the hearts of many Midwesterners. If you’re not familiar, the process involves pressure frying, making the chicken tender and moist with slightly less grease. The term broasted is actually trademarked. A few thousand businesses have right to call their product broasted, and the process can’t really be replicated on home equipment.
Perhaps you’re still full from breakfast but could do with a nice drink or dessert. Chef Shack Bay City has got you. From the full bar to the full brunch, Sunday mornings are the ideal time to visit – they’re open 10am – 2pm Sunday, as well as Friday and Saturday evenings.
If the name Chef Shack sounds familiar but the town of Bay City does not, you’ve probably enjoyed mini donuts from their truck at the Mill City Farmers Market, or nachos at Chef Shack Ranch on East Franklin Ave. Chef Shack Bay City stands alone. It’s French cottage chic, with tablecloths, sunny windows, and a backyard garden.
Chef Shack Bay City serves a wonderful brunch whether you’re looking for an updated classic or a creative plate. Chef Lisa Carlson has two James Beard nominations for very good reason. The service and atmosphere only serve to lift up the fresh, flavorful dishes. Don’t overlook the seasonal waffle, served in the Asian bubble style. During our visit, it was adorned with rhubarb, plus the most Wisconsin of toppings, a sausage.
Thankfully, the full bar is staffed by some knowledgeable bar experts who put the array of spirits and even the outdoor garden to good use. I enjoyed the balance of flavor in an of-the-moment cocktail with black pepper, hibiscus, prosecco and bee balm.
The first leg of this journey takes a deep dive from almost suburban to downright remote. Enjoy the changing landscape that seems to morph at every turn. No matter the time of year, there are some beautiful – and of course, tasty – moments to enjoy. Next up, we move from the chic French fare to more bucolic surroundings in Maiden Rock and Stockholm — and not just the typical tourist route!