Destination: Downtown Rochester

The home of Mayo Clinic has a lively downtown scene brewing

A concert being performed at Themed Thursdays in Rochester, Minnesota.
Downtown Rochester comes alive in the summer during Themed Thursdays

photos by jamey guy

When I was a kid, Rochester symbolized the halfway point on family car trips to my mother’s hometown of Mabel, just north of the Iowa border.

The southern Minnesota city is only about 80 miles south of St. Paul, but Dad never wanted to run below half a tank. We would stop at the Rochester Holiday Stationstore to stretch our legs, and my mom would dash in to buy bottles of Spring Grove pop—strawberry for me, grape for my brother.

As we entered Rochester, my parents told us about the big buildings at the center of the city. “You are looking at the finest medical facility in the world,” they would say of Mayo Clinic. On the return trip, we might stop downtown for dinner at Michael’s, a steak-and-lobster supper club.

After 63 years in business, that family-owned restaurant was sold in 2014 to make way for economic development. Indeed, the $5.6 billion Destination Medical Center (DMC) initiative—coordinated by Mayo and both city and state governments—has changed the face of downtown Rochester since it was launched in 2013. The land will soon feature a new hotel, apartments, and a retail complex.

To challenge my limited memory of Rochester, I decided it was time for a return visit. Boy, have things changed. This is no longer a pass-through city for snowbirds headed to the Sun Belt. Rochester has become a weekend getaway destination, with new dining options, an urban nightlife, community events like the Down by the Riverside concert series, and plenty of hotel options.

I checked out both ends of the spectrum for lodging: Holding the scepter for a historic, classic experience downtown is the 660-room Kahler Grand Hotel next to Mayo—ranging from entry-level rooms to luxury suites at The Towers. For a more contemporary option, there’s also a sleek DoubleTree, which was renovated last spring with easy access to the city’s core through a skyway system. There, I enjoyed a tasty and affordable lunch of lobster bisque soup and a tuna melt at the seafood-focused, design-forward Pescara restaurant.

For an overview of the city, the downtown trolley highlights the Zumbro River, the Historic Train Depot, the Mayo Clinic Campus, sculpture gardens, Plummer House, and “Pill Hill,” the historic district. I decided to start simple, with a trip to Tonic, a welcoming juice bar with all-day breakfast options and a mix of cuisines from American to Eastern European. It’s right across from Mayo Clinic. I sipped on Salad with a Straw, a delicious antioxidant juice—which consists of red beet, tomato, carrot, celery, baby spinach, cilantro, parsley, and lime—for $10.

A few minutes east, the urban hub of the city, known as Historic Third Street, is a delightful combination of coffee shops, breweries, locally owned restaurants, yoga studios, and novelty shops—alive with activities on Thursday evenings from June through August. That’s when the community gathers downtown for an outdoor market featuring food, crafts, and a range of local music options, from jazz to folk and bluegrass.

The rooftop patio of the Tap House in Rochester, Minnesota.
The Tap House’s rooftop patio scene

For the happy-hour crowd, there are two great, and distinct, rooftop cocktail and dining options: from the chic, polished, contemporary La Vetta (located upstairs from Terza Ristorante) to the more casual, brick-walled watering hole The Tap House.

Rochester may have lost Michael’s, but in its stead, Bleu Duck Kitchen is an upscale spot located in a reimagined industrial space, with inviting windows facing the streetscape of urban Rochester. The menu changes daily with an emphasis on locally sourced produce and proteins when available, featuring American dishes for both meat eaters and vegetarians.

Back in 2015, Forager Brewery was leading the change in Rochester’s vibe by offering small-batch beers and wood-fired pizzas in a setting as homegrown as the brews. This quirky spot is filled with rummage-store finds. Nodding to the past, the owners even purchased iron grates from the closed Michael’s to adorn the walls as room dividers. Head brewer Austin Jevne took what was once the town’s co-op and put more than a little elbow grease into the creation of a welcome new haunt—hand-decorating tables with hundreds of inset pennies—which just added business incubation to its mission by taking on Fiddlehead Coffee Co.

For the 90-minute drive back to St. Paul, I jumped on Highway 52, sipping on a bottle of Spring Grove strawberry pop and glancing in my rear-view mirror at the finest medical facility in the world (and made it on one tank of gas—thanks, Dad). The city may have changed, but that just means there’s now even more to get excited about in southern Minnesota.

Eat, Play, Stay in Rochester

Two glasses of alcohol on a bar.

Porch and Cellar

Two unique dining and cocktail options in one spot. This Historic Train Depot is a few walkable blocks outside downtown, where Porch boasts fried chicken, smoked meats, and house favorite the “Pickle Back,” which is a shot of Jameson chased with Tony Packo pickle brine for $2. For an after-dinner Old Fashioned, head down to Cellar for a perfectly crafted cocktail.

The Machine Shed

Arcade game fans will be in Pac Man heaven at this spot. Gamers can play all day for one flat fee of $10 for adults and $5 for children.

Aspen Suites or the Kahler Grand Hotel

For extended-stay fans who may want to do some of the cooking themselves, check out Aspen Suites. But my choice would be the supposed haunted room at the Kahler Hotel.

Digital Extra: Rochester Brewing

Meet the head brewer at Forager Brewery in Rochester, part of a sea change that’s turning the southern city into a year-round destination.