Apr 7 2023

Exploring today’s growing and changing Rochester: A Southern Minnesota town preparing for a 50% increase in population

As a youngster, Rochester symbolized the half way point on our family car trips en-route to my mother’s hometown of Mabel, MN.  It was a weekend road trip in our family car…a two door red Chevrolet Malibu.

The Rochester Holiday Station Store was the spot where we would stop and stretch our legs while my dad filled the car with gas and my mom dashed into the convenience store to buy me and my brother Chris each a bottle of Spring Grove pop (uhm no not soda or soda pop but simply pop – remember we are in Minnesota for cripes sake). Strawberry for me and grape for my brother, Chris.

Mind you that Rochester is only about 80 miles from St. Paul but Dad never wanted to run below half a tank of gas because, well…. you just never know.  And for some reason my dad had us all convinced that the miles per gallon on the trusty Malibu during trips in the summer months would be greater with the windows rolled down, so down they went for the car ride to Southern Minnesota. Oh and when it came to using the air conditioning…well that was a luxury only to be used in extreme circumstances as it burns more gas donchaknow!  Don’t even get me started on the notion of using the air-conditioning with the windows cracked option…pshaw blasphemy I say plain and simple crazy talk!

As we would enter the city of Rochester, my parents would tell us the tales of the big buildings in the center of the city.  “Chris and Todd, you are looking at the finest medical facility in the world…the Mayo Clinic”! On the Sunday return trip, on those very rare but special occasions, we would stop in downtown Rochester for Sunday night dinner at the landmark classic super club Michael’s.  Known for steak and lobster, my parents would enjoy grown-up people food, while Chris and I slurped up spaghetti noodles.

The family owned restaurant opened in1951 and after 63 years in business was sold in 2014 making way for economic development.  The parcel of land is part of the “DMC” Destination Medical Center initiative changing the face of downtown Rochester.  The land is currently being developed and will soon be home to a new hotel, apartments and a retail complex.

Challenging my limited memory of Rochester, I decided it was time to pay a return visit.  Boy have things changed, this is no longer an RV pass through city for snowbirds heading to the Sun Belt cities of the lower 48. Rochester has nicely transitioned into a weekend get-away destination, with interesting dining options, an urban nightlife scene, creative festivals, plenty of lodging options and a one of a kind Mayo Clinic wellness experience, the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center.

For lodging, I checked out both ends of the spectrum for options, from classic to contemporary.  Holding the scepter for historic iconic lodging in downtown Rochester is the classic jewel, the Kahler Grand Hotel.  The Kahler proudly shares their commitment to providing the grace and elegance of the past with the exciting vision of the future. For a more contemporary option, downtown Rochester has a sleek Double Tree by Hilton.  The Double Tree was renovated in May 2017 and is centrally located on South Broadway with easy access to the cities core through the skyway system. I had a tasty and affordable lunch of lobster bisque soup and a tuna melt at the seafood-focused design forward Pescara Lounge.

It was now time to hit the streets of Rochester and explore the offerings of this Southern Minnesota gem.   When traveling, I am a big fan of finding out if there is a “Hop On Hop Off” trolley tour available to give me a lay of the land of the city I am visiting. It is a great way to build your base knowledge of the city and it’s history, listen to a passionate local chat up their fine town, and most importantly build my plan of where I may want to return for more exploration. Rochester did not disappoint!  Rochester’s trolley takes you through Downtown Rochester, highlighting the Zumbro River, the Historic Train Depot, the Mayo Clinic Campus, sculpture gardens, Plummer House and “Pill Hill”  – officially called the Historic District, Okay now it was time to get on those walking shoes and hit the streets of downtown Rochester.  To begin my day of self-guided exploration, I decided to start with a healthy focus and a trip to “Tonic Local Kitchen & Juice Bar” for the delicious antioxidant juice “Salad with a Straw” consisting of red beet, tomato, carrot, celery, baby spinach, cilantro, parsley and lime for $10.

Not to be missed is the urban hub of the city branded as Historic 3rd.  This area is a delightful combination of coffee shops, breweries, locally owned restaurants, yoga studios and novelty shops.  Historic 3rd and 1st is alive with activities on Thursday evenings from June through August. The community of Rochester gathers with families and friends, including those of the four-legged variety, to enjoy an outdoor market and live music.  Popular in the downtown area for the after work happy hour crowd are two very nice but distinctively different rooftop cocktail and dining options.  From the chic polished contemporary “La Vetta” to the more casual brick walled watering hole “The Tap House”.  Rochester may have lost the classic supper club Michael’s but in its stead I was pleased to find a delightful dinning option that would be a standout in any trendy re-vitalized neighborhood across our land of 10,000 bodies of water.  Bleu Duck Kitchen is an upscale restaurant located in a bright-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.  The menu focuses on American dishes for both our meat eater and non-meat eater friends.  In October of 2015 the vibe of Rochester changed with the welcome addition of Forager Brewery.  The brewery offers small batch beers and wood fire pizzas in a setting that is as home grown as their beers.  The quirky spot is filled with rummage store finds and thrift store scores.  With a nod to the past, the owners purchased artifacts from the closed Michael’s Restaurant to adorn their walls as room dividers. Some business owners can call there outpost a labor of love but when head brewer Austin Jevne toured me through what was once the towns co-op describing to me in detail how the cast and crew put more than just a little elbow grease into the creation of Forager but more like an added dose of blood sweat and tears.  The result is a welcome haunt that has now added a new business incubator to the mix with its first inhabitant being Fiddlehead Coffee shop.

The 90-minute drive to explore and visit our neighbors to the south has reshaped my memory and vision of Rochester. It’s been a great visit but it’s now time to get this kid back to the city. I jumped on Hwy 52 and headed back to St. Paul, with the windows rolled down, sipping on a bottle of spring grove strawberry pop glancing in my rear view mirror at the finest medical facility in the world… the Mayo Clinic. Thanks dad – I made the trip on one tank of gas – the city may have changed but there are some things in life that just never do.

Desinations Midwest North America Travel Writing United States

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