Stillwater is touted as “the birthplace of Minnesota,” and it recites its history like an old verse to whoever will lend an ear. The colonial American architecture hasn’t changed; Isaac Staples’s old sawmill is still standing, and the town’s iconic lift bridge draws attention to the St. Croix River where loggers in the 1800s would float timber, bolstering Stillwater’s economy. During the summer, tourists come in droves to spend a day antiquing and eating ice cream cones. While most of them will fall into the usual traps, a few might find their way into one of the St. Croix Valley’s more hidden historic niches.
Phil’s Tara Hideaway is a roadside restaurant that is, well, pretty hidden. Driving down Highway 36 toward the river town, it’s easy to put your blinders on as you pass all the familiar fast food chains. Speed too fast through this stretch of highway and you’ll miss the frontage road leading to a little log cabin where some of Stillwater’s more rowdy history took place — and where its best Mediterranean food is served today.
Before it became Phil’s Tara Hideaway, the joint was simply Tara’s Hideaway, or Club Tara, and before that, it was Lynch’s Chicken Shack, first built in 1929. Lynch’s burnt down in 1931 and was rebuilt as Tara’s — the restaurant allegedly got its name from a dog belonging to the owners during its stint as a speakeasy. Tara’s cabin architecture earned the establishment a title in the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Over the years since Prohibition, the restaurant has passed through the hands of five owners, ending with its present owner, Phil Barbatsis (top) in 1997. Tara’s was recognized as a modest beer and burger joint until Barbatsis came along, bringing with him Greek recipes that have been in his family for generations.
“I’m a pretty good cook,” Barbatsis says. “I came from a school of hard knocks, learning from my mother and relatives. We weren’t wealthy, but there was always something delicious cooking in the house.”
He remembers coming home to their house in St. Paul and finding his mother rolling out phyllo dough with a broomstick, hanging the tissue-thin dough around the kitchen, like laundry from a clothesline, to dry out. Stuffed grape leaves, salads with feta cheese and kalamata olives, lamb, steak (when it was affordable), and fish were common dishes on the table.
“My parents were folks who liked the old world delicacies,” Barbatsis remembers. “Open the oven and you might find a couple of lamb skulls in there,” he says. On those nights, the young Barbatsis would opt out of lamb brains and ask for a sandwich, because ,as it turns out, you have to draw the line somewhere.
But Greek culinary tradition left an impression on Barbatsis, and he has worked in kitchens ever since he was old enough to wash dishes. Bouncing around from restaurant to restaurant, he moved to the Stillwater area in 1983, and with his sister opened a place called Crane Lakes. He put all he had into the restaurant, but it never succeeded. Barbatsis was ready to throw in the towel as far as restaurants were concerned until Tara’s Hideaway was put on the market.
“I was tapped — ready to go sell groceries or meat or do something else,” Barbatsis remembers. “Then I got a call about this place. When I first saw it in that summer of ’97, I said they ought to burn it to the ground again. It was in bad shape.”
The history of the restaurant lured him in, however, and Barbatsis gave it a go. He took on the project, refinishing the old hardwood floors, polishing the original logs, renovating the bar, and remodeling the dining room in back. The kitchen, Barbatsis decided, ought to stay true to its original menu, but it should include the food he was best at preparing, too: classic Mediterranean dishes garnished with warm pita bread, a slice of lemon, and olive oil.
Barbatsis’s menu has plenty of road food, although some entrees can be pricey. The servers see a lot of no-frills classic reubens, BLTs, burgers, homemade fries, and other standard fare leave the kitchen. The option to upgrade that road food is available, though, for customers who are looking for, say, authentic Greek.
The chef, Brad Nordeen, has been cooking at Phil’s Tara Hideaway since 2004. He earned his stripes beforehand working at the Lake Elmo Inn and 112 Eatery. When Phil untied his chef’s apron seven years ago, Nordeen picked up where Phil left off, keeping classics like the gyros-meat hash, Greek salad, roasted walleye, and lamb chops on the menu. He has introduced some new items, and is particularly conscious of using produce that’s local and in season. Last summer, for example, Nordeen made a point of sourcing local banana peppers, which he pickled and used in place of imported pepperoncini in Greek salads.
“Working here, I’ve gotten to study Greek food, learning how to make it contemporary, more modern cuisine,” Nordeen says. “We want to take a lot of these flavors and adapt them to what’s in this area so that they’re fresh and vibrant.”
Phil’s Tara Hideaway is a good example of what happens when a little roadside restaurant wants to keep its history and humble road food identity, yet branch out in new directions. Just take a look at the menu — it’s enormous. Refusing to relinquish the classic dishes that locals keep coming back, the menu doesn’t necessarily change, it just grows.
Influenced by Barbatsis (and his son Nik, below left), you see lots of lamb, gyros, and Mediterranean marinades on meat served alongside cucumber yogurt and tzatziki. Then, taking from Nordeen’s gourmet background, you see specials like pan-seared tri-tip served sous vide with truffle oil, wild mushrooms, and a port reduction. The collision of all these influences means that you’ll need a good 10 minutes to read the menu, and that’s not including the wine list. But it’s a good read, and the food does not disappoint.
We visited Phil’s Tara Hideaway on a Thursday night and were amazed at the number of cars all crammed into the lot and parked alongside the frontage road. The restaurant’s log cabin facade is modest, and made us wonder where they were seating all the customers. Walking in, we discovered that there are no booths, just tables — all full. The restaurant was filled to maximum capacity, and we could barely hear Frank Sinatra above the din, but it was cozy. And it definitely felt like Minnesota with all the backwoods décor and flannel shirts we saw.
Our server gave us a few minutes to do our reading, and we settled on some different meze plates (“meze” is a Greek word essentially meaning “taste” or “snack”). The grilled octopus had soft, salty flavor, though its texture was a bit chewy. We preferred the clams, mussels, and chorizo dish. After we’d cleaned the shells, we could dip our bread in the briny sauce. We tried the classic gyros, too, served on triangles of pita with tzatziki sauce and red onions — very tender and not too greasy.
The entrees at Phil’s Tara Hideaway are all served with your choice of salad, and we opted for the Greek salad. Crisp romaine lettuce piled high with crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and pepperoncini. We had to stop ourselves from eating too much salad — we had Mediterranean lamb chops and steak coming.
“You gotta try the lamb chops — they’re all loin,” Barbatsis tells his customers. “They are wonderful. They’re as good as anybody’s, anywhere.” The lamb chops were delicious, as Barbatsis claims — tender and brushed with a Mediterranean marinade that didn’t overpower the flavor of the meat. They were served with Athenian potatoes: thick potato rounds that were lightly pan-fried, drizzled with Greek dressing, and topped with feta cheese. The Tara steak was juicy and succulent, served with caramelized onions, a potato puree, and three varieties of wild mushrooms (shiitakes, king trumpets, and criminis from St. Joseph, MN). The restaurant’s different elements clashed a bit, but it tasted so good that we weren’t complaining — you have the Minnesota road food restaurant atmosphere, the Mediterranean influence, and little hints of gastronomic play.
The restaurant’s somewhat obscure location along a frontage road doesn’t work against it; the locals are steadfast and frequent. Minnesota modesty keeps things here comfortable, yet there’s just enough Mediterranean influence and stylish gastronomy to make dinner more interesting.
“Basically, we want people to walk out of here saying, ‘Gee, that was good,'” says Barbatsis. “We don’t really have a theme. We’re not trying to present ourselves as anything other than a roadhouse that just happens to have really good food.”
Phil’s Tara Hideaway
15021 N 60th St
Stillwater, MN 55082
OWNER: Phil Barbatsis
CHEF: Brad Nordeen
HOURS: Tue-Fri: 11am-10pm
Reservations / Recommended: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$35