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What’s the Deal With Hastings?

A new-ish resident’s deeply subjective guide to Rivertown.

12:12 PM CDT on August 30, 2023

Hastings surprised me before I ever set foot in it. When my wife Rachel showed me the listing for the house where we’ve now lived a little over a year, I was shocked to learn Hastings was south of the cities; I incorrectly thought it was very far north. I probably had it confused with Hibbing, a very similar city in that it… also has an “ing” in it? (Many people say I'm bad with directions.)

Hastings itself is surprising too. As you drive down on Hwy. 61, the road curves, the trees clear, and suddenly there’s this town: the high, rust-orange curves of the Hastings Bridge, the pretty spread of old buildings, and getting closer, the ornate, domed city hall. My first visit was to view a house we probably weren’t going to buy. This is pleasant, I thought after we crossed the bridge. I could live here. By the end of the day we were making an offer.

Since moving, I’ve developed a small chip on my shoulder about Red Wing and Stillwater, other charming Minnesota river towns whose waterfront ambiance, quaint shops, and surrounding natural beauty seem, at least to me, better known. Red Wing and Stillwater are nice, sure, but Hastings is nice in many of the same ways. And in better ways. Hence this guide.

I crowd-sourced some suggestions for this story from the Hastings, MN Community Facebook group, but more interesting than their recommendations were a few polite suggestions that I not write about Hastings, that I let this diamond stay protectively entombed in its rough.

These comments made me conflicted. New attention to a cool thing can smother as much as it fuels. I like the Hastings that is, right now, since it’s the only Hastings I’ve known. But I arrived to a Hastings already changing—there are folks who wouldn’t mind rolling back development that’s already occurred, or if the population had leveled off a few thousand people ago. Change is inevitable; I’d just like to see my adopted town flourish without losing what makes it distinctive.

Besides, maybe I’m the perfect person to hype Hastings without giving away too much: New enough not to take its most obvious positives for granted, yet too inexperienced to know about anything that takes time or effort to discover.

So, why don’t I tell you Internet strangers about the humble pleasures of the place I now call home?

Hastings City HallAustin Gerth

Downtown

Hastings’ layout is deceptive. With 22,000-plus people, it’s bigger than either of those other quaint river towns, but if you come in on 61 and stay in the old downtown, Hastings feels small. Old buildings outnumber new, and business ownership is mostly local. It doesn’t feel suburban—it feels fully separate from the metro, even though it’s about as far from St. Paul as Burnsville or Apple Valley. You have to drive further along 61 to encounter corporate brands and beige buildings, and these increase if you turn onto Hwy. 55. If you stay on 61, or if you turn right on Second Street and drive just a couple miles, you quickly find yourself among vivid green rolling hills and farmland.

The epicenter of the downtown Hastings experience is the East Second Street Commercial Historic District. This is Hastings’ old downtown, and 61 passes over it more than through it.

During the warm months, downtown and the adjoining Levee Park host a steady stream of events. There are classic-car shows the third Sunday of every month along Second Street, May to September; regular live music at Spiral Brewery and on the Legion’s patio overlooking the river, as well as concerts every Thursday in Levee Park culminating in an annual weekend “Classic Rock on the River” show in early September. (This year’s bill: John Waite and Starship.)

The heart of summer in Hastings is Rivertown Days in July. Almost every town has some kind of summer festival, but ours is an especially good one. The usual suspects are present: food trucks, craft fairs, a kids’ carnival, local businesses hosting sales and events. But Rivertown Days one-ups many other municipal celebrations by doubling as a music festival, with a full lineup of acts on Saturday and shorter bills Friday and Sunday. This year featured Kid Dakota, Durry, and Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing.

Other downtown attractions include a popcorn and candy shop, a pottery studio, several clothing boutiques, a gift shop with local art and handmade items, and a cool hand-dyed yarn shop. If you’re into antiquing, Hastings is a bit of a mecca. One downtown antique shop closed last year, but that leaves three within two blocks; at least two of them double as great backdoor record stores.

The neighborhoods surrounding downtown are full of interesting old houses going back to the 19th century. For a formal tour, you can visit the LeDuc Historic Estate along 61, which doubles as an interesting presentation on genteel poverty. But you can also see a lot of these beautiful old homes if you just walk around the neighborhoods west of Highway 61, between the Mississippi and Hwy. 55. Obviously you can’t go inside (people live in them), but it’s a good time. The homes offer an interesting mix of preservation and modernization, not unlike Hastings as a whole. Some could have been encased in amber for how little wear they display, others have clearly sinking porches or bay windows, and still others (like the one I live in) may not even be recognizably old from the outside, due to re-siding. There’s even an octagon-shaped house!

Both at the city level and among individual homeowners, Hastings does a good job of preservation through use. You can see this in all the preserved signage for long-gone businesses on buildings downtown. Another example can be found in The Confluence, a combined hotel, event space, restaurant, and apartment complex opening in a former factory. The Confluence Hotel is the likely reason my mild hand-wringing above will prove irrelevant: With its impending opening (they are booking rooms for October), the “secret” of Hastings is already on its way out.

Downtown Hastings

Dining

I’ve already lived here long enough for one favorite local establishment to close. That was The Onion Grill, home to an $18 (!) pub steak that Rachel and I ate much too often. We were working on becoming recognizable regulars. RIP pub steak!

Hastings can’t compete with the variety of cuisines available in Minneapolis, but we do have the Hastings Tavern, a lovably divey sports bar whose tiny menu surprisingly includes quite good pho and egg rolls. (There are also Mexican and Chinese food options, and a Thai restaurant, Bimi Thai, opened last year.)

“Lovably divey” describes a lot of the other options in town, including one of my favorites, post-Onion: The Busted Nut. It’s not just the X-rated name: I love it because I have a strong opposition to 1/2-pound burger patties, and the Nut’s weigh in at a reasonable 1/3. Menu highlights include The Hulk, a burger topped with cream cheese, green olives, blackberry ketchup, and wonton strips; a creative list of cocktails and mocktails; and a wide variety of dipping sauces, like the aforementioned blackberry ketchup and a beautifully dumb seasoned sour cream that appears to be, yes, just sour cream with Lawry’s seasoned salt in it.

For a distinctly Midwestern vision of classy, there’s Wiederholt’s Supper Club, which is actually in Miesville, a tiny town south of Hastings. Wiederholt’s is a classic Midwestern supper club, with the attendant small, high quality, surf-and-turf-focused menu and signature ice cream cocktails. The restrained relish tray—which takes the form of a simple, complimentary vegetable side with any entree—is one of its only concessions to modernity.

(Miesville is also home to King’s Place Bar and Grill, which I’ve not yet tried, but my St. Paul Park tax preparer says they have “a shitload of burgers,” which sounds like an endorsement.)

For dessert, there’s Schoolhouse Scoop, a nice neighborhood ice cream shop strategically located quite near the high school football stadium. The scoop on the Scoop is they offer “extra credit,” an additional, tiny scoop of ice cream they’ll put on top of your order. Yes, it can be a different flavor.

The Hulk at the Busted Nut

Drinking

Obviously, you can drink at any of the previously mentioned divey bars. But there are a few fundamentally beverage-focused establishments worth noting: Spiral Brewery’s been mentioned, but its ~rooftop bar~ has not. And south of town, Hastings has two vineyards: Lone Oak Vineyard & Winery, and Alexis Bailly Vineyard, the latter of which is Minnesota’s first vineyard. Alexis Bailly hosts regular jazz gigs on Sundays throughout summer, but their slogan, “Where the Grapes Can Suffer,” is surprisingly metal.

Switching focus from downers to uppers, both of our local coffee places have funky locations (and good coffee): Froth & Cork lives in an old two-story brick house and as such offers many secluded nooks to sit and sip in. In contrast, Geek Haven is a sort of coffee kiosk in the front of Hastings’ Level Up Games; what they lack in nooks they make up for in Magic: The Gathering tournaments.

The Hairless Dog at the Busted NutAustin Gerth

Intermission: Spirals

Come to Hastings and you’ll notice a lot of spirals: Spiral Brewery… Spiral Co-op… Spiral Pizza… What’s the deal with Hastings and spirals? Simple: Everyone here loves Nine Inch Nails. (Kidding.) A key component of Hastings culture is nostalgia for the Spiral Bridge, by means of which Hwy. 61 once crossed the Mississippi on its way into town. The spiral bridge was replaced in 1951, but it remains a potent symbol. The “spiral” structure looped travelers through downtown Hastings, rather than bypassing it, forcing them to drive by our downtown businesses and, maybe, stop in. Perhaps the straightness of two subsequent bridges is why more people don’t know about Hastings?

Parks

Tracing along the Mississippi River from Levee Park is the Hastings River Walk, which leads past the city boat launch into an interconnected network of parks and trails. This area offers a fantastic sunset dog-walking grounds. The route goes by the city dock, and one of the defining sights of Hastings for me is folks fishing off the dock in the evening, dropping their catches into little coolers or five gallon buckets. Thanks to 3M’s chemical runoff, the fishermen and women have mostly disappeared for the last couple weeks. I’ll be sad if that’s not temporary.

This trail goes through an area of preserved prairie, then into some woods adjacent to Lock and Dam No. 2. If you follow it, it leads over a dike that spans the Mississippi. The view from the dike at sunset is excellent, and it’s pretty much completely hidden till you get there, so I’m not including any photos. You’ll have to come to Hastings if you want to see it.

You can also diverge from this trail before the prairie and cross the street to get to Lake Rebecca. The “lake” is small and swampy, and the land leading to it stays flooded late into spring. But it has a little island in the middle, accessible by picturesque wooden bridge. An imposing geese flock often patrols the island and the lake’s grassy shore.

The author's dog at Lake RebeccaAustin Gerth

Our most prominent natural landmark is probably Vermillion Falls, but I actually haven’t gone yet. (If you usually like waterfalls, I assume you’ll like ours?) A couple miles west of Hastings, in Nininger Township, there’s also Schaar’s Bluff, another great sunset spot from which you can see a wide swath of the Mississippi and Spring Lake, and the strange, distant "skyline" of St. Paul Park’s oil refinery.

Anyway, I better wrap this up because I'm already running aground against the limits of my Hastings knowledge—I'm recommending a waterfall I haven't even seen. I've only lived here a year, folks!

If you're a Rivertown lifer, reading this in similar spirit to a person who's Googled themselves and ended up scrolling too far down the Facebook page of a stranger who shares their name, I hope you'll forgive me any minor details I've missed, and any favorite spots or pastimes I've neglected to mention.

And if this piece inspires you to visit Hastings, in a way, you'll be discovering it alongside me. But you may want to use an actual map (or, you know, a maps app) to find your way around, rather than just my writing. I won't be held responsible if you end up in Hibbing.

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