New owners reimagine Rafters: Restaurant has reopened as Portside

A new sign takes the place of the previous “Rafters” sign in downtown Stillwater. The former nightclub is now known as Portside, and the focus is shifting. (Submitted photo)

As John Koch and Dusty Nelson worked to remodel and re-brand Rafters in downtown Stillwater into a new concept restaurant called Portside, the dining space had the feeling of a make-under, not a makeover, as workers stripped away years of decor to reveal the original 140-year-old building’s wood floors and brick walls.

“As we ripped out the carpet, we found tile underneath that needed to be removed before we can get down to the wood floors,” Nelson said.

Nelson explained that the old bar was removed to make the space flow better, and a new, black-granite bar was installed in March.

“We have a lot of people come in and say how much they like it,” Nelson said.

When they purchased the building last year and took over Rafters and the coffee shop below it (now called Revival Coffee and Deli), Nelson said they had several event contracts in place for weddings, and it required them to take their time and be thoughtful about a full redesign of the restaurant and bar.

“We know that Rafters has a reputation,” Koch said. “We decided to spend the extra money because the space had so much potential.”

Rafters closed down for good July 16 and was reborn July 21 under the name Portside. With the change, Nelson hopes the restaurant and bar will draw a more diverse group of potential customers.

“We don’t do a lot of weekday business,” Nelson said. “We want to see more local people in, more families in.”

Employees of Stillwater’s newest restaurant, Portside, work to finish remodeling the bar and dinning area for its reopening. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)

The remodel included more space in the kitchen to accommodate a new chef with a new, scratch-made menu. Chef Taylor Kneubuhler was part of the team that opened Mallard’s on the St. Croix in Bayport, and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

“This menu is really chef-driven and seasonal,” Kneubuhler said. “We are stepping away from the traditional bar food.”

Kneubuhler is born and raised in Stillwater and graduated from Stillwater Area High School in 2003.

“I know this spot needs revival and a change of pace,” Kneubuhler said. “I hope the people that come in enjoy the place, even if they just come in for a drink, chips and guac and enjoy the view.”

Kneubuhler said he’s most excited about the signature burger — a patty made with ground beef and bacon, bacon jam and bacon slices — the unusual flatbread and the wings with housemade sauces and rubs that are “going to be the best in town.”

“We want the food to be approachable with fun appetizers, burgers and entrée salads,” Nelson said.

Portside will continue with music and dancing on weekend evenings, but Nelson and Koch said they’re working with their security team to cut down on some of the problems.

“We are not trying to chase the people that come on the weekends away, we are just trying to make it a nicer place so they don’t have to feel like they can wreck it or go crazy,” Koch said.

“It’s going to be a nicer place that everyone can feel comfortable and safe,” Nelson said.

Portside is located on the second floor at 317 S. Main St. in Stillwater.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]

  • Carbon Bigfoot

    Is this the location that was once known as Trump’s, and St. Croix Boom Company before that? Can you tell I don’t get downtown much?