Victor’s on Water Brings an Upscale but not Uppity Italian Dining Option to Downtown Excelsior

Family-run eatery offers fresh, Italian-inspired food and wine in the heart of Excelsior.
Victor’s grilled octopus with carrot butter, cilantro, crispy shallots and chili caramel.

There might be linen on the tables and a wine selection that takes up a whole room, but Victor’s on Water, a culinary favorite on Excelsior’s Water Street, is anything but stuffy.

“Bermuda shorts don’t bother us. We’re a lake establishment,” says co-owner Eric Paulson with a smile. He ought to know more about lake living than most. He and his wife Karen have called their house on Excelsior’s Maple Ridge Lane home for 40 years. They’ve had a front-row seat to what they call the “metamorphosis” of downtown Excelsior, from a sleepy village on the lake to an upscale destination town drawing foodies, fashionistas and lake enthusiasts of all ages. Their daughter, co-owner Janel Olson, has worked in the restaurant industry for years, and Excelsior’s culinary scene and changing personality have become a topic of conversation and a shared interest.

“In 2013, we were talking about the changes in Excelsior. There was an opportunity to bring in a different kind of restaurant than Excelsior had ever seen before, something that could help propel and push the change in Excelsior,” says Paulson. He and Olson decided to give it a go and dive into the restaurant business for themselves. The space in question was 205 Water St., the storied location of the former Bacon Drug Store. (Yep—urban legend has it that Mick Jagger wrote the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” after a chance encounter with a well-known local at Bacon Drug.)

In the process of leasing the building and making plans for a restaurant, an old photo of Bacon Drug’s owner, Vic, surfaced and inspired the future restaurant’s name. “We looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it!’ ” recalls Paulson. There was a bit of poetic justice in the repurposing of the space for a new business venture and a new thing for Excelsior, too. “That site had also transformed over the years—never in our wildest imagination did we think we’d spend our retirement operating a family business in that building,” says Paulson. There was already a bistro, a Mexican eatery, a sushi bar, and café options nearby, so they knew they wanted to go a different route and venture into Italian cuisine.

“Italian food, to me, means local and fresh,” says Olson. “When you’re sitting in Italy, you eat what’s grown locally. They practically roll barrels down the hill to serve you your wine. I love the romantic vision of that.” So with the simple, flavorful cuisine of Italy in mind, Olson enlisted a few local culinary veterans to help develop a menu that features all things local. In our anything-but-Mediterranean climate, that meant coping with the ebbs and flows of seasonal availability. In the first year after Victor’s opened, Olson says the menu changed five times, and it still changes frequently, she adds.

With a space, a name and a culinary direction nailed down, the family worked on the design. They dreamed up a look that would be sophisticated and European-inspired, casual yet contemporary. The décor is intentional, says Olson, and meant to mirror the menu, a mix of mellow and modern, “contemporary yet also homey.” An exposed brick wall with old fire doors is front and center, surrounded by warm tones throughout. Because Victor’s is smack dab in the middle of an unapologetically lake-centered community, it needed to be welcoming to a wide variety of visitors.

While dinner is the main draw, there are seasonal lunch hours, Thursday through Sunday, and a generous list of options and daily specials at happy hour. “We want people in flip-flops and shorts—and also people coming for special occasions,” says Olson. “We don’t want be known as just a special-occasion restaurant.” So whether guests are looking for a classy night out, or appetizers and a glass of wine after a long day on the boat, the hope is that they will feel right at home at Victor’s. Last November, the team also opened an additional private dining space in the basement. The lounge is perfect for a cocktail party serving 100, or 76 seated guests. The adjoining wine room seats an additional 22 in all its bottle-lined glory.

“Excelsior has changed so drastically—it used to be all moccasin shops and antiques. Victor’s has played a part in attracting new and different people,” says Olson. She says that with the new, eclectic vibe in town, there’s been a growing sense of pride and camaraderie among Excelsior’s small businesses owners, and Victor’s fits right in. “Excelsior is becoming more recognized as a destination—not just because of the lake. We fit in well, and all of the businesses complement each other. Everyone wants everyone else to be successful.”

Just as a dinner in Tuscany exudes a sense of place, one of the goals of Victor’s is to become a true part of the community and to invite guests—life-long Excelsiorites and newbies alike—to feel like locals, even if it’s just for the night.

“Our reception alone has been so far above and beyond what we anticipated. It’s been remarkable. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not surprised,” says Olson. Victor’s has established itself and gained quite a reputation in Excelsior, but she says they won’t be resting on their laurels anytime soon. “If you stop learning and tweaking things, it does a disservice to your business; that’s just part of owning a restaurant.”

A Taste of Victor’s

It goes without saying that sourcing local foods can be tricky in Minnesota’s short growing season. So the menus at Victor’s change frequently to allow for as much seasonal fare as possible. Sometime it’s a challenge, says Olson, because “people fall in love with a dish, but next time they come in, it’s missing from the menu.”

There are a few well-curated constants, though. The culinary team at Victor’s has scored accolades for its bolognese ($18). While the shape of the pasta might change, the starring sauce recipe remains the same.

Another favorite is the pizza, with signature versions named after famous personalities, from American modern dancer Martha Graham to Prince, which is called the Rogers Nelson. The Keith Richards—yep, an ode to the Stones—is a perennial attention-getter. With Fontina cheese, house-made sausage, grilled artichokes and burnt onions, it’s utterly indulgent and delicious ($17).

Getting thirsty? Check out the extensive wine menu or selection of tap and bottled beers, or get adventurous with one of the signature cocktails, like a French 75 (Bombay Sapphire gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and prosecco; $13) or a Streetini (Ketel One vodka, grapefruit juice, pomegranate and simple syrup; $13). Bottoms up!