Ronald Reagan, grinning and wearing a cowboy hat, stands at the intersection of Sixth and St. Joseph streets in downtown Rapid City, S.D. Nah, the Gipper hasn't come back to life and shown up for duty in the Black Hills. But his lifesize bronze statue, along with sculptures of 18 other commanders in chief, graces the city's old town, part of the quirky City of Presidents arts program that aims to have likenesses of all 43 chief execs placed on street corners by 2011. "Some people pose with the statues for pictures, others stick their tongues out at the politicians they don't like, and someone once put blindfolds on all of them," says program co-founder Dallerie Davis. "They inspire interaction."
The presidents -- who currently range from Thomas Jefferson grasping a quill to John F. Kennedy holding the hand of a young John Jr. -- are just one draw in the small plains city's increasingly lively downtown. In a strollable zone with turn-of-the-last-century storefronts, flower beds and views of the hills, downtown Rapid City boasts unusual shops, several good restaurants (and one great one), an interesting museum and plenty of retro Western architecture.
Founded in 1876 by gold prospectors, Rapid (as locals call it) used to register as nothing more than a watering hole on the way to Mount Rushmore (25 miles) or the Badlands (also 25). But in the past 10 years or so, "downtown has really started to thrive," says chef Mae Jean "M.J." Adams, the French Culinary Institute grad who owns the city's acclaimed Corn Exchange restaurant. "There's an alley that's been decorated by artists, a wonderful old movie theater and good restaurants and shops. Rapid really surprises people." Spots not to miss:
* The Corn Exchange restaurant (727 Main St., 605-343-5070), a haunt of former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, won national attention from the likes of Gourmet and Elle magazines for its wine list, artisanal cheeses and inventive bistro cuisine, such as corn cakes with South Dakota trout and a salty-sweet caramel-chocolate tart. The decor -- sleek steel bar stools, pear-green walls and murals of oversize vegetables -- suggests the Upper West Side, not the Old West.
* Prairie Edge (606 Main St., 605-342-3086) fills a two-level, nearly 3,000-square-foot 1886 building with Northern Plains art, books on Native Americans and South Dakota-made quilts and pottery. The visually stunning array of merchandise ranges from horse dance sticks (carved wooden staffs embellished with leather and feathers) and fringed deerskin dresses to CDs of Cheyenne flute music and buffalo-shaped stuffed animals. Upstairs, honeyed wooden bookcases hold an antique bead library, which shows and sells a rainbow of beads in tiny bottles.
* Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth St., 605-342-1210, www.alexjohnson.com; rates $75-$149), open since 1928, blends Lakota Sioux and art deco decor. A Jazz Age teepee chandelier and mounted buffalo heads hang in the high-ceilinged lobby; guest rooms feature bedspreads embroidered with pheasants (the state bird) and original '20s bathroom tiles in wild colors and diagonal patterns.
* Buckin' Pony Boutique (516 Sixth St., 605-342-0608) rounds up cowgirl gear in a cozy space with a red pressed-tin ceiling and a cowhide rug on the floor. Think bejeweled belts, Texas-made hats and a T-shirt that reads "Does this saddle make me look fat?"
* Just north of the historic zone, the Journey Museum (222 New York St., 605-394-6923, www.journeymuseum.org; $7 admission) chronicles Native American, pioneer and natural history. Skip the PR-ish intro film and head to the Lakota section with its antique beaded moccasins and "bladder bags," small containers made of, yep, buffalo bladders. Kids can climb into a teepee or watch a Native American storyteller who happens to be a hologram.
* Firehouse Brewing Co. (610 Main St., 605-348-1915) makes and pours beers (coffee-like Smoke Jumper Stout, hoppy India Pale Ale) in the former red-brick headquarters of the fire department. The 1915 building attracts boisterous crowds with its beer garden and pub grub like cream of Reuben soup and buffalo burgers.
* The Elks Theatre (512 Sixth St., 605-341-4149, www.elkstheatre.com), a 1912 movie palace, screens flicks and hosts concerts in a restored space with a massive main screen and plush maroon walls.
* Tally's Restaurant (530 Sixth St., 605-342-7621) serves cheap diner food and draws a diverse crowd -- bolo-tie-wearing Sioux, dread-locked dudes in "Hemp Hoedown" tees. Best bets: homemade pies or the breakfast special of buffalo sausages wrapped in pancakes.
-- Jennifer Barger
The City of Presidents Information Center (631 Main St., 605-490-4001) has free walking-tour maps. For more info: Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-487-3223, www.rapidcitycvb.com.