White Bear Lake’s premier-resort status stretches back to the 1860s, when sun-and-serenity seekers traveled by train and steamboat to enjoy its abundant beaches, quaint cottages and sightings of the famous and infamous. Al Capone is believed to have sought refuge there in the late 1920s, around the time a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, residing at the yacht club with his wife, Zelda, and their baby daughter, penned his precursor to “The Great Gatsby.”
The city of 23,000 has retained much of its small-town charm, while moving confidently into the 21st century with abundant attractions both culinary and cultural. Most options are within easy walking distance of the welcoming city center.
“It’s such a cool town, day and night,” said Bill Foussard, chairman of Explore White Bear Lake and owner of the White Bear Country Inn. Foussard spent his summers there as a boy and still can’t walk 3 feet without running into somebody he knows. “There are tons of things to do,” he said.
He’s right about that, so let’s get started.
Rudy’s Rooftop (4940 N. Hwy. 61) offers great people-watching, sun-worshiping and decadent “Rudytinis” (think Raspberry Vodka). The newish Big Wood Brewery and Taproom (2222 4th St.) won City Pages’ Best Local Beer honors in 2014 for its Morning Wood Coffee Stout.
The server at Cobblestone Cafe (4760 Washington Square) promised “just enough grease” to assure me I was eating diner food. This gem, with abundant outdoor seating and a throwback outdoor window to pay your tab, offers classics like pancakes, hash browns and omelets, plus signature breakfasts including a popular eggs Benedict. Red Lantern Sushi (2125 4th St.) and Pizzaria Pezzo (2143 4th St.) are local favorites, as is the Meet Market (1971 Whitaker St.), where you can put together a picnic of pulled pork sandwiches or caprese panini. For a romantic, upscale dinner overlooking the lake, try the Italian menu at Acqua Restaurant and Bar (4453 S. Lake Av.).
Owner John Lupo will celebrate the 37th anniversary of Grandma’s Bakery (2184B 4th St.) on Saturday the way he celebrates every workday — with a doughnut and coffee. Good luck picking just one, though, in display cases filled with raspberry iced Bismarcks, French-glazed doughnuts, pecan rolls, muffins, scones and much more. “We bake for everybody,” Lupo said. The creamy soft-serve at Cup and Cone (2126 4th St.) offers a perfect midafternoon break from all that walking, at bargain prices to boot. Ask for the flavor of the day.
The elegant White Bear Center for the Arts (4971 Long Av.) displays the works of accomplished regional artists, from painters to photographers to jewelers to ceramists. Be sure to step around back to the soothing OSilas Labyrinth. Speaking of soothing, don’t leave town without a stop at the 320-acre Tamarack Nature Center (5287 Otter Lake Road), offering more than 4 miles of walking trails, ponds and gardens.
Kids in tow? Lakeshore Players Theatre (4820 Stewart Av.) presents “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” beginning July 24. Entering its 63rd year, the respected community theater has begun a capital campaign to move out of its church-based home and into a state-of-the art center next to the White Bear Center for the Arts in 2017. For more information, go to www.lakeshoreplayers.org.
Dig into a rich past at the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society (2228 4th St.), housed in a former armory. While you’re there, pick up a brochure for 1- and 2-mile historical walking tours around town and sign up for a visit to the Fillebrown House, a renovated lake cottage built in 1879. “It’s a real treat, an amazing house,” said Historical Society Executive Director Sara Hanson. “It really captures that early cottage era.” Tours of the home (4735 Lake Av.) are offered on select Saturdays for $5 a person. For more information, go to www.whitebearhistory.org.
John Kass did a fine mail-order business for 33 years until something surprising happened: “Americans started buying records again.” Kass is referring to those large, round vinyl things, also called LPs. Now Kass caters to “young hipsters and old burnouts” with equal enthusiasm at his cramped and well-stocked Go Johnny Go Records (4775 Banning Av.). Lake County Booksellers (4766 Washington Square) offers bestsellers and Minnesota authors, thrillers and sci-fi, plus comfy corners in which to sit. Sweet Home (2186 3rd St.) is a fun mix of funky and vintage mirrors, lamps and furniture. Primp (4766 Banning Av.) sells stylish women’s fashions at reasonable prices. Goodthings boutique (2184 4th St.) offers unique upscale items, from one-of-a-kind dresses to handmade jewelry to adorable clutches. Quilters will appreciate the abundance of Bear Patch Quilting (2199 4th St.).
Blood orange olive oil? Sure. “We like to be very inventive,” said Bruce Bushey, who owns the Olive Branch Oil & Spice Co. (2202 5th St. #20) with wife, Janet Richards. “I’m kind of a mad scientist.” The couple married in Greece, from where much of the store’s inspiration and top-quality lines derive. Another friendly option is nearby Autumn Harvest Oil Co. (4762 Banning Av.), where I picked up a handy tip sheet on how to use balsamic vinegar.
“Lake” being the operative word in White Bear Lake, make sure to visit Tally’s Dockside, (4441 S. Lake Av.) with its charming beach bum vibe, comfort food, music and pontoon boats for rent. Nearby Admiral D’s (4424 S. Lake Av.) is a higher-end option, with large patios and live music on the deck.
Apples have been sold out the front door of Pine Tree Apple Orchard since the early 1900s, but the family-run operation has evolved quite a bit since. The 300-acre orchard welcomes school groups and families throughout the year, with strawberry picking until late June and apple-picking beginning in late August. This fall, take a wagon ride, pick your own pumpkin or walk through a corn maze. No matter what season you arrive, take home a mouthwatering pie from the orchard’s bakery. “It’s the crust,” said Mary Jacobson, one of six Jacobson siblings working together to bring high-quality fruit products to the region.
Energy-infused Marketfest, a pedestrian-only festival along downtown streets, features local businesses promoting their brands, food booths, live music and art. It runs every Thursday through July 30, beginning at 6 p.m. The annual Manitou Days is a 16-day party of games, garage sales, music, art shows and more that culminates in a July 4th extravaganza.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum