Old Meets New in White Bear Lake
The revitalized downtown balances trendy city life with laid-back lake culture
Acqua patio and Tally's Dockside
Photo by TJ Turner
The polar bear figure has become White Bear Lake’s version of the garden gnome, so frequently is the local mascot stationed in its residents’ front yards. Many were likely purchased from the town’s beloved Medicine Chest Pharmacy & Gifts, also dubbed “The Polar Bear Store,” which carries a vast selection of the arctic animal, from a 600-pound statue to tiny key-chain accessories. Unlike its megastore counterpart, this 1930s era pharmacy feels far more personal, reflecting the town’s history through vintage postcards and high school sports memorabilia. And despite a recent influx of hip, independently owned shops, eateries, and events (including the interactive Art Shanty Projects held in February), White Bear Lake has preserved its timeless Minnesota lake life culture—conveniently situated just a 20-minute drive from downtown St. Paul.
First thing in the morning, Keys Café & Bakery is one of the busiest spots in town, popular for its classic breakfast fare. This location of the local chain is perhaps the most charming, always adorned with holiday or seasonally themed decor, and robust with floral accents, creating a country kitchen ambiance. The cinnamon and caramel rolls are legendary, but they go fast—if you miss them, make do by snatching a free pastry sample from the front counter.
White Bear Lake menswear retailer John Henry
Photo by TJ Turner
Around the corner from Keys are two of White Bear Lake’s newest and trendiest clothing boutiques. Primp is known for affordable, American-made, hard-to-find brands, with a great selection of summer dresses. Next door, Primp’s sibling store John Henry offers the menswear equivalent, including one-of-a-kind button-up shirts that look dressy but feel, and work like, active wear—making it easy to hoist a sail and then go straight to dinner. (If you visit in the evening, Primp shoppers are offered wine, and at John Henry, beer.) Then walk one block to Truly…, a vibrant, feminine gift shop featuring well-curated handmade and Minnesota-based brands, such as its humorous Whiskey River Soap Co. candles, labeled with kitschy scent names (“Namaste: smells like enlightenment … and a whole lot of green smoothies”).
Photo by TJ Turner
These contemporary boutiques sit alongside the sort of cozy, small-town shops that are getting harder to find, including some selling quilting supplies, antiques, home furnishing consignments, and books—Lake Country Booksellers, in business for more than 35 years, takes pride in its Midwest roots by shelving several Minnesota authors. If you need a pick-me-up to shuttle through all the shops, Grandma’s Bakery supplies caffeinated beverages and sugary confections such as its signature “Kookies,” a heap of frosting sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies, come to life with two candy eyes.
Photo by Margaret Doran
When you work up an appetite for a full meal, The Station offers Irish pub food including authentic Scotch Eggs and Shepherd’s Pie, along with live music most nights. Other dining options include farm-to-table spot Margaux’s Table with a seasonally changing menu, or Red Lantern Sushi, one of the town’s best-kept secrets—behind a modest, somewhat shabby facade, hides excellent nigiri and sashimi, along with house-made pickles. At Pizzeria Pezzo, the deep dish and coal-fired pizza pair perfectly with a beer from White Bear Lake’s Big Wood Brewery (or stop by its taproom for more selections). To really relax, the umbrella-studded rooftop at Rudy’s Redeye Grill feels like a tropical oasis, complete with coconut mojitos and key lime pie.
For a nightcap, The Alchemist, a hushed underground speakeasy with dark, steampunk accents, has been attracting fans of co-owner Johnny Michaels. As the lead bartender of the former La Belle Vie, Michaels pioneered the local craft cocktail scene by refreshing classics for the modern era—much like White Bear Lake has done for itself.
Photo by TJ Turner
On the Water
Downtown White Bear Lake is about a mile from its namesake’s western shoreline. Here’s the best way to explore the waterfront:
Want to be on the water? Tally’s Dockside rents out fishing boats, pontoons, kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. Head to Tally’s restaurant and bar CG Hooks for BBQ fare, drinks, ice cream, and live music.
The upscale Italian restaurant Acqua has a lovely lakeside patio. The $40 three-course tasting menu is a great value with gourmet dishes such as the heirloom tomato caprese, veal carbonara, and soufflé version of a s’more. Also: great signature cocktails (the Black Cherry Collins is a favorite).
Take an evening stroll along the boardwalk to Lions Park. Or head to Matoska Park for paved trails, a dog beach, boat launch, benches overlooking the lake, and a beautiful gazebo.
Memorial Beach Park is the closest swimming beach with plenty of tables and open spaces ideal for picnics, or for sitting to admire the sunset over the lake.
Lakeside restaurant Acqua
PHOTO BY TJ TURNER
A White Bear Lake Local’s Favorite Place: Cup and Cone
“I grew up in White Bear Lake and started working at Cup and Cone when I was 16. It was my first job! It’s family owned and has been there since the early ’70s, so it’s become a staple of our community where you’ll see the local rec sports teams in their uniform t-shirts standing in line. I like to order anything with the crunch coat topping—a mixture of rainbow jimmies and peanut brittle.” - Rosalyn Murphy, John Henry Stylist and Manager