“Did you know that White Bear Lake used to be a hideout for Chicago gangsters back in the day?” I sort-of asked, sort-of told my best friend Tonya and her husband Sam, in town from Idaho, as we drove down Highway 61 from Forest Lake. “It was a popular summer resort destination. You could even take the railroad ‘Up North’ from Minneapolis or St. Paul.”
The history of the town becomes even more interesting when you add in the fact that private Manitou Island on White Bear Lake, connected to the shore by a small bridge, was once the summer address of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his beloved wife, Zelda.
I probably didn’t need to “sell” the area to West Coast-born-and-bred Sam—the area is naturally pretty enough to sell itself—but I wanted him to appreciate the historic significance. We might not have mountains in Minnesota, but we do have some beautiful lakes, many with history (involving gangsters like Ma Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Baby Face Nelson!).
On the rooftop patio of Rudy’s Redeye Grill
A trip to the city of White Bear Lake followed on the heels of a visit to the Pine Tree Apple Orchard (a very Minnesotan thing to do with out-of-town visitors, and the perfect place to let their very active 2-year-old run around). Apple orchard visits are an annual tradition for many locals; and this particular visit will be remembered as not only the time I was able to hang out with my favorite Idaho friends, but also the time that SweeTangos took over the place in my heart once reserved solely for Honeycrisp apples. (SweeTangos are a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar! varieties and oh man are they good).
Once we had purchased apple pie, apple cider, apple cider chocolate chip cookies, a bag of SweeTango apples, strawberry jam, and apple licks, we headed to downtown White Bear Lake for lunch and shopping, a short drive from the orchard.
Not every city has a downtown anymore, and not every city with a downtown is worthy of showing off to visitors. Downtown White Bear Lake is worthy. Not only is the layout compact and easy-to-navigate, there are very few vacant storefronts, and there’s a great mix of mostly independent small businesses. One of my favorite places to shop for trendy, fashion-forward, affordable clothes is Primp, “the cheap, chic boutique” (forever known in my mind as ‘the place where I bought the yellow dress for my high school reunion’), and I can always find unique gifts at Goodthings, Select Vintage, Lake Country Booksellers, and LuLu and Luigi, full of cute items for the fur-babies in your life. I’m also a fan of the Medicine Chest Pharmacy, because sometimes all you need is an inexpensive, quirky little trinket.
After we did some shopping, we had lunch at Eat! @ Banning and Fifth, a cozy café on the corner of, where else? Banning and Fifth. Nearly everything we ordered was made from scratch with fresh ingredients, and prepared right in front of us by a welcoming, jovial father/daughter duo. The café was clean and the food was great. (I highly recommend the chicken wild rice soup.) Other good lunch spots include Ingredients and Keys Café.
The beauty of this “city of lakes and legends” is that it doesn’t become a ghost town once the stores have closed shop. There’s a vibrancy here at night—an energy—thanks to the restaurants in town. I’ve celebrated many special occasions on the rooftop of Rudy’s Redeye Grill (in my opinion, the best rooftop patio in the ’burbs, complete with colorful umbrellas, lush plants, and heat lamps), Washington Square Bar & Grill (especially fun on evenings when they have live music), White Bear Bar, and Manitou Station. Marketfest is also worth a visit, on Thursdays in June and July, but I‘ll save that post for another time.