A tavern, off-sale liquor outlet and supper club in Superior Township is under new ownership. John Hartwick purchased the 85-year-old Wabegon bar and grill on April 28 and hit the ground running, only shutting down for half a day to inventory the place. Paul Vernon, who owned the Wabegon for 10 years, held a going away pig roast party the week prior.
The Wabegon is a bit of a geographical oddity. Though it’s located in Wisconsin, roads leading in are through Minnesota, and the vibe of the business is Minnesota through and through. For residents of Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood, it’s the primary gathering place for food and revelry; Superior residents, on the other hand, are barely aware it exists.
To get to the Wabegon, drivers must take Minnesota Highway 23. Once the turn is made into the parking lot, the state line has been crossed. The bar and grill resides in a scenic location on the far northwestern tip of Wisconsin, near the St. Louis River and at the foot of Mont du Lac ski resort. The address is 14030 MN-23, Superior WI.
Though it’s technically a Wisconsin establishment, the Wabegon customer base is more likely to root for the Vikings. Hartwick says there are some distinctions and advantages to being a Wisconsin bar. Off-sale liquor sales can happen on Sundays and tavern regulations are a bit more lax.
Hartwick was recently general manager of the Kitchi Gammi Club. He has a lengthy history in hospitality.
“I’ve managed hotels, resorts and restaurants. I’ve spent all my life in the hospitality industry,” he said. Previous employers include the Radisson Hotel, Spirit Mountain, Barker’s Island, Grand Superior Lodge, the Holiday Inn and Le Grand Supper Club.
Hartwick has always wanted to have his own restaurant. While negotiating with Vernon, a serendipitous event convinced him it was the right decision. On a return trip from Florida, a couple from Lakeville struck up a conversation with Hartwick in the airport because he was wearing a Grandma’s Marathon shirt (he serves on the board of directors). They raved about the Wabegon and said they were looking forward visiting it again this summer.
Hartwick took it as a sign. The Wabegon is a staple within the community but it also attracts many tourists in the summer months. “It’s a destination place that has been here for a long time,” he says. “It’s a pretty drive up 23 any time of the year.”
Rumor has it, the Wabegon was originally built in 1932 as a house, but it has served as a restaurant for as long as most people can remember.
The bar and restaurant is charmingly understated — as a roadside bar should be. The dining room seats about 100 people and features an expansive mural of the Fond du Lac Dam by artist Dena Rothman.
Burger baskets, sandwiches and appetizers are staples, but the menu includes an array of vegetarian options. Popular dinner specials keep locals coming back. Thursdays feature barbecued ribs that are slow roasted for 22 hours. Fridays are for fish fries. The bar is open every day of the week but doesn’t serve food on Mondays. Hartwick says this could change; he’s currently hiring cooks.
As far as additional changes, Hartwick says some cosmetic upgrades are in order but he plans to keep the rustic, comfortable feel customers have come to expect. He’ll keep the name too. “The name won’t change. It’s solid. Everyone knows it.”
He does have some plans to put his own twist on the menu. “We’ll keep what works and add some new items for people to try,” says Hartwick.
Last fall, Vernon held a 26.2-yard interstate marathon where participants ran from Wisconsin to Minnesota and back again, stopping to have a drink along the way. Hartwick says he may continue the tradition as a fun way to draw attention to the bar’s unusual coordinates. He’s also contemplating some new signage. Currently, there’s no clear demarcation of the Minnesota–Wisconsin border.
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