Canal Park restaurant expands to become Island Lake landmark
A popular Canal Park eatery started serving burgers and ice cream at a historic drive-in this summer as work is underway to expand operations on the site and create a new destination restaurant just south of Island Lake.
Restaurant and bar on the avenue du lac the property opened on Lake Avenue Drive In at the site of the former Porky’s Drive In, 7047 Rice Lake Road, Gnesen Township earlier this month. The adjacent Boondocks Saloon and Grill has been gutted and will undergo a major remodel before it opens later this year as Lake Effect Restaurant and Bar at Island Lake. The new restaurant openings are the first steps in transforming the small, roadside business district to serve Lake District travelers and the growing suburban neighborhood.
According to St. Louis County property tax records, Duluth-based Midlife Investment Group purchased the former drive-in, saloon and surrounding property for $382,500 earlier this spring. The group has teamed up with Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar to breathe new life into the Lake District’s landmark.
“It’s kind of two businesses in one,” said Lake Avenue restaurant and bar owner Derek Snyder. “One side of the building will be the new bar and restaurant. In between is our professional quality kitchen and on the other end is a bit like Porky’s old school ice cream parlour.
The drive-in will be open during the summer and will serve Bridgeman’s ice cream, smash burgers, bratwurst, walleye and a few other creative options. A liquor license is also in preparation to serve beer, wine and cocktails.
The Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar has been owned by Snyder and his partners for 13 years and serves as the anchor of the Dewitt-Seitz Market. Snyder said he is looking for expansion opportunities outside of Duluth to gain new customers and give staff more opportunities for advancement.
When it opens, the new Lake Effect restaurant and bar will offer a “cabin chic” menu similar to its sister property in Canal Park. Steaks, chops, ribs, seafood and vegan dishes will be offered in addition to more casual fare like mac and cheese and fried chicken. Snyder said drawbars and bingo nights are being explored, as well as spaces for local art and music. Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar’s current sous-chef, Luke Anderson, will serve as head chef.
“We’re really excited about this,” Snyder said. “In the restaurant business, you don’t really have a chance twice, but we hope to make it – with a lot of hard work and passion again. Just bring the same things we’ve always brought (at Canal Park It’s more about the pleasure of having a restaurant, meeting people and customers and serving good food.
MIG partner and Knutson Custom Build CEO Andrew Knutson said the Island Lake area is growing, attracting more Duluth residents and cottagers. Knutson, Snyder and other members of the partnership all have ties dating back to their time at Duluth East High School.
“We call our place downtown Island Lake,” Knutson said. The development group wants to make the small business district the center of the Island Lake community and plans to bring other new services and entertainment to the area. Negotiations are underway to purchase the neighboring Porky’s Truck Stop, which closed in 2021.
“A lot of people are moving to Island Lake and the surrounding area because suburbanization is happening,” Knutson said. “If suburbia is going to happen and you have to get away from the big lake, what’s the next best place to be? On another big lake.
Knutson said more and more people are buying homes or cabins in the Island Lake area and working remotely. “The caveat to that is that it’s 20 minutes from Duluth,” he said. “So what we want to do is provide them with amenities up there.”
Establishing a fun family drive and opening a quality restaurant will be the first steps. Knutson Custom Construction has worked with other area restaurants like Scenic Cafe, Va Bene and Bridgeman’s on recent renovation projects.
“I’m really excited to see where it goes,” Knutson said.
Built in 1955 by George Jackson, the low, red and white building was purchased in 1963 by Ray and Gay Leimer and named High 12 Drive In. Recently retired Gnesen City Clerk Lottie Haller said her parents owned establishment for about 10 years.
“My mom practically ran it,” Haller said. “She was a very good cook. The last owner contacted us to get her old recipe for onion rings.
Haller said the featured car-hop service was always busy in the summer. “On a good day I would make 500 ice cream cones, you know hard ice cream, it was like Bridgeman’s,” she said.
Al Johnson bought the company in the early 1970s and operated it until he suffered a heart attack while working at the drive-in and later died.
The property was renamed Porky’s in 1987 and a bar/restaurant was built on the north side of the building in 1990. The complex was recently operated by Paul Riesland and was known as Boondocks. The business closed in 2021.
Knutson said the new Lake Effect restaurant and bar will seat around 90 people and will feature two outdoor patios at the front of the building. The restaurant will also have a small back room for parties and gatherings and the dining room will include a stage for local music. Work is underway for a new kitchen.
Anderson said the menu will include foods with fresh, local ingredients similar to their Canal Park location. “But it won’t be the same. We’re going to add an Island Lake touch to it here,” he said.