Whitey’s is a living monument to the long tradition of delicious food, good drinks, and great fun in East Grand Forks, MN.
East Grand Forks was a saloon town in the early years. It started with northern Minnesota lumberjacks who floated their timber down the Red River to lumber mills at the fork of the two rivers. The farmhands who worked the broad plains of the Red River Valley also came to the fork for fun and frolic. North Dakota was “dry” back then, so the liquor trade developed on the Minnesota side of the line. East Grand Forks, Moorhead, and other border towns thrived on the lively nightlife. Much to the disgust of “proper folk,” the liquor trade was the town’s primary industry.
East Grand Forks was at the peak of its liquor and gambling trade when 19-year-old Edwin “Whitey” Larson decided to get in on the action. In 1925, Whitey opened the Coney Island Lunch Room at 108 North 2nd St., just a half block off the well-known DeMers Avenue strip. The Coney Island featured bootleg alcohol and a few slot machines, as well as the occasional Coney Island hot dog. It was tiny in comparison with most of the 40 nightclubs and restaurants that lined DeMers Avenue and made East Grand Forks famous throughout the Northwest as “Little Chicago.”
After several fruitful years operating the Coney Island, Whitey purchased the building at 110-112 DeMers Ave. from the Duluth Brewing Company and, in 1930, built the first stainless steel horseshoe bar in the United States. The business was appropriately named “Whitey's Wonderbar.” Liquor sales were complemented by the unrestricted presence of slot machines and dice games. Business prospered, and in 1939 Whitey's Wonderbar, designed by local architect Samuel DeRemer, was featured in The Saturday Evening Post and Time magazine for its art deco design and style. Today, Whitey's is one of the best examples of this type of architecture in the country.
The 1940s brought changes to Whitey's Wonderbar. In 1942, a fire heavily damaged the building. It was reopened with a new front facade and renamed Whitey's Cafe and Lounge. The emphasis was now on food as illicit gaming was coming under increased scrutiny by a more law-abiding citizenry. The change proved wise as the East Grand Forks gambling industry was closed down in 1947 and the number of liquor licenses reduced to 5. Whitey's is the lone survivor from the days of one-armed bandits and two-fisted drinking. The energy and enthusiasm that Whitey Larson put into building his Wonderbar now was directed toward establishing a reputation for fine food for which the Cafe and Lounge is now famous.
Over the years, Whitey’s became a landmark restaurant in the Greater Grand Forks area. It expanded to include 3 distinct bars in the 1970s, and the nightclub venue became nearly as legendary as Whitey’s cuisine.
The flood of 1997 inundated the first floor of the building with nearly 6 feet of water. Whitey's was then rebuilt in a new location just 3 doors up the block from the destroyed building. The famed Wonderbar and art deco interior were saved along with most of the artifacts. Today, Whitey's features its original decor and atmosphere complemented by the spacious Boardwalk Bar and outdoor patio facing the Boardwalk. Whitey's is a piece of East Grand Forks history for future generations to enjoy.
In the summer of 2011, Tim and Kristi Bjerk purchased the building and gave it an incredible facelift from top to bottom. The horseshoe bar is still in place and inviting guests as it has been since 1925. The back bar has been moved to the west wall of the dining room and stands guard over newly appointed booths and tables. When warm weather arrives, the patio is open for full meals or a quick libation.