A traveler has long been forgotten by the bright, trendy storefronts of downtown Duluth’s main street when he or she spots a dingy Old Style sign poking out of the woods on Highway 23, just outside city limits. The lack of light pollution makes a highway peek pointless at night. You’ll only see an unmarked building, a scatter of cars, and the word WABEGON.
Drive into the shroud and you’ll find Minnesota’s Wisconsin bar. It’s where Spotted Cow comes in a 33-oz galoot mug, where shake-a-day’s all but mandatory, where mystery buck shots are gulped, and where fancy craft beers haven’t been.
Get your scuffy suedes and Starter coats ready, we’re goin’ to WABEGON.
The Basics: It was thoroughly documented this year by several news outlets who only recently learned this, but Wabegon is indeed located in Wisconsin and the only way to reach it is indeed a highway in Minnesota. Not all state lines are straight lines. Cool story, everyone.
There appears to be a wabegon.com, but it wasn’t loading at press time. Here is their Facebook page instead.
Even by middle-of-the-woods standards, the dark and quiet around the Wabegon’s entryway produced a few shivers on a Tuesday night. It made the crunch of the snow and dirt under my tires a little bit creakier. It weakened the shine of my headlights a tad. The lot was a dirt patch, from what I could tell. Within it, cars were parked anyplace a car could be parked with confidence it wouldn’t get hit. I settled for my own car-fitting something and attempted an entry.
The door into the bar seemed locked. Must be the other door, I thought, and took a door to my left. There, a man stood alone on a porch blowing smoke into the air. Nope, I’m just an idiot, I thought and returned to the original bar door, which did eventually let me into the bar.
At the Wabegon, it’s easy to tell who’s who and who isn’t who — and I don’t just mean by watching who can fiddle open the door. It’s not exactly anti-dress code, as folks were dressed nice, but everyone else looked comfortable. It isn’t like the Cities, where the youngsters are followed in by this weird pressure to look a status. Here, Wabegon is your status.
Anyhow, Mr. Car Coat and Forces here was welcomed by a J.J. Watt-looking bruiser-type kiddo behind the bar. I told him sec, and stepped to the bano — through the knobless door and into the stall, whose doorknob was too funky to turn. The stall door itself had seen better days, but it’s unlikely anybody remembered them.
I asked for a Spotted Cow back at the bar, big one please. I’m used to a pint being “big one.” At the Wabegon, “big one” sounds like a safe being dropped on the bar. I looked at it, then up at the bruiser.
“You asked for the big one,” he said.
The back of the bar, from left right right: Fridge, bottles, bottles, clipped-up chip bags for sale, sign, sign, sign … sign … sign … bottles, bottles, drawing. The only Christmas adornment was a Santa poster, taped up on a wall not quite wide enough to fit it. Otherwise, the Wabegon is pretty much white walls, football posters and pool leagues.
Judging by its menu, the Wabby is well aware of its destination stature. While that frosted silo of Spotted Cow ran a mere $6.50, burgers landed generally in the $10-12 range you’d expect from a Twin Cities hotspot. I was drawn to the BAM Burger, a concoction topped with mozzarella sticks, marinara sauce, and Swiss and American cheeses.
The burger was just the kind of cheese-splosion you’d expect from the stinkier side of the border (in a good way, because cheese) with a toe-kick of pasta-type goodness on top. The fries were fundamentally sound, with no excess of nubs or strands cooked into pencils. I used a little ketchup, but not much. My only grief? The grease pooled up in the snack boat and made a pasty mess of the bottom bun.
The clientele engaged their stranger warmly, and the bruiser held down the bar well on only his second day. The Wabegon is a pressure-free, satisfying bar, and I see less and less of these with every trip up. Having been shocked this winter by the combustion of Bruno’s Bear’s Den, and longing for the return of Holyoke’s Hitching Post, it calms me to know there’s at least one secure outpost in the Wabegon. Maybe that’s because it’s in Wisconsin. The reason doesn’t much matter.
I shook a few losing numbers, settled up, and crept back into the night.