During our vacation up at Lake Okoboji late this past summer, I was talking to my buddy, Craig, who lives in Spirit Lake. He was filling me in on a couple breakfast places we needed to try, one of them being O'Farrell Sisters in Okoboji. He said, "And you can even get a bloody mary with breakfast!" His description of O'Farrell Sisters sounded intriguing enough even without the tease of having a bloody mary for breakfast, so we sought the place out for breakfast one morning.
The history of O'Farrell Sisters begins back in the late 40's when sisters Edna Mae and Arlene O'Farrell bought a little restaurant on the north side of the Highway 71 bridge between East Lake Okoboji and West Lake Okoboji. The restaurant had been owned by Ike Kissinger who sold the business to the O'Farrell Sisters after he decided to run for - and subsequently, won - the sheriff's job in Dickinson County. Their sister, Ferne, joined the sisters in the business and other family members chipped in to help from time to time.
The O'Farrell Sisters restaurant was open seven days a week and business was booming. Their Sunday night fried chicken dinners were so popular that people would line up around the building to wait for a seat. There were times the line would be so long that they've have to lock the doors because they had run out of chicken.
The O'Farrell Sisters were also known for their delicious homemade pies. Made fresh daily, people would come into O'Farrell Sisters just for their pies. That's a tradition that has continued over the years.
In 1959, Arlene and her husband, Furman Henderson, moved to Tallahassee, FL. Not long after, Edna Mae and Ferne moved the restaurant to its present day location on Lake Shore Drive in Okoboji (see map) up the hill and away from the lake waterfront. They built the building on land that had a garden and a chicken coop, which was moved across the road.
It was business as usual for the O'Farrell Sisters until Ferne passed away in 1974. Four years later, Edna Mae passed away. Arlene still owned part of the restaurant even though she still lived in Florida. She sold the restaurant to her nieces (daughters of both Ferne and Edna Mae), Joyce Gapinsky, Jo Ann Anderson, Charlotte Sarvie and Cheri Peterson (pictured right). Now a seasonal business open from May through September, the nieces successfully ran the restaurant from 1973 thru 2003, even though Jo Ann passed away in 1997 and Cheri in 2002.
Joyce and Charlotte decided to sell the business after the 2003 season and it was bought by a family named Anderson who wanted their daughter to run the restaurant. However, before they opened for the season, the Anderson family decided they'd rather build a summer home on the site instead. This is when Leo "Butch" Parks, Jr. stepped in.
Butch Parks is a local marina owner and saloon owner. Parks owns the infamous Barefoot Bar at his marina, Parks Marina. Parks is sort of a polarizing figure around the Iowa Great Lakes. He has been a thorn in the side of local municipalities challenging rules and laws that inhibit him from serving liquor on the lake, but is also known as somewhat of a philanthropist giving to various charities around the area. It was Parks who stepped in when the Anderson family decided to tear down the restaurant and build a vacation home. He called O'Farrell Sisters an "institution" around Lake Okoboji and he bought the property from the Anderson family.
Parks hired two daughters of Ferne O'Farrell - Linda Sealey and Sharon London (pictured at right, courtesy of Sioux City Journal) - to run the place for him. The sisters were involved in their own restaurant - O'Farrell Foods - that also served lunch and dinner, but Parks was insistent on the sisters running his restaurant. Sharon London left the business in 2008, but was asked by Parks to return to the business in 2011 because, as Sharon told us when we visited the place for breakfast, "He told me that the place never ran as good after I left. So I came back."
When Parks bought the business in 2004, he was denied a liquor license because the property had been rezoned in 1978 after the death of Edna Mae O'Farrell. The city of Okoboji was afraid the restaurant would be sold outside the family and turned into a bar. Parks eventually sued the city of Okoboji, but lost a district court decision challenging the legality of the rezoning ordinance for O'Farrell Sisters. Parks and his lawyer successfully argued before the Iowa Court of Appeals that the lower court ruling didn't take into consideration that serving alcohol at a restaurant still made it a restaurant. That decision was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2008 and Parks was allowed to sell liquor at O'Farrell Sisters. That's how I was able to get bloody mary with my breakfast on our visit.
It was after 9:30 when we got into O'Farrell Sisters. It was a little tough to find as Lake Shore Drive doesn't really start near the lake, but more up the road from the Highway 71 bridge. We found a place to park on the street across from the iconic restaurant with the large neon fish sign on top of the building.
Walking in to O'Farrell Sisters, it was like walking back into the 60's. The restaurant isn't that big with a handful of tables and booths in the larger section of the dining room. A high counter bar was in front of the kitchen. There is a small bar area on the west side of the restaurant that is filled with pictures of the original O'Farrell Sisters. Interestingly, Ferne was only in one or two photographs, mainly in the background. "Mom never liked getting her picture taken," Sharon London explained to us later on. "You can see her back in the kitchen in this picture, and I think that's her hand in this one."
We took a table in the smaller of section of the restaurant near the small bar and surrounded by the pictures on the wall. A young lady brought us menus and I ordered up my bloody mary and asked for a beer chaser. The waitress asked Sharon for a beer chaser and Sharon told me over the bar, "We don't have draft beer, hon. Only cans."
"Oh, OK," I said. "That's fine, I'll take a can of Bud Light to go with the bloody mary." Cindy sort of gave me that look of "It's 9:30 in the morning!" But, yeah, we were on vacation!
O'Farrell Sisters are famous for their pancakes using a homemade batter recipe that has been handed down through three generations. The restaurant serves breakfast daily until 2 p.m., but after 11 a.m. they begin to serve burgers, sandwiches and appetizers including their famous chicken wings with your choice of five different sauces made in house. And because there are "no rules" at O'Farrell Sisters, you can get a slice of their homemade pie at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m.
I pretty much knew I was going to get blueberry pancakes with a side of bacon, but Cindy was sort of torn between getting pancakes or the egg combo that came with your choice of bread for toast, an English muffin or biscuit, hash browns and your choice of meat. But she ended up getting an egg over easy, ala carte, along with a couple pancakes and toast. She likes her pancakes well done, something she got from her grandmother who would cook them for her in an iron pan when Cindy was little.
Our breakfasts showed up about 15 minutes later, just after I finished my bloody mary and beer. The blueberries were folded into the pancake batter - the way blueberry pancakes should be made. Too many times, restaurants put blueberries - or even worse, blueberry pie filling - on top of the pancakes. I think they should be inside the pancake batter, the way O'Farrell Sisters do it.
And the pancakes were very good. Now, I think my wife makes the best pancakes in the world. I have yet to come across pancakes anywhere that rival Cindy's pancakes. But the pancakes at O'Farrell Sisters came close. The flavor of vanilla was prevalent in each bite. The blueberries were fresh and they were cooked thin and not fluffy, just as I like them. Cindy felt her pancakes could have been more dark than what they were, but she was fine with what she had. Cindy said, "These are good pancakes. I can see why they come in for these."
After breakfast, it gave us some time to visit with Sharon London. She told us of working in the restaurant as a little girl. "In the summertime, it would be unbearably hot back in the kitchen, before this place was air conditioned," she said. "When my sister and cousins would get a break, we'd run down to the lake, jump in and cool off, then come back up the hill to go back to work."
Of all the places we had breakfast while up at Lake Okoboji, O'Farrell Sisters was the most unique place. I think the pancakes were very good and having a bloody mary before breakfast was a fun thing to do. The staff was friendly and efficient, and we enjoyed visiting with Sharon London who gave us some insight on the history of O'Farrell Sisters. Butch Parks is right - O'Farrell Sisters is an institution around Lake Okoboji. It's a great place for breakfast - or for just a piece of homemade pie.