On our last night on vacation in the Lake Okoboji area of Northwest Iowa this past summer, our friends, Craig and Kathy Evert, came and picked us up at the Pioneer Beach Resort where we stayed. They took us around to a couple bars in the area - the Softail Saloon in Superior, IA, a large biker-friendly bar in a small town just to the east of Spirit Lake, then to The Gardens in Arnolds Park. For dinner, we ended up at a place called The Ritz in Arnolds Park. I had inquired about The Ritz earlier in the week and I heard they had both great pizza and a top-notch cheeseburger. The dilemma - can I have both for dinner? (Photo courtesy Sioux City Journal)
The Ritz is a long time institution in the Iowa Great Lakes area. For over 30 years, the bar/restaurant has sat on the south side of East Lake Okoboji, next to the bridge that connects the north side and the south side of the little bay where East Lake Okoboji meets West Lake Okoboji. (see map) Prior to becoming The Ritz over 20 years ago, it was known as the The Hunter's Inn. Taylor and Rich (aka "Coyote") Genrich are the owners of The Ritz (below left). (Photo courtesy Sioux City Journal)
The Ritz is popular in the summertime because of its large outdoor patio that overlooks the lake. It can easily accommodate over a hundred diners and is well-lit at night. The indoor bar area of The Ritz features a long bar, a number of tables and chairs, and a pool table area on the far end. The sliding doors allow for easy access to the patio, or, when they're closed during colder weather, a nice view of the lake. The place ain't too fancy, so don't expect fine dining at The Ritz.
It was just before 9 p.m. when we sat down at a table on the patio. The sun's dwindling light was casting a dark red hue across the sky over the lake. It was a beautiful evening to sit outside and have dinner.
Our server for the evening, Kara, came over to greet us and drop off some menus. She took our drinks order and we took a look at what they had to offer at The Ritz. The menu features your usual bar-type food - appetizers, salads and sandwiches - but they're also famous for their homemade pizzas and their famous "Lue's Cheeseburger". The cheeseburger is what caught my attention as it was a finalist for the Iowa Beef Industry Council's 3rd Annual Best Burger in Iowa contest held earlier this year. The burger is named after Rich Genrich's mother, Lue Bradshaw, who used to run a place called Lue's Driftwood Inn in Okoboji for a number of years.
Lue Bradshaw's burgers were famous for years around the lakes area. She used fresh ground beef for her hamburger patties with toasted buns, two differenty types of cheese and ran it through the garden with the usual veggies. She served thousands of them during the time her establishment was open.
When Rich and Taylor Genrich introduced Lue's Cheeseburger to the menu at The Ritz, it was clear it was not the same as what his mom served at her little place. A couple years ago, the Genrich's changed the way they made the burger going from a pre-formed patty to using fresh ground beef like Lue Bradshaw used to do. Suddenly, what was a good burger became a great burger, so much so that it was nominated by customers of The Ritz to be one of the top burgers in Iowa. A couple of judges came into the place in March and had a burger. They must have liked it as it turned out that the Lue's Cheeseburger missed being the Best Burger in Iowa by only 2/10ths of a point! (The winner this year was the burger at the Coon Bowl III in Coon Rapids, IA)
While we were deciding what to get, I looked over at a table of middle-aged ladies who were having a good time. On the table was this huge bowl of margaritas that served as a community drinking vessel with long plastic straws. I went over to the table and asked the ladies what it was. One of them said, "Oh, this is the fish bowl! The is the margarita and the other one over there has Long Island Iced Tea in it!" The fish bowl is a 64 oz. size and The Ritz estimates they sell between 800 to 1000 fish bowls each summer. I have to say, the ladies at the table were feeling no pain.
When it came time to order, we each decided to get a burger, but Craig said we needed to also order one of The Ritz's "Garbage" pizzas - it has a little bit of everything on it. That was a great compromise for me as I was really wavering between the burger and the pizza and I wasn't certain I could wait to come back and try one or the other.
While the others got the regular Lue's Cheeseburger, I got a Lue's cheeseburger with Swiss cheese, sauteed mushrooms and bacon. When Kara brought out the burgers and the pizza, we were ready to eat. The burgers came with a boatload of fries that I knew I wasn't going to eat. A festive toothpick held the top bun to the burger and it was loaded with mushrooms, ample amounts of cheese and couple pieces of bacon.
The burger, itself, was very, very good. It was good and juicy with a great flavor. The bun was soft and chewy, while the mushrooms, cheese and bacon all helped excite the taste buds. It was very worthy of its lofty standing as a finalist in the Best Burger in Iowa competition.
The pizza at The Ritz is a thin crust, party cut, caramelized plate of lusciousness. Looking at the pizza, I thought they possibly left it in the oven too long, but it wasn't burnt on the bottom at all. The toppings were all fresh, the sausage they use had the big chunks with a ton of flavor, the pepperoni was salty and had a nice spicy bite to it, and the sauce was a sweet and tangy mixture that tasted great with a beer. I had a couple three pieces of the pizza and it was just fabulous.
It was a fun night hanging out at The Ritz with our friends. It was a great close to a wonderful vacation. We've already talked about going back up to Lake Okoboji in late August again next year and we know that we may have to go to The Ritz a couple times, once to get another burger, then again for a pizza. Both were top-notch and superb. The Ritz is truly a bar (emphasis on the "bar") and restaurant. It's not fine dining, but it's certainly fun dining. (Photo courtesy Iowa ABD.com)