Northern Minnesota roadside attraction, supper club a slice of Americana
BENA, Minn. -- Minnesota is a little weird. OK, it’s a lot weird -- but in that quirky great aunt sort of way.
From a museum dedicated to an infamous canned mystery meat to an enlarged replica of the jolly green guy found in your grocery freezer aisle, this wonderful weirdness is responsible for the offbeat emblems that encompass a still-enduring dose of Americana on roadsides throughout the state.
And in the Northwoods along U.S. Highway 2 in Bena, the Big Fish lives -- a testament to the rise and fall and rise again of the ubiquitous roadside attraction.
Its red eyes, contrasted against an olive green paint job, stare at nothing in particular but watch over its neighboring Big Fish Supper Club only a few feet away. Its walk-in mouth, filled with wooden stake fangs, hangs in a seemingly comical gape, awaiting visitors to step inside and snap a photo.
The 65-foot-long, 15-foot-wide muskie replica is far larger than any day’s catch on nearby Lake Winnibigoshish, and 60 years ago it was the talk of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and the tourists of northern Minnesota.
Built in 1958 as the Big Muskie Drive-In, the fish structure featured an inside lunch counter that served hamburgers and ice cream while a serving window could be found next to an eye fashioned out of a Coca-Cola sign.
But as the years went by and ownership changed, the drive-in closed and a new place to dine was opened next door -- leaving the Big Fish to serve as its storage shed.
With brutal winters and lack of upkeep, the fish began to rot as all fish made of flesh or wood do.
When the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota -- now rebranded as Rethos -- deemed the Big Fish “most endangered by demolition, neglect or public policy,” the dilapidated structure garnered a spot on its 10 Most Endangered Historic Places List in 2009.
Yet within months of the list being published, Minnesotans jumped to action to restore the small town attraction that held a magnetic appeal.
If you’re like me, you sung along to “Holiday Road” in the opening credits of Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” as travel-themed postcards flashed across the screen. And if you were paying close attention, you might recall seeing a big fish nearly taking a bite out of a house -- just before Paul and Babe make their debut.
As a life-long sucker for the Griswalds and their antics, I couldn’t resist checking out this Lampoonian landmark about 30 miles outside of Bemidji.
When I arrived at the Big Fish Supper Club on chicken night, a.k.a Wednesday evening, I had a more urgent matter to attend to before digging into a plateful.
Setting aside my dignity while cars passed by -- as I know so many have done before me -- I climbed into the mouth of the legendary Big Fish and had my photo snapped with this wonderful weirdness in the woods.
Each of its fangs was about the length of my arm, and for a brief moment, I imagined myself the Captain Ahab of this Minnesotan Moby Dick. But with leg still intact and hunger pains rather than scurvy, I ambled over to the adjacent restaurant -- the modernized offspring of the once-thriving Big Muskie Drive-In.
A rustic cabin interior welcomed my arrival as did the aroma of beer and fried fare accompanied by the bartender’s encouraging call to sit anywhere I liked. My gracious server -- who I later discovered was the owner -- quickly explained that it was broasted chicken night, which came with two or four pieces plus a side.
As a native of a state where any word before chicken is "fried," I was intrigued. So, I ordered the special and was absolutely thrilled when I took my first bite of the broasted thigh. It was crunchy and seasoned on the outside and juicy on the inside -- the secret to a good piece of chicken -- and I realized I had unintentionally discovered a place to satisfy my homesick cravings.
Throughout the evening, diners could be heard saying “I’ll have my usual,” which struck a chord with me about something I once read by author Neil Gaiman. He wrote that roadside attractions in America are “places of power” that people feel drawn to despite reason.
So, I asked myself the question: What lures people to drive miles and miles to take a photo of a big fish, maybe grab some dinner and then drive miles and miles back home?
Of course, the food is delicious at the supper club, but perhaps, Gaiman's right: There is a bit of mysticism in roadside attractions.
Or maybe -- for all those cynics -- people just like big objects.
But whatever the case, that Big Fish is tempting you to climb into his slack jaw for reasons unknown. And one day, you might just decide to take a drive to Bena.
If you go:
What: Big Fish Supper Club
Where: 456 US-2, Bena, Minn.
When: Open Tuesday to Saturday at 5 p.m.
Tuesday– Philly Steak Sandwich
Wednesday– Broasted Chicken Night 2pc and 4pc Specials
Thursday– 8 oz. Sirloin Steak & Shrimp
Friday– Prime Rib
Saturday– Special on 1/2 Rack and Full Rack BBQ Smoked Ribs