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Wunderbar Eatery & Glampgrounds is wunderful

Teri Davis-Downing and her dog check out one of the retro-campers waiting for glampers, outside the Wunderbar in Grand Marais.

The restaurant’s name isn’t even on the building and only two of the teardrop-shaped campers and two yurt-style tents have staked their claim on the glampgrounds, and yet, the Wunderbar Eatery and Glampgrounds is already hosting parties. 

It just took bar manager Jason Baumgarth posting on his personal Facebook account that there was music, food and drink at the Wunderbar on a cold Saturday night in October and the place was packed with dancers, diners and drinkers. Since the new signage wasn’t up yet, the only landmark
needed was to head to the old Harbor Light supper club in Grand Marais. 

Without the cash register system in place, “Jason was our POS system,” for the evening, owner Teri Davis-Downing says, laughing. “Now he’s researching them.”

Earlier, Davis-Downing had been digging through the boxes left by the previous owners of the Harbor Light, a mainstay in Grand Marais for decades before closing its doors, and discovered a treasure trove of Polaroid pictures from an event in 1984. She pinned them up and all night long guests pointed out pictures of their parents, uncles and aunts or themselves in 1984.

“People are crazy for a good time here,” she says. 

It was her husband's stories about the good times at the Harbor Light when he and friends used to drive up from the Twin Cities to spend their breaks from college at the family compound (the battle cry was "Harbor Light by Midnight"), that made Davis-Downing long to make Grand Marais her family's home.

It’s been a serendipitous ride for Davis-Downing ever since she and her husband, Chris Downing, bought the shuttered property at the top of the hill as you drive into Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior. Downing is keeping the home fires burning while their two kids finish school in the Twin Cities, while Davis-Downing has moved full time to the community where her husband’s family has lived for decades. Davis-Downing is primed for the challenge; she has a background in restaurant management and consulting and is tapping into local culinary talent with roots in the Twin Cities.

While cleaning out the numerous oversized rooms, Davis-Downing has found keepsakes and memories that add to the nostalgia—and kitschiness—of the place. “I like to repurpose, I don’t like to buy new,” she says. The springy dance floor was once a suspended floor for when the space was used as a roller skating rink, and there’s a stage tucked in a corner big enough to host bands. “My dad loved being on stage and singing, so when I saw the stage I knew we had to do it (the deal),” she says. His favorite song to sing was “For the Good Times,” which has become the unofficial theme of the Wunderbar. To add another familiar touch to the stage, a swipe of circles, the end cuts from the wooden cutting boards Downing's favorite uncle used to make, decorates the back wall. Rectangle cutting boards with the restaurant’s logo burned into them will be the foundation for the cheese-and-meat “wunderboards” that are part of the cuisine, which her chef has described as "really good bar food with inspiration from camping."

A multi-colored leather poker table and chairs is the centerpiece of a back room, a find from a widow who was in town to spread her husband’s ashes and learned they were looking for poker tables. Her late husband had bought the set, complete with chairs made from old bourbon barrels, and she had never let him unpack it once she got a whiff of the faint smell of bourbon that clung to them. Davis-Downing is ecstatic over the find, since it fits  both her recycling vibe and authenticity. 

The best artwork in the place is from Grand Marais wildlife artist Jeff Niesen and can only be seen when nature calls. The doors on the bathroom stalls have paintings of wolves and fairy tales and fish and birds. The wall art may actually increase beer sales, since the must-see artwork is unique in each one.

Teri Davis-Downing at the gateway to the glampgrounds, where additional tents will be added.

Outside the views are inspiring as well. The glampground (“glamping” is a dolled up camping experience) is made up of round white tents with tie-downs that resemble sailboat sails and tiny trailers, one of which looks like a ladybug. The current glampground is right off the main highway, with the forest as a backdrop. Room service will be a cooler left outside the door. Restroom facilities are currently two porta-potties, but Davis-Downing says they have plans to build a permanent structure.

There’s an additional three-and-a-half wooded acres behind the restaurant with a brook and “marker trees,” a Native American belief that bent trees point the way to a sacred space, she says. Those tranquil spaces will be for meditation and yoga, she adds. More tents and campers are on the way, as well as a treehouse. 

There are also plans to transform an old icehouse at the back of the driveway into a wine cellar and high-end whiskey bar. Next to the icehouse is a shed where in the 1800s a trained moose lived. As the story goes, he would make the trek down to the harbor every morning and return pulling a sled loaded with blocks of ice. 

As she gives the lay of the land, it’s clear Davis-Downing is over the moon with the possibilities she sees every time she turns a corner on the property. Her excitement is echoed by Baumgarth, who gave up another paradise to work for her. He and his girlfriend were heading to the Virgin Islands for the winter when Hurricane Irma hit and then Maria. Just another serendipitous happening for the Downings. 

So far recruiting people to get the eatery and glampgrounds up and going has been Davis-Downing’s strong suit. A cousin, Jennifer Trowbridge, who lives in Kansas City, is planning to move to the vacation paradise to help run the place. The original chef's plan to commutes from the Twin Cities turned out not to be feasible, so Davis-Downing has just hired Jordan Dash, who previously worked at the Gunflint Tavern. 

Because they’ll be supplying nourishment to a variety of diners, from kids to poker players (for charity, Davis-Downing stresses) to campers and regulars who want to hang out in the space, the plan is to provide a menu that welcomes grazing—“Similar to tapas but not as organized.” 

The Wunderbar is still a work in progress. “We’ll be working in waves,” Davis-Downing says. But even as they paint and stock the bar, guests are chomping at the bit to get inside. They’ve held a child’s birthday party there, not to mention hosting guests in their glampground. 

And I will be the first one to sacrifice when the weather gets warm and make the trek back to Grand Marais to check in on the progress by Davis-Downing and crew. You know what they say: “Someone’s gotta do it.” And I don’t mind leaning in. 

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