The Lake of the Ozarks
From the moment you drive across the 1931 Bagnell Dam, you know you’ve entered a different world. The village of Lake Ozark is a time warp out of the 1940s and 1950s, when post-war families packed the kids into station wagons piled high with camping gear. Vacation was relaxing, fishing and swimming in the lake with evening entertainment having ice cream at Scoops (has the huge Amish Boy statue) and Dad throwing small hoops over rings to snag their kids a Teddy Bear at Two Bit Town. On rainy days, the family could always go shopping for souvenirs while the kids marveled at the elephant head skull or dropped a nickel into one of the many arcade games at Dogpatch Store. If the family was tired of campfire baked beans, or it had been rough fishing, no one had to starve because there was always Stewart’s Restaurant. Funny, you can still do all that today.
There’s an initiative to “upgrade” this time capsule that’s the northern entry to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks recreational area to better reflect the current upscale look of the Lake’s many resorts, golf clubs and expensive summer homes. Yet with over 1,300 miles of lakefront, it seems to me that preserving this short stretch of American vacation architecture with its small family owned shops is an asset in a country that has all but become homogenized by corporate hospitality chains coast to coast.
The Lake of the Ozarks used to be just a section of the Osage River, but that all changed in 1929, when Union Electric of St. Louis financed, to the tune of $30,000,000 ($4.2 billion in 2011 dollars), the construction of the Bagnell hydroelectric Dam – the last privately built dam in America. The Osage backed up, necessitating the relocation of several towns and thousands of people, creating the dragon-shaped Lake of the Ozarks and a new recreational playground for Missouri.
Of course, real development of the 1,300-mile lakefront had to wait until both the Great Depression and World War II ended. The successor to Union Electric, the Ameren Corporation, still owns and operates the Bagnell Dam and the lake itself. Unlike most man-made lakes that have the appearance of large swimming holes, the Lake of the Ozarks looks natural, albeit very long – like one of upstate New York’s Finger Lakes. Along its limestone cliff-lined shore are a dozen towns, hundreds of summer homes ranging from cabins to mansions, resorts, restaurants, golf clubs, thousands of limestone caves, miles of hiking and boating possibilities and the beautiful Ha Ha Tonka State Park. It’s still a family destination catering to every taste and budget.
Stewarts’s Restaurant, 1151 Bagnell Dam Blvd., Lake Ozark, serves gigantic portions of down home cooking for breakfast and lunch, with nothing on the menu for either meal topping $8.99. Their huge cinnamon roll ($5.99) is a local treat, and I dare any one person to eat it by himself, at least not if you want anything else. Their grilled corned beef hash was crisp, more corned beef than potatoes, and left no grease on the plate ($6.99). The pork tenderloin with country gravy ($8.99), not something I normally would eat, was tender with flavorful breading, and I’d order it again. All are served with eggs, hash browns and toast. Their “Diet Plate”… well I’ll just let you look at the photo.
Stewarts “Diet Plate”
Good restaurants abound around the Lake, with several notable fine dining establishments providing stunning lake views. The Duck, (67 Cherokee Road, Pawhuska, Missouri 65049 (573) 365-9973) and HK’s at the Lodge of Four Seasons (315 Lodge of Four Seasons Dr., Four Seasons, MO 65049 888-265-5500) are two of the finest, serving excellent continental and American cuisine with locally sourced Missouri produce, fish and steaks in lake front settings.
Preparations, imaginative sauces, presentations and service all rival the best anyone would find in America’s top culinary cities. Michael’s Steak Chalet (Highway 54-59, Osage Beach, MO 65065 573-348-3611) is set within an historic complex, the Swiss Village, founded in the 1920’s by Swiss immigrants. High on a bluff overlooking the Lake, the Village was untouched by the newly created Lake and prospered by the growing tourism the Lake fostered. Specializing in their own slow smoked meats and barbeque beef, they also feature some great appetizers such as Lobster Stuffed Mushrooms and Escargot with scallops topped with puff pastry. The Windrose Restaurant at Tan-Tar-A Resort (494 TanTarA Dr., Osage Beach MO 65065, 800-826-8272) has terrific crab cakes. All four establishments have extensive wine lists highlighting Missouri’s own fine vintages.
(clockwise) the Duck’s Crispy Tuna Sashimi, Michael’s Lobster Stuffed Mushrooms, Duck’s Angus Tournedos of Beef with Blue Cheese Sauce , HK’s Wagyu Fillet with Duck Egg, Michael’s Escargot with Puff Pastry and Windrose’s appetizer selections
On the casual side is Shorty Pants Lounge and Marina (1680 Autumn Ln., Osage Beach, MO, 65065, 573 302-1745) at lake level. This popular eating and drinking establishment has a Louisiana Cajun theme but a chef who’s heavy handed on the breading. Fried Green Tomatoes and Fried Oysters were nearly all breading, but the BBQ Shrimp in a Cajun rosemary beer sauce and Spicy Cajun Pasta Alfredo were excellent. The ambiance is simple, relaxed, loud music and neon beer signs, but the beer selection was extensive – Leinenkugel from Wisconsin through New Orleans Turbodog.
Throughout my eating marathon during my four days at the Lake, I was struck by the longevity of the staff. In my thirty plus years’ experience as a chef and restaurant owner/manager, staff turnover is endemic and it’s a constant challenge to maintain consistency of service and kitchen quality. Yet in the lake district, it was not uncommon to discover staff that have worked at the same location for 20 to 35 years, a testament to the nurturing efforts of family-owned establishments that too many corporate cultures ignore in favor of the bottom line. At Randy’s Frozen Custard(4681 Highway 54 Ste. 1, Osage Beach, MO 65065 573 348-0711)a Lake favorite for as long as anyone can remember, the server has been working every summer since high school. Now 20-something, she’s a Ph.D. candidate at Tulane University but still will work nowhere else but Randy’s. Besides this staff loyalty, Randy’s signature creation is the Ozark Turtle — a sundae made with frozen custard, warm caramel sauce, hot fudge, and topped with toasted pecans. Oh, dogs are welcome, with owners, and get their own doggie dish of frozen custard.
(clockwise) Ph.D candidate summer worker at Randy’s Frozen Custard, Shorty Pants’ Turbodog Beer and Spicy Cajun Pasta Alfredo, Randy’s Ozark Turtle
The revival of Missouri’s wine industry during the past 25 years has meant that its once premiere position as America’s first “wine country” is being reestablished. Destroyed by Prohibition in the 1920’s, the boutique vineyards of the Lake are once again producing from America’s own native wine grape, the incomparable Norton, a dry, full bodied red wine with rich fruit flavors that can stand tall against anything California, Argentina or Europe has to offer. Since I prefer dry wines, the Missouri Chardonel is a particularly nice dry white. 7 Springs Winery (846 Winery Hills Estate, Osage Beach, MO 573-317-0100) is set in bucolic countryside with a retail store/restaurant on the hill top. Not only does it offer a sizable selection of its own vintages, it also has a very good, modestly priced restaurant. Chef Josh Juarez’s award winning Spicy Shrimp and Crab Bisque ($7.99) was creamy with the shrimp sauté in garlic butter in a roux-thickened cream base. This particular Sunday we were entertained by an excellent jazz duo, Sax on the Beach, reminding me that even on the Lake, this is the land of jazz and BBQ.
(clockwise) Tan Tar A’s water park, two views of guest room at Camden on the Lake Resort, spa at Lodge of Four Seasons, Camden on the Lake at night, interior of lobby at Lodge of Four Seasons and breakfast at Camden on the Lake
I had breakfast another morning at the spacious and well-decorated Inn at Harbor Ridge (Osage Beach, MO, 877-744-6020) presided over by owner/cook Susan Westinhover and her husband Ron. The five rooms are exceedingly private, with jacuzzis and enclosed garden patios. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and the Inn’s a favorite for weddings. A barn on the grounds has a duplex apartment room with full kitchen and dining on the bottom floor and large bedroom upstairs. Each room has a name, and this particular room is called “A Roll in the Hay,” unless, I was told by Ron, someone might find that objectionable, it’s then named “Away in the Manger.” Our breakfast in the dining room, overlooking a beautiful garden, was excellent. Freshly squeezed orange juice, port poached pears with raspberry, yogurt & fresh mint garnish, stuffed cinnamon French toast on custard cream and a superb grilled pork loin. Strawberry/raspberry almond streusel muffins were made by Kathleen Allers, owner of Castleview B & B, another beautiful inn directly on the lake front. Rates at both B & B’s range from $129-$179.
Inn at Harbor Ridge: (clockwise) lower level of “Roll in the Hay,” owners Susan and Ron Westenhaver, Castleview B & B’s owner Kathleen Allers and her muffins
Besides good food, wine and accommodations, the Lake of the Ozarks offers bucolic countryside for boating, fishing, golf and hiking. None of the more than a dozen manicured, signature designed golf courses are exclusive private clubs. They are all open to the public and offer a variety of fee schedules, yet their facilities are as modern and well equipped as any to be found. Thirteen are organized in the Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail (www.golfatthelake.net), offering golf and accommodation packages. Osage National Golf Clubhas three nine-hole courses designed by Arnold Palmer. Many clubs have privately owned condos that are rented through the club for visitors, as well as building sites for homes. At Osage National, the all-inclusive annual fee for family club membership is only $2,750, which includes a spacious club house and heated pool with a deck large enough for events up to 1,000 people.
Osage National Golf Club
The Lake region contains one of Earth’s largest concentrations of caves and karsts – collapsed caves in this soft limestone geography which create beautiful forested canyons. The famous privately owned Bridal Cave is one of the most accessible. It is a member of the National Cavers Association (www.cavern.com) and the Missouri Caves Association (www.missouricaves.com) Ironically, when it opened for visitors in the 1940s, it did not have that name. Its unique limestone formations so intrigued people that repeated requests to hold weddings finally resulted in the first nuptials celebrated on Valentine’s Day 1949; 2,240 weddings later, it’s going strong. Unlike so many tourist caves, Bridal is lit only with white lights to highlight the natural colors of the cave.
Another irony is that a turn-of-the-century Missouri governor failed to get the State legislature to vote funding to purchase thousands of acres in the central Osage River area to create a state park. Wealthy Kansas City business man Robert Snyder purchased the 2,500 acres himself and in 1903 began construction of a vast castle complex. Unfortunately, Snyder, who owned one of the first cars in Kansas City, was also one of the first fatalities as a result of a car accident, dying in 1906. It took until 1922 for his sons to finish. Disappointed with the intrusion of the Bagnell Dam project, they sold the estate in 1937, and its new owners converted the castle into a hotel. Unfortunately it burned to the ground in a tragic fire in 1942. Yet it was not until 1978 that the State purchased the estate plus thousands of additional acres. Today the 5,000+ acre HA HA Tonka State Park is a pristine refuge for hiking and caving.
A home on the Lake
Missouri – a land that’s part of the vast unknown Americans mostly view from 35,000 feet flying from coast to coast – contains so much more than Branson and BBQ. Nothing wrong with Branson and BBQ, but it’s exciting to know there’s good food, fine wine, camping, resorts, outdoor adventure, peace and quiet so centrally located and so easy to enjoy.