Bear Lake Tavern

Bear Lake Tavern
Photo: Elizabeth Granger

North Muskegon landmark keeps its comfortable vibe

By Elizabeth Granger

 The look says “now” — outside, sleek and modern; indoors, up-to-date seats and tables, blackboard messaging, impeccable waitstaff. 

But the vibe is so inviting, so comfortable, so retro. Close your eyes and you might think you’ve stepped back in time to a friendly neighborhood gathering spot. 

That’s the secret to Bear Lake Tavern in North Muskegon.  

It’s not new. Not by a long shot. Its history dates back to 1929, with a lengthy list of owners since then. And quite a bit of remodeling. But proof of its longevity? Look at the cigarette burns on the bar. They’ve been there forever. Bar manager David Byrd says he just wishes he could attribute those burns to Ernest Hemingway or Fred Astaire or Arthur Miller. Ah, if only. 

New owners are locals Ryan and Emily Leestma. Their plan? Byrd says it’s to keep things pretty much the same because it’s a neighborhood icon. 

Kriss Johnson of North Muskegon likes that plan. She and her sisters waitressed at the eatery when they were teens – they lived in the neighborhood. Johnson moved away, then moved back. Now her from-away husband thinks Bear Lake Tavern is tops, too. 

Byrd says the most popular item on the menu is its Great Lakes perch, available since the restaurant’s birth. Also popular: steak frites (sirloin or filet mignon), walleye, and the tavern burger with bacon and ham, a long-long-time favorite. The lake channel view from the deck or dining room is also deservedly popular.

Bear Lake wings
Bear Lake wings Photo: Elizabeth Granger

For appetizers, how about boneless wings or fried green tomatoes? And Grandma’s popcorn – freshly popped corn, Parmesan cheese, crispy bacon, parsley. 

Basically, Byrd says, it’s Midwestern lake fare. “Regulars know they can get a good meal and a good rate,” he says. “If you’re a return customer, service may have a bit more of a personal touch. We usually remember your preferences.” 

Byrd says it’s common to meet people who have a history with the eatery. “Every week or so I have someone come in who will say, ‘I used to tend bar here,’ he says. “In 1963 or 1975 or 1984.”

Johnson is among them. “I used to come in as a little girl and ask for bread in the kitchen so I could feed the ducks,” she says. And now? “The perch is the same,” she says. “The neighborhood is the same. When we come in, we see people we know – every time we come in. It’s definitely a family place. It’s definitely a neighborhood place.”

She adds, “When somebody new comes in and sits at the bar, one of the regulars will typically begin a conversation. ‘Oh, you’re new?’ we’ll say. ‘Well, you have to try this and this and this.’ Eventually we turn into tour guides, saying you have to go here and there in Muskegon.” 

“I love it here.” 

Bear Lake Tavern
360 N. Ruddiman Dr., Muskegon