FL gets seat at head table
White Bear Lake’s popular Acqua Restaurant to open offshoot in former Lake House building
Around the time the ice thaws this spring, one of the best views of Forest Lake will finally be re-opened to the public.
Fine dining fans, rejoice. A new establishment is planning to open the week of April 16 in the catching building once known as The Lake House Restaurant on Second Lake’s Willow Point.
It’s not just any venture. Acqua Forest Lake will be an offshoot of a highly successful eatery on the shore of White Bear Lake. Acqua Restaurant and Bar opened in a former bistro in 2009 and has earned regional and national acclaim.
Co-founder and general manager Daron Close expects his team to be in the building here March 1.
“We’re just excited to get out there,” he said. “It couldn’t be a better spot, couldn’t be a better community. I think it will be a lot of fun. I think that location’s going to be really beautiful.”
Having the building occupied is one thing, but the area could be in for a real treat if Acqua Forest Lake carries over the recipe for success from its sister to the south.
In their first ownership venture, Close, his fiance Nicole Whetzel and executive chef Chris Whalen quickly established the original Acqua as a destination restaurant.
A Roseville native and University of Wisconsin–Stout graduate, Close met Whetzel while they worked for the D’Amico and Sons family of restaurants in Minneapolis. He managed the sophisticated Cafe Lurcat in Loring Park, then met Whalen while managing Campiello in Uptown. Close’s last position with D’Amico was general manager of Masa, a new, contemporary Mexican restaurant on Nicollet Avenue.
That high-end dining background helped them grow Acqua. The former restaurant at that site opened seasonally and used a kitchen measuring only 15-by-15 feet. Close and his crew opened it with a handful of tables and have guided it through four expansions.
Today, the restaurant uses the whole building, is open year-round and features a staff of up to 30 during the summer.
“It’s been a good run,” Close said. “We couldn’t have opened it in a better spot. The people around here are just phenomenal; amazing clientele. We know probably 70 percent of the people that walk through the door now.”
Customers return for a reason. Opentable.com users voted Acqua among the top 100 restaurants in the nation for service in 2012. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, it ranked in the top 10 of three categories: service, food and overall quality.
The entire menu is handmade daily, Close said, and seafood is also shipped in each day. Whalen specializes in Italian-driven entrees and is trained in French techniques.
Serious About Food
Since getting their first restaurant up to speed, Close and his team have been on the lookout for an ideal second location.
The nearly 7,100-square-foot facility on Forest Lake, which closed in August of 2009, has long been high on their list.
“I knew Forest Lake, and I knew there’s only X amount of upscale restaurants that have made a run from us north,” Close said. “That was probably the biggest venture I’d seen from somebody who built from scratch.
“When it closed I made some calls and it was way out of our budget. I’ve been watching it close.”
Eventually, the price fell to the point that Close brought it to the attention of his landlord at the Acqua property in White Bear Lake. Once paperwork is finalized, that property owner will be landlord to a second Acqua operation.
In nearly every way, Close said, the new one will be modeled after the original. The menu will remain centered on old world Italian favorites, as Whalen will make the move and be the executive chef here.
Close said Whalen’s jaw dropped when he first beheld the fully loaded kitchen.
“They certainly didn’t spare any expense,” Close said. “You could feed an army out of there.”
Accordingly, the food menu will be the overarching focus. Though Acqua Forest Lake will offer wine and beer, Close said to expect no live music, boat service or happy hour.
“We’re not a bar first. We don’t want to be a bar,” he said. “We want our dinner service to be what we’re all about.”
Hours at the original location are 5-10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and that is what Close is planning in Forest Lake, in addition to a family-style Sunday brunch.
On busy nights, complimentary valet parking will be offered so as to maximize space in a tight parking lot.
Close and Whetzel will split time between the locations. JJ Maleitzke, an Acqua employee with roots in Scandia and Forest Lake, will serve as general manager of the new location. One or two members of the White Bear Lake wait staff may be shifted, but the rest of the staff will be hired locally. Close expects the staff to number up to 35 in summer months, with 25 jobs being full-time.
The building’s physical structure will be unchanged.
“It’s a beautiful property,” Close said. “They did a great job on the build. It’s gorgeous.”
With over 15 years in the industry, Close trusts his hunch regarding the site’s potential.
The Lake House closed after less than 15 months. Close said high overhead costs and the departure of an acclaimed chef may have contributed to the struggles.
Leasing the building will keep his group on solid financial footing, Close said, noting Acqua’s low turnover and established reputation. Many customers frequent White Bear Lake from Forest Lake, Wyoming or even further north.
“We have a lot of faith in our concept, and also, we have faith in hospitality,” Close said. “We feel that as long as we’re putting out a really quality, honest product and doing it with integrity…If it didn’t work, then we might have to rethink our whole place in this business.”