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Spanky's rises from fire's ashes in Vergas

Fine dining in casual atmosphere makes Spanky's in Vergas a lakes-area favorite.

FRAZEE, Minn - It was a long, cold winter for patrons and employees of Spanky's Stone Hearth on Rose Lake, halfway between Vergas and Frazee.

After a fire blazed through the kitchen and part of the dining room early Aug. 14, nobody was sure if, when or where the popular spot would re-emerge.

Fans and staff alike sighed with relief when the Otter Tail County eatery re-opened May 1.

"There are a lot of different ways to handle adversity when it's thrown at you. We chose to take the high road and improve on a bad situation," said owner/chef, Josh Hanson.

The 33-year-old bought the business in May of 2005, after spending the previous 10 summers cooking at the long-standing roadside spot.

Built in 1946 as the Stone Hearth Hilltop Lounge, overlooking Rose Lake, the restaurant was remodeled in '96 with an addition to the dining room.

With the walls, ceilings and support beams featuring exposed pine and a bar made of field stone, Hanson says the building has a "Northwoods Minnesota atmosphere."

"We've created a destination in the lakes area. People need to know how to get here," Hanson said as the dinner rush was starting Saturday night.

Those who find the place seem to find their way back. Even before the doors officially open at 5 p.m. customers start filtering in. Within 30 minutes the dining room is bustling and by 6 p.m. there is a line of patrons waiting for the hostess to find them a table.

"People should drive for 400 miles. This is the best thing ever," said Myrna Hoekstra, sitting on the deck overlooking Rose Lake with her husband Vern and friends Max Peppel and Terry Sillerud.

The Hoekstras have been coming to Spanky's for 12 years.

"Everybody was worried they wouldn't re-open," Myrna says as Vern ordered onion rings and crab cakes.

"I like the presentation. It's like art, you don't want to eat it," she said. "I don't know another place where the chef comes out and talks to you."Hanson stresses Spanky's represents "fine dining in a casual atmosphere." Proving the point, he wears shorts with his chef's jacket.

"You can come in for a sandwich or a lobster tail or anything in between," he says.

Duck, steaks, lamb chops, and Hawaiian sea food are popular menu items, but an appetizer may be Spanky's most identifiable dish. Chislik - beef tenderloin strips sliced thin and sautéed with Cajun seasonings and creamy bleu cheese for $9 - is circled on the menu as a fan favorite, though walleye fingers are listed as Spanky's best selling appetizer.

Prices range from appetizers and burgers around $10 to Alaskan halibut with Old Bay and shallot aioli for $32.

Hanson likes to use locally-grown produce from Forest Glen Farm near Frazee. He also uses rose petals to flavor his homemade ice cream, an homage to neighboring Rose Lake.

Raised in Vergas, where he opened the beer and burger-based Skål Bar and Grill earlier this year, Hanson employs about 14 members of his immediate and extended family.

"It's definitely family-first," says brother Nathan Soland. "Our customers are more than just customers, but friends and family and you get to work with them."

Soland drives in from the Twin Cities to work on the weekends. While the family and friends make it a worthwhile commute, the view of Rose Lake across Hwy 4 makes for nice work time scenery.