Wasted away again on Lake Ontario
The Irondequoit beach bar is a buried treasure
Marge's Lakeside Inn
4909 Culver Rd.
With Seabreeze to my back, I climb the stairs to a small Caribbean-style bungalow standing in stark contrast to the residential properties lining the strip. Fran Beth, Marge’s seasoned owner, sweeps the floor and tells me they just got back from their annual trip and “I guess the guy who closed thought we wouldn’t notice the dirt!” Fran’s daughter, Francine Beth, joins us with two energetic Shih Tzus excited to see someone new during nonbusiness hours. While Fran finishes sweeping, she invites me to check out the beach, where I’m surprised to find a lengthy stretch of private, sandy lakefront property. “There is not another situation like this in the United States,” Francine says. “There is not a bar grandfathered in on a stretch of beach in a residential area. We’re really one-of-a-kind.” When I start recording, I tell Francine to let me know if they want anything taken off the record. “Oh God, I don’t know what I’ll say,” she says. She points to Fran—“She’s got no filter. And I don’t have a good one.”
Francine is Fran’s daughter. Fran’s mother-in-law (Francine’s grandmother), Marge Beth, bought the business in 1960 with her son Ron Beth. That was the era she met Francine’s father. “He tended the bar, and I came here as an eighteen-year-old sweet thing, and the bartender made out with me. And the rest is history,” Fran says. “We got married in ’64 and she,” gesturing to Francine, “was born in ’66. Ron took over in ’75, then he passed away in ’86. And Francine and I have had it since ’86.”
Fran shows me a photograph on the wall from when Marge bought the business. “It was just a little bar, and we were on twenty-seven feet of land,” she says. Boats would pull up to the dock on the back of the bar, and parts of the building were on stilts over the water, in stark contrast to the one hundred-or-so foot stretch of beach the bar owns today. “Luckily, when they put the outlet in, those jetties have brought us in a lot of sand and beach.” Thebeach has helped form the entire culture at Marge’s, from the decor—dried palm leaves line the windows, and there’s no shortage of surfboards—to the drinks
The beach isn’t all that’s changed throughout Marge’s different eras. During prohibition it was called Magin’s and functioned as a rumrunner, bringing booze in across Lake Ontario from Canada. “Butch from next door used to come in every Wednesday night and tell us stories,” Fran says, “about how the whiskey boats would come in and the patrol boats’d be shootin’ at ’em.” Butch told them the smugglers would throw their barrels into the lake, and then come back when the coast was clear to scoop it back up. “Where the ATM is over there, there used to be a milk box behind it,” Fran continues. “I don’t know if there was a magic word or what, but you’d knock on the milk box, then they opened it up and you could go upstairs. To get liquor, I assume.”
After Prohibition ended, Magin’s was one of the first businesses in the country to obtain a liquor license—a badge of honor Marge’s wears proudly. When Ron took over, their signature shot became Nuyensbrand Wisniowka, a Polish liqueur. “It’s 100 proof,” Francine explains, “and my dad drank a lot of it—”
“…a bottle a night, if he could,” pipes Fran. “quite a lot,” Francine finishes. “So we call it ‘Polish Pop.’” In the summer, “our claim to fame is frozen drinks,” she says. They have their own mixes for margaritas, rumrunners, and rumritas, which are half and half. “But these aren’t foofoo drinks,” she says. “Basically we said, ‘what’s the amount of alcohol you can put into a drink and still have it slushify?’ So this is exactly where it is. Those are really…” she pauses, considering her words, “crowd pleasers.” I learn that customers can also ask for a “bump,” or an extra test tube of liquor. “Definitely have a Lyft, Uber, or designated driver if you’re gonna have one of those,” Francine stresses.
Marge’s beach, booze, and bubbly owners have accrued a sizable—yet close-knit—following. A neon “Birthday Board” near the bar celebrates members of the Marge’s family each month, and every year they take a tropical trip together. “Usually it’s Aruba, but we’ve done Cabo, Bahamas, and St. Martin,” Francine explains. “We did St. Martin this year because they were devastated by the hurricane. So we went down there to support them. They’re not up to full speed yet, but it was amazing. We’re hoping to go back there next year.”
Over twenty-five years, the group size has varied from eighteen to fifty-six. This year they had forty-three. “But it’s really open to everybody!” says Fran. “You could come in for your first time and sign right up.” Francine tells me that does happen sometimes; people will sign up whom they don’t know that well. “Because they want to go, and maybe they don’t have anybody to travel with. Besides,” she says. “It’s more fun to travel with a group.” She smiles. “With a family.”
John Ernst is a lifelong Rochesterian and (585)’s editor-at-large. You can see more of his work at johnmwrites.com.