After 15 years, Big Bear still going strong
By: Sue Hornof
It would be fair to say that Big Bear Grill is a Wildwood landmark.
Founded in 1998 by the late Arnie Freed and his wife, Nancy, Big Bear is a big part of the Wildwood community. It is a popular spot for grabbing a quick lunch or enjoying a family dinner or cocktails and appetizers after work.
“We’re extremely pleased that we’ve been here for 15 years,” said Nancy, who now owns and operates the restaurant with two of her sons, Jeff and Dave Freed. “That’s a long time for a restaurant.”
One thing that makes Big Bear so appealing is the warm, lodge-like atmosphere, which the Freeds worked hard to create.
“Arnie wanted the lodge look, and we were avid antique hunters, so we went around to flea markets and just started hauling things out that had anything to do with the lodge look,” Nancy said, noting that some décor was brought in by customers.
Perhaps the most notable item is the big, carved bear standing in the entry – a nod to the name “Big Bear,” which has double significance.
“When Arnie and I were in college at Drake University, Arnie was referred to as “The Big Bear” – because Arnie was huge – so that’s part of it,” Nancy explained. “Also, my great-great-grandfather was a bear wrestler right after the Civil War. He couldn’t find anything else to do, so he went from town to town and wrestled a bear, and people would throw money at him.”
The Freeds and their staff are as warm and welcoming as the restaurant’s décor, but without good food, no restaurant can thrive for 15 years. Thirty-year restaurant veteran Chef Steve Schwer oversees the menu of savory appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps and hot-off-the-grill burgers and chicken.
“We use all fresh ingredients, and we make everything from scratch, which is really kind of rare these days,” Dave said.
That makes a big difference in every menu category. All soups, salad dressings, potato chips, desserts – even the French Dip’s au jus and the Fried Walleye’s tartar sauce – are made in-house.
Burgers are a menu mainstay, and there are several options, including The Arnie, topped with cheddar, bacon and barbecue sauce; the Bites Back, dressed with pepperjack and sautéed jalapenos; and the Big Bear, crowned with garlic cream cheese. Specialty sandwiches, like the Ribeye Steak, Cornmeal Fried Catfish and the quarter-pound Grilled Big Bear Gourmet Dog – also are menu favorites.
Big Bear offers some items in smaller portions, including half-size wraps and sandwiches and six-ounce burgers (as opposed to the full-size half-pound patty) and has a children’s menu as well.
There also are nightly specials – such as the fried chicken dinner served on Sundays, which was voted the best fried chicken in Wildwood.
After 15 successful years, the Freeds still work hard to better serve their customers.
“We’re trying to do different things all the time, as opposed to just keeping the menu static,” Nancy said, noting also that Big Bear has started a full-service catering company and will deliver, set up and serve items from its Party Menu (see website).
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is that my husband has now been gone for almost five years, and this place is still going strong,” Nancy said. “Wouldn’t he just love that?”
Big Bear Grill
16524 Manchester Road • Wildwood
Kitchen: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon., Tues., Wed., Thurs., Sat.
11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.
11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun.
Happy hour: 4:30-6:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri.
Bar open later