Whirlwind Tour: A 15-stop dining excursion through Door County, Wis.

Harbor at Ephraim, Wisconsin // Photo by Becca Dilley

If you grew up vacationing in Door County in the ’80s and ’90s, you likely remember Wisconsin’s premiere vacation peninsula as being stuffed with classic supper clubs, superb cherry pie, fish boils, mediocre hot dogs and pizza, and little else.

Time flies, and (in this case) it brings with it some wonderful changes.

While the cherry pie is still first-rate and there is no shortage of classic lodge suppers and fish boils, a host of modern options have appeared on the peninsula. Everything from serious tapas to cosmopolitan fine dining to “fourth wave” coffee (it’s a thing! really!) to sumptuous breakfasts have popped up from Ellison Bay down to Sturgeon Bay, leaving the dining scene seriously enriched.

Here’s our whirlwind tour through of some of the very best bites and sips, starting up near the northern tip and working our way down toward Green Bay.

Ellison Bay

Deviled Eggs at Wickman House in Ellison Bay // Photo by Becca Dilley

The Wickman House opened in 2012, established its extensive kitchen garden the following year and has subsequently picked up a serious head of critical steam via papers including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. While its prices are assertive and its food is ambitious, we found that quality and hospitality fully in keeping with the restaurant’s facade.

Organic Staggering Chicken from Wickman House // Photo by Becca Dilley

Our drinks, for example, were strong, balanced, and delicious. The bourbon-based Boulevardier ($12) was an appealing mix of sweet, bitter, and citrus-forward; and El Perro ($12, a mix of grapefruit, chipotle, and tequila flavors) was bright, punchy, and thoroughly refreshing in the warmth of early June.

The evening’s Deviled Egg ($6) was about as great an amuse bouche as we could imagine: shoyu, wasabi, pickled ramps, and walnuts made for an earthy, bright, bold taste and a lovely presentation on the plate.

It’s easy to overlook a Cobb Salad ($15) on the menu but doing so would be a mistake at Wickman House, where the Cobb comes arrayed in stunning layers of color and tastes bright, crisp, spring-y, and satisfying.

The restaurant’s Organic Staggering Chicken ($32) comes with crispy herbed potatoes, confit onions, roasted local mushrooms, grilled asparagus, and a delightful overall attitude: the bird was as tender, flavorful, and soothing as you can possible imagine, boosted by a chicken jus.

And our Banh Mi Dip sandwich ($18) featured bone broth, chicken liver pate, braised pork, and a deep, lingering spicy heat that seared its way into our hearts.

We have the tiniest bone to pick with our Flourless Chocolate Cake—for $10, the featherweight sliver of cake we were served seemed stingy. Still, the cake had it where it counts, offering a tangy richness and a high-quality cacao finish.

Wickman House, 11976 Mink River Road, Ellison Bay, WI, www.wickmanhouse.com

Rowleys Bay Fish Boil // Photo by Becca Dilley

The fish boil and buffet drives the dinner menu at Rowleys Bay Resort and it’s well worth the asking price. For $23.50 (adults) or $1.50 per year of age (kids up to 12 years old), guests get a historical reenactment, a massive fireball as the fish kettle is boiled over, and a buffet featuring fish (with onions and potatoes from the kettle), roasted chicken, soups, salad, Swedish meatballs, cookies, bars, and more. Everything is made in-house and that quality comes through in the food, which we found to be universally good-to-excellent, particularly the dense, rich, lovely dinner rolls from the resort’s longstanding house bakery.

Jewel Peterson Ouradnik of Grandma’s Bakery & Rowley’s Bay Resort // Photo by Becca Dilley

If the fish boil experience is appealing to you and you can’t get to Rowleys Bay, they’re held all over the peninsula; The Old Post Office Restaurant (Fish Creek), Viking Grill and Lounge (Ellison Bay), The Log Den (Egg Harbor), White Gull Inn (Fish Creek), and Pelletier’s (Fish Creek) are among the best-known. While most stick to traditional whitefish, some restaurants instead offer crab, lobster, or cod boils.

We liked everything at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery at Rowleys Bay Resort, where they’re turning out cardamom bread, pecan and cinnamon rolls, and bagels that are boiled in honey water before baking. The Pecan Roll ($5.15) is dense, chewy, and substantial, and made with housemade caramel for an extra wallop of flavor and richness. And the bagels ($2.50 or $3 with cream cheese) are a bit of a shock—they’ve got a lovely chewy exterior and a flavor that is on point for a “real” bagel. They’re a bit less dense than New Yorkers might be used to, but they’re still a delightful way to start the day.

Rowleys Bay Resort and Grandma’s Swedish Bakery, 1041 County Road ZZ, Ellison Bay, WI, www.rowleysbayresort.com

Sister Bay

Cherry Topped Swedish Pancakes at Al Johnson’s // Photo by Becca Dilley

There is no Door County restaurant more famous than the pancakes-and-Scandinavian charm empire that is Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay. It even has its own Wikipedia entry. From the Swedish folk-costume clad waitresses to the goats grazing on the sod roof to the chewy stacks of cherry-topped Swedish pancakes, Al Johnson’s is a force of nature. On a peak summer morning, the wait for breakfast can stretch past an hour, so arrive early (doors open at 6) or prepare to wait.

The restaurant could easily coast on its 70-year-old reputation, but we found that the Swedish pancakes with cherries and whipped cream ($10.25) that we enjoyed as kids in the early ’80s are just as good (or better) than we remembered—thin, chewy pancakes folded four times and dolloped with sweet/tart whole cherries and a mound of tasty whipped cream. A slice of coffee cake ($4) was chockablock with blueberries and crumbled bits of walnuts and had a pleasant, light texture. And our table’s order of bacon looked bizarre, each piece shrunken and curled up into something twisty and knotted, but tasted crispy and full-flavored and excellent.

One final note: We drove past Al Johnson’s at least four times during our Door County visit in early June and saw one goat on the sod roof—once. So don’t make your kids any promises that the intermittent goats can’t keep.

Al Johnson’s, 10698 N. Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay, WI, www.aljohnsons.com

Ryan Castelaz from Discourse Coffee // Photo by Becca Dilley

There’s more to be said about Discourse Coffee than can be easily contained in a paragraph or two, but here’s a shot at it: owner Ryan Castelaz has decided to take coffee beyond the current “third wave” (single-origin coffees, precise brew techniques, etc.) into his self-described “fourth wave,” which uses impeccably brewed coffee as a launch-pad for molecular gastronomy that pushes consumers’ boundaries for flavor and texture.

You’ll have to hunt his shop down in the maze-like commercial development behind Sister Bay’s Piggly Wiggly, but it’s worth the search—he’s doing experimental (and delicious) things that you’d be fortunate to find in any given major city, let alone the Door County.

Discourse Coffee, 10580 Country Walk Drive, Unit 14, Sister Bay, WI, www.discoursecoffee.com

Basecamp Coffee Bar // Photo by Becca Dilley

What is it about Sister Bay and coffee? Base Camp Coffee Bar is a charmingly appointed basement shop that is equal parts chic and comfortable, and they’re dishing out classic coffee drinks and specials with equal vigor. We thought our Lavender Charcoal Latte ($3.25) was completely on point—rich, mellow, sweet, and floral without being cloying or aggressive. And our Cappuccino ($3.25) was a bit milky in terms of balance, but ultimately solid, with the bitterness of the coffee balanced against the sweetness of the milk.

Base Camp Coffee Bar, 10904 WI-42, Sister Bay, WI, www.basecampdoorcounty.com

It’s a ways out of town, but the Seaquist Orchards Farm Market is well worth the drive, particularly if you happen to be a cherry lover. You can buy bags (2.5 pounds), buckets (6 pounds), or massive buckets (27–30 pounds) of pitted frozen cherries, either sweetened or not. If you’re a cherry pie lover, these Montmorencys are what you want. And if you’re a lazy cherry pie lover, just pick up a slice from farm market store ($3.25) because it’s some of the best cherry pie you’ll ever have, with sweetness, tartness, butteriness, crispiness, and liquid content of the filling all in correct proportions. The Three Berry Pie ($3.25) isn’t bad either, and it has more of a tart edge for those who like that sort of thing. The house bakery turns out simple-but-tasty doughnuts and we found the chewy, dense, olive-studded Batard loaf ($6) to be a real win as well.

Seaquist Orchards Farm Market, 11482 Highway 42, Sister Bay, WI, www.seaquistorchards.com

Fish Creek

Wild Tomato in Fish Creek // Photo by Becca Dilley

There are Wild Tomato wood-fired pizzerias all up and down the peninsula (Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Egg Harbor), and due to nothing other than chance we found ourselves dining at the location in Fish Creek. It quickly becomes obvious why this mini-chain has done so well in Door County—the dining’s al fresco, the pizzas are fast and made with quality ingredients, and an overall feeling of “woo! we’re on vacation!” fun is the general vibe. Our Margherita Pizza ($16.25) was pleasantly crispy-chewy and bright with tomato flavor, and we were pleased at the overall quality of the kid’s pasta with meatballs ($6), to say nothing of the incredibly diverting glob of pizza “play” dough that small kids are brought as a pre-meal toy and diversion. When we heard that Wild Tomato’s Cherry Soda ($2.75) was housemade, we couldn’t resist—it’s one of the best we’ve tasted: bright, tart, sweet, balanced, and utterly refreshing.

Wild Tomato, 4023 State Highway 42, Fish Creek, WI, www.wildtomatopizza.com

Cherry Topped French Toast at the White Gull Inn // Photo by Becca Dilley

For many visitors, the White Gull Inn is best known for its fish boil tradition, established in 1959—by many accounts the oldest commercial fish boil on the peninsula. But the restaurant also does a mean boutique inn-style breakfast, featuring Door County Cherry Stuffed French Toast, which brings together the tartness of cherry cream cheese with the sweetness of brioche and maple syrup ($11.50 for a half-order). The cinnamon-forward regular French Toast ($11 with bacon) was also delightful, as was the Door County Omelette ($12.35), which was a model of buttery, fresh, and delicately textured.

White Gull Inn, 4225 Main Street, Fish Creek, WI, www.whitegullinn.com

 

Baileys Harbor

Cortado at Bearded Heart Coffee in Baileys Harbor // Photo by Becca Dilley

Door County sometimes gives off something of a Cape Cod vibe, and there are places that lean into that, with gusto. One such restaurant: the Harbor Fish Market and Grille, which serves a mayo- and salad-forward lobster roll ($19) that can be enjoyed either indoors or on their lakeside patio. We also tried the restaurant’s Whitefish Cake ($14), which was satisfying but presented in a startlingly burger-like fashion, including melted American cheese and a buttered burger-style bun.

Harbor Fish Market and Grille, 8080 Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, WI, www.harborfishmarket-grille.com

Chocolate Custard at Custer’s Last Stan // Photo by Becca Dilley

When we approached the front door of Custard’s Last Stan, we were disappointed to find it closed for the day for renovations. And then: We were delighted when the owner, who was working inside, spotted us, invited us inside, and served our six-year-old son a complimentary waffle cone filled with rich, creamy, chocolate frozen custard.

Custard’s Last Stan, 8078 State Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, WI, www.facebook.com/CustardsLastStan

Bearded Heart Coffee has one of the strongest reputations on the peninsula for vending quality coffee, and our visit confirmed that. Le Coeur A Barbe ($3.25) brings together espresso and star anise syrup in a way that blends sweet, tart, bitter, and earthy to ideal proportions. And our Cortado ($3) sported a correct 50/50 ratio of espresso and foam-infused milk, which made it frothy and coffee-forward.

Bearded Heart Coffee, 8101 Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, WI, www.beardedheartcoffee.com

 

 

Egg Harbor

Spirits flight at Hatch Distilling // Photo by Becca Dilley

Before grabbing dinner at Parador, we stopped for cocktails at Hatch Distilling, which opened in 2018. Our tasting flight (customized to include gin, limoncello, bourbon, and Harbor Dog light rum, $7.60) varied all over the map but was largely pleasing. The bourbon had a bit of unwelcome bitterness on the back, the Harbor Dog was appropriately light and sweet and ready for mixing, the gin had a spruce note that was entirely welcome, and the raw honey limoncello was one of the best we’ve tried—tart and sweet and palatable even taken at room temperature and delightful over ice. And our Hibisky Old Fashioned, Sweet ($8.50) sawed off all the bourbon’s rough edges and presented a surprisingly bright and deeply flavored package.

Hatch Distilling, 7740 Highway 42, Egg Harbor, WI, www.hatchdistilling.com

Gambas in Garlic at Parador // Photo by Becca Dilley

Parador must surely be one of Wisconsin’s oddest spots: it’s a Spanish tapas restaurant of such faithful authenticity that it stands up to places we’ve tried in Madrid and Sevilla. There is a new and experimental section to the menu (from which we sampled the untraditional but tasty and substantial Steak Sliders, $14), but the real draw to this charming spot is its reliance on old Spanish classics.

The full name of Parador is Parador Tapas and Sangria, and the sangria, which comes in white and red varieties for $7.50 a glass, is absolutely on point. Fruity, wine-forward, bright, refreshing, and classy without being self-conscious, both varieties of this stuff took us back to Spain.

Patatas Bravas ($7.50) packed an unexpectedly feisty punch of spicy heat, but otherwise had the comforting, earthy depth of flavor we’ve come to expect for this fried potato dish. Our Croquetas ($7.50) offered just the right contrast of crispy exterior and smooth, rich, creamy interior. Bacon-Wrapped Dates ($9.50) were classic—crispy/chewy bacon wrapped around rich dates for a savory-sweet punch. And the Gambas in Garlic dish ($12) managed to give each oil-cooked shrimp a real kick of garlic without overwhelming their natural sweetness.

Pavlova at Parador in Egg Harbor // Photo by Becca Dilley

Dessert, when we visited, was a Pavlova ($5.50), a meringue and fruit concoction that is beloved in Australia and New Zealand. The version Parador served, which turned on a bright key lime sauce plus macerated strawberries, was every bit the equal of the stellar pavlova we enjoyed at a wedding off the coast of Auckland. It’s easy to overthink or “reinvent” this dessert, but when presented in an honest, straightforward way it shines.

Parador, 7829 Highway 42, Egg Harbor, WI, www.paradorwisconsin.com

Sturgeon Bay

Eggs Benedict from the Inn at Cedar Crossing// Photo Becca Dilley

Should you find yourself hungry for breakfast while entering or exiting Door County, the Inn at Cedar Crossing presents a simple, classic sit-down menu that is equal parts class and comfort. The restaurant’s Eggs Benedict ($10) featured big, chewy English muffins, properly cooked eggs, delicate ham, and a bright, light Hollandaise that is either house-made or from a damned good plastic bag. And while the restaurant’s Croissant Sandwich ($10) is a nothin’-fancy combination of ham, medium-cooked eggs, and a mustard dip, it absolutely hits the spot—the croissant is well-made and the simple ingredients are presented in a harmonious way.

Inn at Cedar Crossing, 112 N 3rd Ave, Sturgeon Bay, WI, www.innatcedarcrossing.com


Want more great dining recommendations? Check out our other Whirlwind Tours

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Sept. 20, 2019 | 5:30–9pm
Upper Landing Park
Tickets: GA $40 | DD $20