From fish boils to farm-fresh organic eats, we sample the state's tastiest
If you're impressed when you catch sight of the gorgeous 1885 mansion that is Gilbert's Restaurant (327 Wrigley Dr, Lake Geneva, 262-248-6680), wait until you try the food. Inside this 30-room Queen Anne–style Victorian home, chef Ken Hnilo whips premium organic ingredients into beautiful, seasonal dishes. If the weather's nice, ask for a table on the porch, where you'll get a great view of Lake Geneva and the lush flower and herb gardens. Feel free to indulge in the global wine list; you can skip the drive home by reserving one of three cozy upstairs bedrooms.
Twenty-five miles north of Gilbert's you'll find The Elegant Farmer (1545 Main St, Mukwonago; 262-363-6770), one of Wisconsin's best gourmet groceries, specializing in local jams, cheeses, syrups and produce. The roadside farmhouse (painted on one side with a big smiley face) is rustic, charming and home to one hell of an apple pie. The "Apple Pie Baked in a Paper Bag" (a name the makers have trademarked) is precisely that, but it's no gimmick: The pie emerges from its namesake sack with a crunchy, caramelized crust encasing the juicy fruit.
Fine dining, pie, the open road: What more could you want on a trip to Wisconsin? Beer. The good kind, and lots of it. Wisconsin has breweries galore, but if you don't want to waste precious tasting time, head straight to Milwaukee—a.k.a. Brew City.
Set up an appointment with Russ Klisch to tour his Lakefront Brewery (1872 N Commerce St, Milwaukee; 414-372-8800). In addition to making great brews like Cattail Ale and Riverwest Stein, the brewery is also famous for housing the old beer-barrel–shaped faux chalets that Milwaukee Brewers mascot "Bernie Brewer" used to slide down, into a giant beer mug, on the (rare) occasion that a hometown player hit a homer at County Stadium. Lawyers and insurance workers have put an end to patrons taking turns down the slide, but ask nicely and you might luck out. (We were given special access, but were a bit bummed that the slide was stickier than imagined in our dreams.) Slide or not, Lakefront offers the best bang for your buck in terms of beer: Five dollars gets you a commemorative pint glass and at least three pours of its tasty, frothy suds.
Randy Sprecher's plant, Sprecher Brewing Company (701 W Glendale Ave, Glendale; 414-964-7837), is just a short drive north of Milwaukee, but make sure Designated Dave takes the wheel to Glendale. After an overseas Army stint, Sprecher came home to a grocery store full of disappointingly bland, watered-down American pilsners. The transplanted Californian knew that his journey for a great-tasting, full-bodied brew would eventually lead him to Milwaukee. So following a stint with Pabst in the '80s, Sprecher wisely took his cash, purchased used farm equipment and retooled it as beer gear, and launched his career as a microbrewer steeped in ages-old European methods. Although Sprecher's root beer outsells the boozy kind, his love for the brewing craft is evident in small details, like 16-ounce bottles and in grand ideas like the Black Bavarian and German Hefe Weiss. The tour is just $3, so grab some bottles to take home for the memories (and the buzz).
You'd be remiss to keep exploring the Dairy State without sampling some cheeses, so roll on to the small town of Theresa for Widmer's Cheese Cellars (214 W Henni St, Theresa; 888-878-1107). Of all the 350 cheese varieties produced in Wisconsin, brick is the oldest original. Created in 1877, this white rectangular cheese is mild and sweet, but as it ages it takes on tangy sharpness that's similar to Limburger. The last cheese maker in Wisconsin to make this cheese the old-school way—using real bricks to press the curds into shape—is Joe Widmer, whose gramps started the biz in 1922. Most of what's going on in the tiny factory can be seen from the store (where you can snag brick, cheddar, Colby and curds), but for a full-fledged group tour of the operation, call ahead.
For more cheese, hang a left and travel south to Waterloo for the Crave Brothers Farmstead (W11555 Torpy Rd, Waterloo; 920-478-4887). The four Crave boys know cows. They were raised on a dairy farm and in 1978 started their own, now one of the most successful dairy operations in the state. They figured if the milk is this good, cheese made from the milk would be even better. So a few years ago, they became one of the few "farmstead" cheese makers in Wisconsin, meaning that all the cheese they produce comes from milk that's pumped from their 600 Holstein cows through insulated, underground pipes to the adjacent cheese factory. There, the milk is turned into mascarpone, fresh mozzarella and Les Freres, a delicious European-style washed-rind cheese. You can check out the farmstead through "Waterloo Wednesdays" tours organized by the local chamber of commerce (www.waterloowis.com).
After driving nearly 150 miles, loop-de-looping southeastern Wisconsin, take a deserved break and get a room at the Arbor House (3402 Monroe St, Madison; 608-238-2981). The self-proclaimed "Environmental Inn" was formerly a notorious rough-and-tumble tavern, but is now a tastefully organic, environmentally friendly hotel that houses eight guest rooms ($110–$230), a private sauna made from cedar and recycled wood from a pickle barrel, and an airy breakfast room.
Then drop serious cash on even more food at L'Etoile (25 N Pickney St, Madison; 608-251-0500). The restaurant has been proving since 1976 that partnering with small local farms can yield a much finer dining experience than a brat and beer. Founding chef Odessa Piper's show-stopping seasonal menus (which use organic and locally grown ingredients) earned her the unofficial title of Wisconsin's First Lady of Cuisine, and the official title of 2001 Best Chef in the Midwest from the James Beard Foundation. In May, Piper sold the restaurant to brother-and-sister team Tory and Traci Miller, who plan to carry on her tradition of using ingredients like organic beef tenderloin, hickory nuts and artisan cheeses.
If you're jonesing for dessert that night or a decadent breakfast the next morning, a 35-mile jaunt to Spring Green brings you to The Shed (123 N Lexington, Spring Green; 608-588-9049) for some to-die-for pie. The Shed is exactly what it sounds like: Small. Unassuming. A restaurant for pizza and beer, not lobster and champagne. So it makes perfect sense that instead of crepes suzette or some other highfalutin dessert, The Shed serves the best grasshopper pie this side of Boston. Chef Suki Crook's recipe is a secret, but we know that the tall slices of green fluffiness involve an Oreo cookie crust filled with marshmallow, whipping cream and lots of creme de menthe and creme de cacao—which only partially explains the buzz that comes after eating it.
Balance out the sweetness with more salty richness and drive to tiny La Valle, where you'll find Carr Valley Cheese (S3797 County G, La Valle; 800-462-7258). Fourth-generation master cheese maker Sid Cook's century-old cheese plant is synonymous with cheddar. It was its first variety, and the amazing aged cheddars are still the best-sellers. But the dozen "designer cheeses" Cook has come up with in the last few years to take his company to the next level are arguably the most interesting, sweeping last year's American Cheese Society Competition. Cave-aged Cardona goat's milk cheese rubbed in cocoa; Gran Canaria mixed-milk cheese aged in olive oil; Mobay ash-layered goat and sheep's milk—the list goes on. Grab some for yourself at the plant's retail store, where viewing windows let visitors in on the action.
A lengthier drive northeast through the rolling hills and toll-free highways of central Wisconsin gets you to Stevens Point and more beer (thank God). Art Oksuita, the director of operations for the Point Brewery (2617 Water St, Stevens Point; 715-344-9310), says that the water in Stevens Point is great for making beer because of its high-mineral content, and after we try a few Point specials, we can see why Mike Royko proclaimed this the best-tasting American beer. The tour itself is much like any other, with extensive details about barley and hops, but Oksuita is awfully proud of what they're doing at Point—handcrafting batches of brew meant to be enjoyed (not guzzled down like so many American piss-poor imitators). Two bucks for the tour means you'll have plenty left over to purchase a 12-pack or two in the gift shop.
Now, the biggest question of all: Go home, or push on through to Door County for the part–touristy-spectacle, part–foodie's-dream fish boil? Heck, you're already in the heart of the state, so why not drive 150 miles east to see Wisconsin's most proudly barbaric cooking ritual?
One of the best fish boils is at the Old Post Office Restaurant in the Edgewater Resort (10040 Hwy 42, Ephraim; 920-854-4034), but most anywhere in the Door County peninsula will do. Arrive late to a fish boil and you'll still get dinner, but you'll miss the point. The fresh whitefish and boiled potatoes make a fine meal, but fish boils are all about the show. While the food cooks over a roaring fire, the "boil master" begins with a little history lesson, explaining how Scandinavians started the tradition in Door County a hundred years ago. It remained a simple way to cook the whitefish brought home by local fishermen—until someone realized tourists would pay good money for cheap food and a good story to tell back home.
You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about Wisconsin's famed peninsula while dinner cooks (boil men work for tips, so tall tales translate into cold, hard cash). Have your camera ready for the big finish, when it will become painfully obvious why Mom always said never to throw lighter fluid on a fire: A six-foot-high ball of flame shoots out, causing everything but the fish and potatoes to boil over. Dinner—complete with fresh cherry pie—is served.
As long as you're up to your cheese-wedge hat in Door County tradition, you might as well head over to the peninsula's most famed eatery: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant (702 N Bay Shore Dr, Sister Bay; 920-854-2626), where the motto could be, "Come for the goats, stay for the meatballs." Yes, there really are goats chowing down on the grass-covered roof of the restaurant. You, however, will do better to skip the grass in favor of more standard fare, such as crepe-style pancakes topped with lingonberries or don't-miss Swedish meatballs. Stomach that, and make the long drive back to Chicago—if your cheese-, beer-, pie-ladened car can make it.