Tasting your way through a destination is not only one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel, it’s also a great window into the history, culture and true essence of a place. It’s easy to be captivated by the sights and sounds of a particular locale, but it’s the taste of its unique culinary offerings that will always leave the most lasting impression.
One such place that’s left an indelible impression on my tastebuds of late is Door County, Wisconsin. Named by Fodor’s as one of the Top 10 Small Towns in America, its 10-mile wide, 75-mile-long peninsula of natural beauty that stretches northeast into Lake Michigan—and 13 idyllic small communities that dot the subsequent 300 feet of pristine coastline—gives the region a decidedly maritime feel. So much so, it’s been dubbed the “Martha’s Vineyard of the Midwest” by adoring tourists and locals alike. But unlike New England’s chilly Atlantic shores, the beaches in Door County are highly swimmable, with summer water temperatures averaging around 70 degrees. Add to that five state parks, eleven 19th-century lighthouses, daily ferries to nearby Washington Island and Rock Island, plus a region-wide ban on chain restaurants, hotels and shops, and you have a vacationer’s paradise with a thriving culinary and arts scene.
As Wisconsin is famous for its cheese, so is Door County for its cherries, as the fourth largest cherry-producing region in the nation. The tart Montmorency cherries are the peninsula’s crown jewel and the most commonly grown varietal. With more than 2,500 acres of cherry orchards county-wide, between eight to 12-million pounds of cherries are produced each year in Door County alone. With such a fantastic local source, it’s no surprise that most of the artisanal food producers in the region prominently feature home-grown cherry-related products as well, from pies and preserves to wine and spirits.
But Door County is more than cherries—or even cheese curds. It’s a foodie haven waiting to be discovered. So where do you start? Here’s a round-up of my top culinary encounters during a recent visit to Door County.
Best casual dining with a view. Voted one of the ‘Top 6 Best Beach Bars in the World’ in 2011 by Frontier Airlines Magazine, Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar & Grill in Sister Bay (with boat tie-ups available) is the perfect alfresco dining spot to watch the sun set over the bay, and one of the few places you can dine along Door County’s scenic shoreline. Grab a seat under one of the ‘Join Us Out Here’ umbrella-topped tables, but not before you’ve taken a minute or two to peruse the Daily Specials board on your way in.
Fred & Fuzzy’s holds a Perch and Haddock-laden Fish Fry on Wednesdays and Fridays, but the everyday menu features such delectable crowd-pleasers as the Steak Tenderloin sandwich and Southern-style Pork Brisket Sliders, as well as brats and burgers. In staying true to my local-dining emphasis, I ordered the hearty, fresh-caught Whitefish Reuben sandwich, with crispy shoestring Sweet Potato Fries, coleslaw and pickle spear, which perfectly complemented their signature cocktail, the Cherry Juice Margarita. Other standouts included the sinfully delicious Wisconsin Cheese Curds appetizer and the rich, warm Brownie Bites dessert served with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. Fred & Fuzzy’s is open for lunch and dinner, May through late October, with live music every Tuesday night from 7-10 PM, late June through mid-September.
Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar & Grill, 10620 Little Sister Rd, Little Sister Resort, Sister Bay | 920.854.6699 | fredandfuzzys.com
Best restaurant for a romantic or celebratory dinner. A Parador, in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, is a state-run, national heritage and luxury hotel, typically located in such historic buildings as monasteries, castles, fortresses or palaces—the most famous of which is Parador de Ronda in Ronda, Spain. Conversely, tapas, or “little plates,” are Spain’s national culinary passion. At first glance, they may seem similar to hors d’oeuvres and appetizers (at least portion-wise), but the tapas ritual is more than just an array of savory dishes enjoyed with drinks or before a meal. It is an indispensable part of daily Spanish life.
Taking inspiration from a trip together to Spain—with a nod to two of the country’s greatest cultural icons—owners Larry and Rebecca Majewski decided to open their own tapas restaurant back home in Door County, a place where patrons can “make lasting vacation memories.” Parador’s rotating and seasonal menu offers a variety of Spanish-inspired dishes, both hot and cold and typically ranging from $4-$16, with many ingredients imported from Spain. Chef Michael Reid makes a concerted effort to source all other fresh ingredients from local producers. The result is some of the most authentic-tasting tapas I’ve encountered since being in Barcelona and were as beautifully plated as they were delicious.
My dining companions and I started our tapas excursion with the Imported Olives, served in a citrus-garlic-rosemary house marinade and Bacon Wrapped Dates, whose crispy Applewood-smoked bacon provided the perfect complement to the fresh, sweet dates. Next came the Charcutería plate, an assortment of four artisanal sausages (2 Spanish; 2 Wisconsin), creamy cheese, cherry chutney and marinated vegetables, followed by an order of Patatas Bravas, a tapas staple, consisting of crisp, mulitcolored potatoes in a rich and spicy tomato-based sauce. The Gambas in Garlic, Tiger shrimp poached in garlic-infused Spanish olive oil, was also a delight as was the “Bomba,” an enormous (locally sourced) pork meatball, smothered in Yukon Gold potato puree with oyster mushrooms.
However, no tapas experience is complete without an accompanying Spanish wine, traditional sherry or sangria, the latter of which is a standout at Parador with seasonally rotating flavors. We ordered both a grapefruit-basil white and honey-rhubarb red house sangria, both were light and perfectly balanced without being overly strong or cloying. Whether you have two or twenty in your dining party, tapas at Parador is a great way to share and sample many different flavors and dishes in one sitting. Open for dinner nightly from May through October; lunch served on Saturday. Reservations recommended.
Parador, 7829 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor | 920.868.2255 | paradorwisconsin.com
Best “green” restaurant with locally sourced foods. Since 1977, owners Dick and Carol Skare have been focused on sustainability in every aspect of The Cookery’s operation, from the restaurant’s design using reclaimed barn wood throughout to an emphasis in utilizing only the freshest, locally produced ingredients for their menu items. In 2008, the restaurant became an official Travel Green Wisconsin-certified business, one of only five restaurants in Wisconsin to do so, thereby reinforcing their commitment to reducing environmental impact.
From purchasing organically raised, whole cows from a local farm for burgers and steaks to procuring locally grown lettuces and vegetables for salads, The Cookery incorporates the farm-to-table mentality in every menu offering. They’ve even added a kitchen garden behind the restaurant for fresh herbs, tomatoes and rhubarb in season.
Standout menu items include pancakes and French Toast topped with tart cherry sauce, Whole Wheat Linguine with Wild Shrimp sauteed with garlic, pimenton (Spanish paprika), red pepper, finished with dry sherry and topped with fresh parmesan, as well as their famous Whitefish Chowder (try it on the biscuits!), which has been on the menu since the restaurant first opened its doors. Similarly, The Cookery’s wine list features 20 rotating wines by the glass from organic and biodynamic producers, including several varietals from local Door County wineries. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily, open seasonally from late April to October.
The Cookery Restaurant & Wine Bar, 4135 Hwy 42, Fish Creek | 920.868.3634 | cookeryfishcreek.com
Best market for picnics, road trip provisions or foodie souvenirs. The Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek is not only one of the region’s greatest cherry producers with five varietals grown onsite—Montmorency, Balaton, Bing, Queen Anne and Rainier—but was also the first acreage to plant wine grapes in 1999. The Lautenbach family purchased the former dairy farm in 1955 and has been producing top-quality fruit, including apples, raspberries and pears, ever since. Today, the expansive 100-acre property also includes a winery, cider mill and farm market.
Visitors can partake of wine and food samples in the farm market, take a tour of the winery and orchards with private wine tastings of some of their 30 estate-grown varietals ranging from dry to sweet, or try their luck at the infamous “Cherry Spit” to see if they can break the state record. At the farm market, browse a wide array of local-made products, like fresh-baked goods, candies, jams, honeys, syrups, salsas, snacks, sodas, teas and fresh juices featuring the star Montmorency cherry, as well as artisan cheeses, ciders, beers, wines and accessories, gift baskets and more for perfect hostess gifts or tasty treats to fill your picnic basket.
Orchard Country Winery & Market, 9197 Hwy 42, Fish Creek | 866.946.3263 | orchardcountry.com
Best tour with homegrown recipes. One of the best ways to quickly learn about the history, geography, “legend and lore” of Door County is to take a narrated, scenic tour with Door County Trolley. The Trolley Scenic Tours last around 75 minutes and depart and return to Orchard Country Winery & Market or from the Door County Trolley Station, one mile north of downtown Egg Harbor. Foodies will delight in the many culinary-related tours offered as well, such as the progressive dinner outing, premier wine tour, microbrew tour and a special “Bloody Mary & Brunch” tour on Sundays.
My favorite, albeit unexpected, part of the scenic tour? That our trolley conductor/tour guide shared his recipe for “homemade cherry bounce,” handed down and enjoyed by his and other Door County families for generations:
Homemade Door County Cherry Bounce:
One pound tart Montmorency cherries, non-pitted
One bottle (750ml) of “cheap, but still drinkable” brandy
Up to one cup of sugar to sweeten, per personal taste
Combine the cherries, brandy and sugar in a large mason jar or other sealable container. Age for three to six months, shaking occasionally to help sugar to dissolve and ingredients to mix. The end result is an after-dinner cordial or liqueur. The fermented cherries can be used as a dessert (or cocktail) topping or simply eaten right out of the jar.
Door County Trolley Station, 8030 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor | 866.604.5573 | doorcountytrolley.com
Best ‘Fish Boil.’ Originally invented more than a century ago by the Peninsula’s Scandinavian settlers as a means to feed hungry hordes of fishermen and lumberjacks, the traditional Fish Boil is a now a regional staple and culinary tradition. The hearty dish is made by combining red potatoes, sweet onions and fresh, local whitefish into a giant wood-fired cauldron of salty water and simmered over an open fire. Just before serving, the flames are dramatically doused with kerosene and the pot quickly boils over, taking with it any bitter fish oils and sooty impurities that have collected on top during the cooking process. When the giant flames die down, what’s left in the pot is perfectly cooked, tender vegetables and fillets. Many swear that Lake Michigan whitefish tastes like lobster when dipped in hot, melted butter.
Dozens of area restaurants hold their own version of the traditional Fish Boil, but one of most entertaining and plentiful is at the historic, 100-acre Rowleys Bay Resort in Ellison Bay, held every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night from Memorial Day to mid-October. Not a fan of fish? The all-you-can-eat buffet also features chicken, meatballs, a wide array of side dishes, plus a 14-foot salad, bakery and dessert bar that’s sure to please even the pickiest eaters in your party. Just don’t forget to save room for a slice of orchard-fresh cherry pie, baked onsite at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery.
Rowleys Bay Resort, 1041 County Road ZZ, Ellison Bay | 920.854.2385 | rowleysbayresort.com
Best old-school eatery. Hankering for a taste of nostalgia? Head over to the historic Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim, a Door County favorite since 1906, to enjoy delicious, all-American fare from a retro-style, red-leather banquette with its own jukebox.
Menu favorites include juicy cheeseburgers or heaping Reuben and Clubhouse sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, paired with their “1906 Home-Brewed Draft Root Beer” or a Root Beer Float. Wilson’s also boasts an old-fashioned soda fountain for creamy milkshakes and malts, as well as a multitude of ice-cream specialties, like the Cherry Berry Delight, Classic Turtle Sundae or the infamous Wilson’s Banquet, with five flavors of ice cream and three toppings of choice, plus “loads of whipped cream, cherries and pecans.” Open daily at 11am, May to October.
Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, 9990 Water St S, Ephraim | 920.854.2041 | wilsonsicecream.com
Another time-travel gem? The Skyway Drive-In, on Highway 42 between Ephraim and Fish Creek. Voted America’s #1 Drive-in Movie Theater in America by TripAdvisor in 2014, this family-owned landmark has welcomed cinema fans in their cars since 1950 with vintage cartoon previews and foot-long hot dogs, novelty candies, ice cream and popcorn made with real butter from the theater’s original snack bar. In the first four rows, vintage speakers on posts provide the soundtrack; otherwise, excellent sound quality is delivered on AM/FM from your car stereo. Admission for double feature showings is $8 for adults and $5 for kids under 12 – but bring cash! Just like in the ’50s, credit cards aren’t accepted, but there’s an ATM onsite. Open nightly, June through Labor Day; on weekends in May, September and October.
Skyway Drive-In, 3475 Wisconsin 42, Fish Creek | 920.854.9938 | doorcountydrivein.com
Best winery to enjoy a glass on the patio. Because so many of the local wineries feature fruit-forward, cherry-centric wines that trend toward the sweet, I hadn’t found a wine that my palate swooned over until we paid a visit to Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor. Open since 2010, Harbor Ridge wines are as vibrant (complete with whimsical names and labels), as its tasting room staff and co-owner Denny Stapleton, who led us through our complimentary wine-flight tasting. Harbor Ridge shares a winemaker with their “sister winery,” the well-established Von Stiehl Winery, but produce such wines under their own label as The Mademoiselle, a blend of Chardonnay, Traminette and Sauvignon Blanc, the crisp, “German late harvest-style” Gimme One Good Riesling and the Knockin’ Heads Red, a blend of Cab Franc and Maréchal Foch.
On sunny days, take a glass of your favorite grape to their sun-dappled back patio, pair it with a sampler of artisan cheese from next door’s Wisconsin Cheese Masters, and you have yourself a great experience. Open year-round, daily from 10am.
Harbor Ridge Winery, 4690 Rainbow Ridge Court, Egg Harbor | 920.868.4321 | harborridgewinery.com
Want to do a self-guided tour of all seven wineries in Door County? Check out the Door County Wine Trail site for complete winery information, operating hours, tastings and tours.
Best place to raise your spirits. Door Peninsula Winery, the region’s largest wine producer, has opened Door County’s first distillery producing and bottling small batch, award-winning spirits onsite. The process begins with locally sourced, natural mineral and limestone-enriched water from Door County, then filtered and distilled through a copper still. The resulting steam becomes infused with the distillers’ special blend of botanicals, herbs and fruit combinations, condensing to produce the resulting varietals with a clean taste and smooth finish.
The distillery currently produces Gin, Vodka (Door County and “Luminous,”) Cherry Vodka and Moonshine, Brandy, Bitters and Single-Malt Whiskey. Both vodkas were clean and crisp, the cherry-infused vodka with lemonade was especially delightful. However, the Door County Distillery Gin was the undeniable star of the show (and has the awards to prove it) with its delicate blend of juniper, citrus and eight botanicals, a fantastic value for $19.99. Looking for a great gift for a cocktail connoisseur? Try the Bloody Mary Basket with either Door County Distillery or Luminous Vodka, Zing Zang’s Bloody Mary Mix, plus a jar each of pickled asparagus and green beans, or the swanky Martini Basket, with one bottle of Door County Distillery Vodka or Gin, Dirty Martini Mix and a jar of giant Tipsy Olives in vermouth. The Distillery is open daily, from 10am to 5pm, and offers complimentary tastings of their gin, vodka and cherry vodka.
Door County Distillery (at Door Peninsula Winery), 5806 State Hwy 42, Sturgeon Bay | 800.551.5049 | doorcountydistillery.com
Best Island Fare. Located a mile up the road from the ferry landing on Washington Island is The Danish Mill Bakery, Deli and Restaurant, serving up fresh-baked breads, pies and pastries—many from old-world family recipes—as well as your favorite hot or frozen coffee and espresso drinks, featuring Door County Coffee & Tea.
Waiting in the ferry line? Call ahead to The Danish Mill to order up hearty breakfast or deli sandwiches and wraps, salads, soups or chowders to go and they’ll be ready for pickup after you cross the bay to take along on your island sightseeing excursion.I highly recommend the hearty Chicken Salad sandwich on a fresh-baked, flaky croissant, with crunchy pecans and tart, dried cherries from local producers.
1934 Lobdell Point Rd, Washington Island | 920.847.2632 | danishmill.com
IF YOU GO
Green Bay is the closest airport, drive one hour north via WI-57 to Door County.
For a wide range of lodging options – from historic inns to cozy B&Bs, waterfront resorts, private cabins and rental homes – visit doorcounty.com.
While in Door County, I stayed at The Landmark Resort, the area’s largest with 294 comfortably appointed suites. It’s like having your own personal condo at a luxury resort, complete with full kitchen and private patio to sit and sip coffee or a cocktail while you watch the sun rise and set over the sparkling bay. Highly recommended.
The Landmark Resort, 4929 Landmark Drive, Egg Harbor | 920.868.3205 | thelandmarkresort.com
This trip was sponsored, in part, by the Door County CVB. All opinions are my own.