Door County: the Midwest’s ultimate hands-on destination
For more than a century, Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula has attracted visitors from Chicago, Milwaukee and other nearby cities with its gorgeous landscapes, historic Americana, booming agritourism and the mingling cultural sensibilities of the Midwest and New England. Although it is safe to say that its appeal is timeless, local business owners, especially those connected with the region’s agricultural underpinnings, continually keep things fresh. It’s also important to note that many of the owners either hail from larger cities or returned to Door County for its slower place and simpler lifestyle.
That said, slow and simple in the hands of Door County’s enterprising creators are often as innovative and sophisticated as anything one may find in a city like Chicago. Restaurants and specialty food shops are fuelled by creative new uses for locally cultivated, sourced, and crafted foodstuffs. Others are setting up shop selling a variety of specialties and adding existing richness to the food landscape. At the many farmers’ markets, storefronts, and outdoor mini-malls around the peninsula, well established growers and producers mingle with emerging coffee roasters, condiment producers, bakers, chocolatiers, and cheese makers expanding the region’s menu of options.
It is no surprise, then, that Door County is recognized as a “discovery” destination as travellers of all ages are realizing it’s not (just) their grandparents’ weekend hangout. A younger generation of vacationers, in fact, has been credited for enabling businesses new and old to thrive. According to Destination Door County, overall tourism numbers only decreased by eight per cent during the height of the pandemic. The necessity to bring dining outdoors later in the pandemic, in turn, prompted avid travellers to plan more driving-distance vacations, particularly among those in millennial and Generation Y yearning to experience something new that would not have occurred to them before March 2020.
‘People started Googling, “things to do in my state”, and all of a sudden, Door County began moving to the top of everyone’s list,’ explains Jesse Bartnik, director of operations for Mezzanine in Egg Harbor, opened in early 2022 with a standing room-only rooftop during the milder months and a menu that walks the line between honest, hearty regional classics and trendy flavour profiles. ‘It’s absolutely crazy how much things are changing in this area and throughout Door County, and we are happy to become a part of that.’
Farmers’ markets and speciality food shops were a part of Door County’s way of life decades before they became trendy tourist mainstays in practically every major city in the US and abroad. The farmers’ market at the Settlement Shops just outside of Fish Creek is a compact but excellent place to get a hearty sampling of culinary history and continued evolution.
Henriksen’s Fish House’s outpost sells its “special spice” whitefish spread (made fresh at its Ellison Bay shop) at the Wednesday morning market. Ironically, it began as a vegan–vegetarian-only market but ultimately expanded to include vendors of fresh-baked goods, roasted coffee, and a large spread of condiments, as well as a revolving cast of crafted goods, vintage clothing, ethnic food vendors and live music. The outer ring of shops at the Settlement, meanwhile, are open most of the year. It has an outpost of local favourite bakery Sweetie Pies, boutique picnic and wine shop the Ginger House (as there’s no shortage of perfect picnic spots), and (yes) more gift and home–garden décor shops.
Janice Thomas, owner of the Savory Spoon cooking school can certainly speak to the many changes taking place in a very short period of time, even with roots in older traditions. The school’s new home, a converted late-19th-century school house in Ellison Bay, gives her the space to expand her popular classes as well as have easy access to other artisanal food businesses such as Kick Ash Coffee and Bakery (producer of Door County Love Granola) and the award-winning Island Orchard Cider.
As one would expect, Thomas has the scoop on what’s happening in Door County’s food universe, providing excellent recommendations when she’s not whipping up the perfect environment for home cooks to express their own inner Door County food artisan. While the Savory Spoon sells several handy things for the kitchen, the best souvenirs are the recipes allowing students to re-create the dishes at home. The same can be said about Kick Ash’s owners Carol and Christian Ash, who made the bold move in 2019 to open the combination granola kitchen, coffee house, art gallery and gift boutique into a former church where Carol’s family attended services decades ago. As one takes in the tempting aromas from baking granola downstairs, he or she can enjoy ‘The Communion’ (hot chocolate or coffee with a small cookie), ‘The Trinity’ (hot chocolate, coffee and whipped cream), and ‘Pastor Froster’ iced coffee.
Island Orchard Cider has been a local institution for years, thanks to Bob and Yannique Purman’s commitment to crafting beverages in Normandie tradition, with apples from orchards planted in Washington Island’s rocky limestone soils similar to those in Normandie, France. However, Bob Purman explains the goal is to always push the boundaries of the cider production craft to create dryer, more modern expressions such as apple ginger cider, oak-aged Apple Reserve, the 2022 edition Wild Cherry, and brut apple cider.
To the south of the peninsula (effectively, the door to Door County), sister wineries Door 44 and Parallel 44 have risen as leaders in the region’s viticulture movement, and are currently gaining momentum in America’s national wine production stage. Door 44 Winery, named for its six-acre vineyard situated on 44 degrees north latitude—which also runs through Bordeaux and the Rhone valley in France and Piemonte and Toscana in Italy—has generated a buzz in competitions with its Frozen Tundra Red and Red Door (a Burgundy-style red). In its new tasting room, one can order a flight of sparkling wines like Fizz 44, Bubbler and Sparkler. The flavours and complexities are all the more impressive when owner Steve Johnson goes into detail about what inspired the wines’ names and how the climate benefits different grape varietals.
One can also visit the Cherry Hut to take a deeper dive into Door County’s wines. Former 1950s roadside store Ray’s Cherry Hut was resurrected in May 2021 by new owners Jason and Laura Estes as a hybrid of indoor–outdoor sports bar (its Bridge Up North Taproom) with local beers on tap (Escarpment, Harbors & Bays, Knee High among them), and a kitchen whipping up deli-style craft hot dogs and street tacos. However, the pride and joy of the couple’s efforts are the cider- and wine-tasting areas, serving samples free of charge. Jason Estes notes that the last two years not only presented the opportunity to create a unique business, but also help spread word on other local artisans.
Some more food for thought
Peter Gentry, owner of One Barrel Brewing Company (a Madison-based “nanobrewery”), likewise, not only wanted to tap into Door County’s busy season but also establish a year-round presence in Egg Harbor. The new location (a repurposed and landscaped former strip mall) is the brewers’ first venture as a pet- and family-friendly meeting place with play areas and a partnership with Pizza Bros (a.k.a. Sam Lindsley, Luke Boss and Vince Gerogiev, who also own Fat Belly in Sister Bay), offering a menu that includes miraculous thin crust pizzas that can stand up to mountains of Wisconsin cheese and fresh produce.
The aforementioned Mezzanine Rooftop hit the ground running with its beautiful cheese and charcuterie platters, fried cheese curds, smoked whitefish dip, whitefish cakes, whitefish chowder, and whitefish main courses paired with condiments crafted with cherries, lavender and mustard sourced in the area. Beers and craft cocktails walk the line between home-spun and contemporary. The Harbor Fish Market and Grille in Bailey’s Harbor, meanwhile, is also very much in tune with modern tastes even though it has been in business for a quarter century. There’s a Cape Cod-meets-Midwestern aesthetic sensibility in the restored vintage building that follows through to the cocktail and rest of the food menus. Appetizers reflect that the kitchen personnel are not afraid of spice and seasoning. Main courses show New England maritime and Wisconsin field-to-fork culinary elements work together.
Although the Harbor Fish Market has its own regular fish boil, its weekend lobster boil is a three-course standout that opens with exceptional Maine lobster bisque (also available on the à la carte menu). This is followed by a two-pound live Maine lobster boiled with New Zealand mussels, steamed clams, baby red potatoes and fresh corn on the cob. A generous portion of home-baked Door County Cherry Bread Pudding ends the meal with a bang.
Of course, America’s dairyland would not be what it is without sweets. After Sara Santaga perfected the art of gelato creation at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, she opened her original Sara’s Artisanal Gelato in Green Bay. It generated a statewide buzz, leading to the second scoop shop in Fish Creek, converging Italian traditions and techniques with other aspects as American and midwestern as her upbringing, down to the Wisconsin milk and cream. Flavours include signatures Birthday Cake, Fruity Pebbles, Snickers Candy Bar and Chocolate Mint as well as silky vegan flavours like Mango and better-than-basic chocolate and vanilla.
DC Chocolate Design, meanwhile, represents the future of high-end specialty chocolate in the region. Kara VanderLeest, who graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in food science, knew her future was paved with chocolate after her internship with a leading chocolate and cocoa processing company. After spending their early careers in Chicago, Kara and husband Cole (a Door County native) opened a stand-alone store in 2018 in the Top of the Hill Shop in Fish Creek. Above and beyond the chocolate aromas wafting from Italian-made chocolate melting machines, the shop is awash with colourful chocolate truffles, bars, moulded theme creations and fresh-brewed coffee ready to enjoy or wrap up into gifts. The shop is “open concept”, meaning if you show up at the right time, you may view Kara at work and in her element.
The rest of the arts are also well represented in Door County. In visual arts, there are over 100 art galleries and numerous workshops that happen to tap into the current crafting boom. They present visitors the opportunity to create their own statement pieces, from handbags to paintings to furniture, against backdrops which have inspired the instructors as well as nationally recognized artists for decades.
The theatre scene, meanwhile, is just as relevant and exciting as ever with productions at the Peninsula Players Theater, Northern Sky Theater and Gould Theater in Peninsula State Park and Third Avenue Playhouse, among others. The Peninsula Players Theater, noted for its affiliation with the Actors’ Equity Association, has been a mainstay since 1935 and staged productions that featured prominent actors such as Harvey Korman, Megan Cavanagh, and Stacy Keach, Sr. While one can find many fine botanical gardens across the peninsula, the Ridges Sanctuary, a 1,600-acre nature preserve and land trust in Baileys Harbor, earns its status as a National Natural Landmark. Although it has been in operation since 1937, its visitors centre and many recent renovations as well as guided tours and recognition as a birding area make it a must-visit.
Even with new spins on old art forms, there’s no denying that Door County’s nostalgic pleasures, from deep-fried cheese curds to mid-century inns, candy stores and ice cream shops will always provide a way for visitors to escape to more innocent times. Rowleys Bay Resort, still operated by the family which took ownership in 1970, is best known for its Grandma’s Swedish Bakery, which continues to make up the founding matriarch’s epic pecan and cinnamon rolls. Rooftop-grazing goats make Al Johnson’s Restaurant in Sister Bay a truly international house of pancakes, as visitors from around the world flock to see them in action as well as savour its lingonberry pancakes, Swedish meatballs, and house-made aquavit spirit.
One can travel back to early- and mid-century America with a stay at one of the century-old motor inns (such as the delightful, recently renovated Edgewater Inn, edge-waterresort.com), or living it up at one of the many old school “supper clubs” dotting the main roads, or at Ephraim’s Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, famous for its mountainous ice cream creations. And, of course, what would a Wisconsin vacation be without fried or chilled cheese curds or a grilled cheese sandwich from Renard Artisan Cheese’s Melt café?
For more information, visit doorcounty.com. •