A Culinary Anchor: The Inn at Cedar Crossing

It takes just one bite of the Brie Cheese Beignet (a brie cheese wedge, breaded, fried crisp, and served with raspberry coulis and fresh fruit) to let me know that I’ve made the right decision to lunch at the Inn at Cedar Crossing in downtown Sturgeon Bay. Located on the corner of Third Avenue and Louisiana Street (once Cedar and Cottage Streets, hence the name) this turn-of-the-century, vernacular-style brick building hosts nine guest rooms, a 60-seat dining room and a fireside pub. If you’re lucky enough to stay overnight, you’ll enjoy an antique-filled room with a fireplace, whirlpool tub and a plump, down comforter. But in my opinion, the best part about staying at the Inn at Cedar Crossing is your easy access to the street-level restaurant and pub.

The Inn, as it’s informally dubbed, is open seven days a week most of the year (closed Mondays January through March). Early morning dog walkers start smelling homemade bakery and coffee about 5:00 am, as the restaurant prepares to open to inn guests and the public. Breakfast and lunch are served from 7:30 am – 4:00 pm; dinner starts at 4:00 pm and is served into the evening. It’s a popular place:  business can fluctuate between 50 guests on the slowest of winter days, to crowds in excess of 600 on summer weekends.

Since its inception in 1989, the Inn has been an anchor for downtown Sturgeon Bay, a favorite of locals and a destination spot for tourists. It has always had a reputation for exceptional food and service, which attracted owners Steve and Kelly Hellmann who purchased the Inn from proprietor and founder Terry Smith – Kletzien.

“We had both worked for Proctor & Gamble in the Cincinnati region,” said Steve, “and wanted something different, something less corporate. In 1996, after much research, we settled on opening a bed & breakfast in Bar Harbor, Maine. It was a good move, and gave us experience in working together and running a small business. Ultimately, though, we are both Midwesterners and wanted to get closer to home. My family lives in Door County, and when the opportunity to purchase the Inn became known, we started thinking seriously about moving here.” The Hellmanns sold their bed & breakfast and purchased the Inn in 2003.

Their combination of corporate training and small-business ownership served them well, and the transition from the East Coast to the Midwest was smooth. The role of innkeeper was by now easy and familiar, but running a restaurant was an entirely different matter. Turns out the Hellmanns have a knack for it. I can’t help but believe that much of their success is due to their hard work:  both Steve and Kelly are on site for most of the day, every day.

“We were lucky in that our staff has a long history here, and a good following,” said Kelly. “We work well together, and we’ve managed to not only maintain the restaurant’s excellent reputation, but also make changes to keep loyal customers and attract new ones.”

The Hellmanns’ most notable restaurant change took place in 2005, when they decided to alter their dining image. Concerned that the market was shifting and wanting to attract not only those out for special occasions or those who are “foodies” (the new term for those of us who take our dining seriously), the Hellmanns wanted to emphasize that the Inn was very accessible to “fuelers” (the new term for those who want good food and lots of it, but don’t need – or want – it to be fussy). Hence the Inn’s fine dining menu was changed to incorporate a more casual, mid-priced dinner along with the more complicated, higher-priced entrées they had been offering. Guests can still enjoy Thai Curry Braised Lamb Shank, for example, but can also opt for a lighter entrée, such as Asian Grilled Chicken Wrap, Sausage Penne, or Cedar Crossing Tuna Melt for the pocket-friendly price of $7.95 to $13.95. The Inn has also added a traditional Friday night fish fry (breaded perch or walleye, served with coleslaw, rye bread and choice of potato, all for $16.95), and a Sunday through Friday Badger Happy Hour with specials on Wisconsin microbrewed beers and Door County wines and half-price appetizers.

“It’s been a conscious decision to emphasize local products,” said Steve. “With over 21 different Wisconsin microbrews and a variety of local wines, we pride ourselves on having one of largest selections of local offerings.”

If you’re a microbrew lover, this alone will draw you in for a drink or dinner. But if time or budget demands that you must choose between breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’re going to have a tough time. The welcoming dining room and pub are suitable for all times of day, and the varied menus at each meal have a good selection for all appetites. My personal favorite is the lunch menu, which brings me back to the Brie Cheese Beignet.

It arrives at our table and it’s delicious. More than delicious. The combination of warmed, breaded brie and crisp, tangy red grapes is perfect. The warm dining room with exposed brick, caramel-colored pressed tin ceiling, and crackling fire make me forget that it’s lunchtime, that it’s drizzling and damp outside, and that I have an afternoon of work ahead of me. I order a glass of white wine and settle in.

With choices like Pastrami with Horseradish Brie, served on grilled sourdough with tomatoes and red onion (it’s huge – the neighboring diners are sharing one), and Sausage Penne prepared with house-made Italian sausage, roasted red pepper and goat cheese, I can’t help but be disappointed when my friend chooses to order the Beef Burger. Sure, it comes on a Kaiser roll with tomato, lettuce and sliced red onion, but still, a burger? I try to shame him into at least topping it with a slice of Havarti cheese, and accompanying it with a bottle of Wisconsin microbrew, but to no avail. He has work to do, and this is solely a fueling-up lunch.

I, on the other hand, have a hard time choosing and finally settle on the Italian Wedding Soup, with house-made chicken meatballs (huge meatballs – only two – but I can eat only one and must take the second home for dinner), vegetables, cheese tortellini, and fresh spinach poached in herbed chicken broth. It’s steamy and fragrant and is served in a shallow, wide-lipped bowl. It’s pretty, and it’s the perfect balance of hearty and light. Having never been to an Italian wedding I can’t be certain, but I think any bride and groom, Italian or not, would approve of such a dish.

My friend finished his burger. He’s eaten it quickly. I’ve been so enthralled with my soup and proud of myself for making such a fine choice that I fail to even notice. As he downs the last of the Cajun fries, he clicks his water glass against my wine glass and proclaims it the best burger in town. “And,” he adds with confidence, “I’ve done a lot of research.” Seems to me the Hellmanns have succeeded in their mission of satisfying both the foodies and the fuelers.

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