A New Era of Dining in Door

Door County: a sliver of the Midwest that’s synonymous with endless, sunny shores and an ambience of relaxation. Yet despite being a haven of natural beauty and landscapes for summer vacationers for more than a century, the dining scene has been a bit of an afterthought.

It’s not hard to understand why: after a day spent on the water or hiking the bluffs, a good meal used to be defined by convenience and comfort. Early vacation resorts such as the Alpine and the White Gull Inn offered vacation packages with food included. Meal times marked the start of the social hour, but the creativity of dishes was limited. Instead, chefs prioritized the efficient use of available ingredients. 

Beloved supper clubs and taverns with deep roots in family traditions have fed vacationers for decades, passing down recipes through generations, but fish boils, fish fries and made-from-scratch cherry anything — though delicious — don’t put you on the map with today’s foodie-focused traveler. 

If you’ve been paying attention the last several years, however, you’ve seen that things are changing. 

In October 2018, Door County was the topic of the Food & Wine article “We Can’t Believe How Cool Door County Is Being Right Now,” which noted the contrast between doily-laden bed-and-breakfasts and the rise of trendy, new spaces that are transforming the landscape of eating and drinking. Some of the places the magazine touted included Trixie’s, Ephraim Coffee Lab, Wisconsin Cheese Masters, Roots Inn and Kitchen, Door County Creamery and Island Orchard Cider.

Raviolo at Trixie’s pasta night in 2018. Photo by Aleah Kidd.

Just as National Geographic put Door County on the “Who’s who” list of tourism in 1969 with its “Kingdom So Delicious” article by William S. Ellis, the county’s food scene has been knighted by the epicurean Food & Wine

Coming from the foodie havens of Minneapolis and Madison, I’m thrilled to see Door County finally carry some well-deserved culinary clout. And I had to wonder, how did we arrive here? 

It all started, of course, in the kitchen — though in the kitchens of successful restaurants outside of the county — and has been transferred here through the staff and owners of restaurants looking to replicate and re-create their own version of exemplary dining.

To create consistently good, wow-factor cuisine requires that extra layer of careful attention to detail, which does not exist without a team of passionate people who are dedicated to the idea and committed to making it happen on a nightly basis.

Having spent plenty of time in Door County during my youth, I can’t say my palate craved anything beyond the Door County Ice Cream Factory most days, but I do recall the places where we’d go for special occasions. This included the Inn at Kristopher’s, a ground-breaking Sister Bay restaurant that looked like it sounded: white linen, dimmed lights and utensils for each course. Chef Terri Milligan took fine dining to a new level, earning praise as one of the best chefs in Wisconsin and launching culinary classes capitalizing on the early wave of foodie culture. 

Bruce Alexander at his restaurant Alexanders in Fish Creek. Alexander first elevated dining at Hotel du Nord in the early 1990s. Photo by Len Villano.

Chef Bruce Alexander was also pushing the envelope at the first location of his eponymous restaurant, Alexander’s. Inside the long-gone Hotel du Nord, he helped move dining tastes beyond the supper-club scene, eventually doing so literally by taking over a long-standing supper-club location in Fish Creek and transforming it into a favorite for high-end dining and local gatherings. Later the Mission Grille, T. Ashwell’s and the Whistling Swan joined the list of places elevating food from comestible to cuisine.

When Brit Unkefer returned to his Door County roots to open Wild Tomato in 2009, he initially imagined a “sleepy little pizza place.” A pizza place is the simplest description, but in reality, Unkefer was building a wood-fired pizza concept the way an architect builds a skyscraper: with careful attention to each detail. 

He and Sara Unkefer had internalized the high standards set in the kitchens of the West Coast and Europe. Brit had worked under Wolfgang Puck, and Sara apprenticed with pastry greats Chad Robertson and Elizabeth Pruitt, who are now renowned for their San Francisco bakery Tartine.

The resulting menu was successful in finding a way to offer something new and exciting while also residing firmly in the pizza category. Pizza was approachable and familiar, even if it was handmade, wood-fired and laden with off-the-wall toppings. 

Tossing dough at Wild Tomato’s Sister Bay location. Photo by John Nienhuis.

“It was a little bit of a gamble,” Brit said, “but the nice thing with pizza is that almost everyone loves it. Everyone is willing to try something out of their neighborhood pizza joint.” 

Unkefer also started offering funky craft beers, introducing to Door County the burgeoning national craft-beer scene. Consumers were growing increasingly interested in creative, fun styles of beer, with limited-time offerings (remember the first shandy season?). 

Fast forward to the present. The Door County beverage scene has taken on a life of its own, fueling new breweries, wineries, distilleries and the peninsula’s first cidery.

Then, in a shady alcove of Ellison Bay, Mike Holmes and Joe Fahrenkrug established the Wickman House in 2012, queuing up a new wave of progressive dining in the county. The location had previously proven its ability to attract diners when it was T. Ashwell’s, a fine-dining restaurant known for Europeon-style cooking and elegant presentation. 

Wickman House intended to carry on that legacy, but with broader strokes and “hyper-local” ingredients, pulling inspiration from the kitchens of Brooklyn, New York, and noted Madison and Chicago-area eateries where they had worked and dined before moving back to the peninsula.

Seeing Door County through the lens of the growing local-food movement, they found fertile soil in which this idea of farm-to-table dining could take root. From fish to fruit to farms and organic pastured meat, the time was right for launching a fresh-focused food establishment such as the Wickman House. 

Joining Holmes and Fahrenkrug at the helm in 2015 was chef Matt Chambas, who had recently learned the inner workings and mechanics of kitchens such as Harvest and L’Étoile in Madison. He knew the staff was the bread and butter of a successful restaurant business, and luckily, Wickman’s roster was set with a great combination of players. 

“We had a really solid kitchen crew right from the beginning,” said Chambas, who was sous chef on the opening staff. “We were a brand-new restaurant in a place that really didn’t have a restaurant quite like that yet. We had different chefs that had worked in different places for different people, and we all brought our different techniques together to create what Wickman House became.”

Wickman House quickly became known as the home for craft cocktails in Door County. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

What it became was a destination restaurant that has earned praise from writers at Time Out Chicago, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Wickman House also earns credit for introducing the craft-cocktail menu to Door County, with bow-tie-wearing bartenders curating a menu of 50 perfectly composed cocktails. 

Farther south, another chef was seeing Door County for its growth opportunities. JR Schoenfeld of Chives had traveled the country for several decades as an executive chef for large-scale events such as Bonaroo and the PGA golf tour before deciding to settle in the Fox Valley area, where he opened several successful establishments. He had grown up near the East Coast in Rhode Island and soon discovered the shorelines of Door County. He couldn’t resist pursuing a new restaurant in Baileys Harbor. 

“The evolution of food up here was a great opportunity, and Door County needed it,” Schoenfeld said. “There are some fabulous places, and it all happened around the same time — whether it’s the Wickman House, or Parador, or Wild Tomato or Jesse at the [Door County] Creamery. The Waterfront’s been here a little bit longer, but all those places all started about five years ago, and they all seem to be booming and growing and doing more. That’s why I ended up here in Door County.”

Chives opened in 2014 with a chef-driven menu dedicated to making everything from scratch. Ingredients are grown or sourced locally when the season is right, but Schoenfeld’s main goal is to provide the best food that he and his restaurant possibly can. 

Steak frites at Chives. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

“People now are a little bit more educated on food,” he said. “Even the people who eat for sustenance only are more aware of the food that they eat. Five, 10 years ago when the movement started here, it’s because of the need and everyone’s awareness of food.” 

Now you’ll find pockets of creative culinary genius sparking all around the county. These emerging businesses aren’t always easy to find, but they are brewing up new flavors constantly. Take the crew of coffee crafters behind the counter at Discourse Coffee, a self-titled “liquid workshop.” It’s the brainchild of Ryan Castelez, a former beer connoisseur who served pints at Bier Zot. 

“I had been so inspired by businesses here in Door County,” he said. “Six, seven times out of 10, the person behind the counter is the owner. I have access to big thinkers and dreamers more so than I would have in Chicago.” 

After leaving Bier Zot, he nurtured his idea for a distinctive coffee-shop concept to fruition after spending seven months in Italy drinking lots of espresso and immersing himself in the culture. 

“Our goal for our fourth-wave shop is to create things that make people feel things, remember things, think about things that give them a flavor or idea they’ve never tried before or smelled before,” he explained. “We want to take really delicious things and give you something novel, something you’ll remember.” 

The Sister Bay coffee shop is now in its third season, and Castelez has more ambitious plans in 2019 for the 108 Creative Collective in Sturgeon Bay, a start-up incubator that will blend pop-up-style food, beer, coffee and photography.

Discourse Coffee. Photo by Matt Sampson.

Also calling Sister Bay home is the brewery of Tapuat Kombucha. Mary Deviley, hailing from Austin, Texas, has been concocting raw-juice drinks and the fizzy, fermented, probiotic-filled liquid known as kombucha since 2007. She opened the doors to the Getaway Car in Egg Harbor — Door County’s first juice bar — where she was experimenting with selling green juice and smoothies before many people knew what kale was. 

“When people walked into my first juice bar, you could see the look on people’s faces: What is going on here? What are these things?” Deviley said.

Tapuat is now a growing success story, with distribution spanning the Midwest at more than 1,000 retail locations. Deviley took a shot at another juice bar by opening the Kitschinn in 2017. 

“There just really wasn’t a lot of food options available for people with dietary restrictions … so I decided to make my own,” she said. The spunky juicery also serves as the Tapuat tap room, allowing frequent ’booch drinkers to fill growlers and sample the latest seasonal batch. Vegan-friendly soup, smoothies, bakery goods and other snack items are made daily.

The options for vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions have been expanding. In Sturgeon Bay, Victoria Ripp of Get Real Cafe has made serving nutritious meals her raison d’être. After getting her culinary degree and working in kitchens around the East, she came back to Door County in 2010 and followed her interest in finding the food that really made her feel good when she ate it. That led to her 2014 cafe opening with a menu stocked with raw salads, vegetarian items and “real” food made from scratch.

“I’m not sure there were many people who didn’t think I was crazy,” Ripp said about opening her health-focused cafe in Sturgeon Bay. At the time, clean-eating options in the city were sparse. Bluefront Cafe was offering vegetarian choices, and a budding organic store, Healthy Way, was starting to grow its customer base, but the market was unrealized. Nine years later, Get Real Cafe has a loyal following, and consumers are asking for fresh, organic and local. 

Restaurants are adapting to fit this new genre of eaters who are looking for more plant-based options, more whole foods, fewer processed ingredients and the choice of organic, grain-free and dairy-free. 

Door County Underground chefs Matt Chambas talks to guests at an event at Hidden Acres Farm in Sister Bay. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Places such as the Waterfront, Shoreline and Grasse’s Grill have been using local fare for years — not because it’s trendy, but because it’s the highest quality. The fact that “eat local” has recently become a buzz phrase is ironic for many chefs who have been cooking with local ingredients throughout their careers. Not to mention, putting local on a pedestal can be limiting.

“Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s better,” said Door County Underground chef Matt Chambas. “What means it’s better is it didn’t sit in a truck for three days; it didn’t fly across the ocean; it’s super fresh. You can talk to the guy or girl that grew it. How did you grow it? Was it grown organically? When was it harvested?”

Door County Underground, the creation of Chambas and Jamie Mead, is one such business that has used sustainability as a framework for how it runs its pop-up dinners and cooking classes. 

“I think it’s definitely within a wave of conscious change for American culture in general,” Mead said. “We are fitting in with not necessarily a trend, but a wave that’s moving back toward consciousness, healthy eating and knowing where products are coming from.”

For them, sustainability has also meant focusing on serving food on a smaller scale. Because the majority of their ingredients come directly from their own plantings at Hidden Acres Farm or are foraged by hand, they intentionally keep their operations small in order to ensure that they’ve grown enough food to go around. 

Small-scale dining has found its place in other businesses, too, allowing smaller kitchens’ staffs to find success. Roots Inn and Kitchen has become well known for its ever-changing and always-inventive seasonal menu. The six-room bed-and-breakfast serves a mouthwatering spread to its guests each morning and to the public for lunch and/or dinner several days a week. 

Pub chips at Roots Inn and Kitchen. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Heirloom Cafe and Provisions in Baileys Harbor opened its doors in 2018 with a focus on fresh, flavorful, grab-and-go food for breakfast and lunch. In the fall, owners Katie and Andy Gill collaborated with chefs Justin Pahnturat and Peri Laux to host several pop-up dinners to bring traditional Oaxacan flavor to the table. 

The variety and diversity of cuisine types are more evidence that the dining scene has reached a new level. Craving the rich, spicy flavors of Spain? Parador has you more than covered. Need a Thai fix? Head for pho or pad thai at Dan’s Kitchen. You can find fresh sushi at Crate, Southern-inspired plates at Fireside and Polish soup at Czarnuska’s Soup Bar. The niche options are growing, and the adventurous eaters in Door County are rejoicing. 

Circling back to Trixie’s: its small, feminine space has a magical quality. The intimate room matches the charming quaintness Ephraim is known for, yet the food is on par with destinations with soaring skylines. Hidden off the main road winding along Eagle Harbor, it is quietly cultivating a new gourmet culture in a town that was the last place in Wisconsin to repeal Prohibition. 

The nature of these establishments — seasonal, regional and creative-minded — means there will always be something new to sample and a fresh take on eating and drinking. More awareness of what we eat and where it’s coming from can only lead to richer experiences, which are now readily available in Door County. (I’m not saying a fish boil isn’t a rich experience, though, because you’ll never forget that instant of anticipation right before the flames are fueled to reach new heights and the kettle boils over.)

As long as passionate cooks and enlightened chefs keep calling Door County home, we are in a new age of delicious dining here. Just as the resident painters, potters and photographers have found ample fodder for their creative pursuits, the culinary arts have a toolbox of fresh, inventive ingredients ready for use.

Island Orchard Cider. Photo by Len Villano.

Home-Grown and Cultured

Locally produced food and drink products are inevitably linked with changing tastes, and thus there is a handful of small businesses that have become big success stories. These places call the county home while also going far beyond county lines. Island Orchard Cider has taken inspiration from European cider making, using Washington Island apples to make its varieties of delicious cider. Door County Brewing Co. and its sister brand, Hacienda Brewing, have sprouted up here and have grown deep roots in the brewing industry. Tapuat Kombucha has pioneered the probiotic beverage around the Midwest, with a brewery in Sister Bay that keeps on growing. Another cultured edible creating waves is cheese. Door County Cheese Masters, Door Artisan Cheese and Door County Creamery have multiplied the cheesemakers and cheese availability in the area in a short time. 

Outward Bound

A more visible change that has washed over Door County is the arrival of eating al fresco. Taking cues from the patio-frenzied Chicagoans and roof-obsessed diners in Minneapolis, establishments around the peninsula have begun moving things outdoors.

The Garage at Husby’s is a summer hot-spot in Sister Bay. Photo by Len Villano.

Husby’s in Sister Bay was one of the early adopters, with its large, outdoor deck being a big draw on mild days. It has since expanded with The Garage, an outdoor bar and stage serving food and drinks. Across the street, the Sister Bay Bowl created its own version of the outdoor bar. Down the street, Al Johnson’s jumped on the beer-garden bandwagon, opening the outdoor-only Stabbur, which features plenty of green, grassy areas to play in front of a large, wrap-around bar. CHOP Steakhouse incorporated a stunning, rooftop deck into the design of its new location, built in 2017. Boathouse on the Bay uses glass garage doors to let the outside in, which is especially spectacular during the iconic sunsets on the bay. Speaking of sunsets, maybe the epitome of sunset eateries is Fred & Fuzzy’s, a leader in the al fresco arena that opened its kitchen on the shore in 2000. JJ’s La Puerta added the Sugar Shack tiki bar to better share the waterfront with its customers, and Taco Cerveza in Fish Creek created an outdoor-only model reminiscent of the previous hot-dog stand that once occupied the property. Door County Brewing Co. made sure to include ample open-air spaces at its second brewery location in Baileys Harbor, giving guests space to play cornhole, nosh at a food truck and gather around picnic tables.