Late Nights, Winter Bites

Two eateries carve out late-night-menu niche

It’s past midnight. You’re making your way back from a late flight, just finished playing a gig, or are arriving for a weekend getaway. You know excellent restaurants and taverns abound county-wide, but precious few serve food late at night – unless bartenders will put a pizza in the oven, or Beer Nuts or Funyuns qualify as nourishment.

When Hill Street in Fish Creek started serving a late-night menu in fall 2022, AC Tap owner Steve Mueller welcomed the competition. 

“I encouraged anybody to stay open late because there’s so much business late, I can’t do it all,” Mueller said. “And many people aren’t going to drive up here. There should be at least a pizza place doing slices or something. Competition brings more people, and if your product’s good, you don’t have anything to worry about. There are enough customers for everybody.”

Chris Chayer tosses wings in garlic-Parmesan sauce at AC Tap, which serves its full menu until just before 2 am daily. Photo by Craig Sterrett.

From age 10, Mueller worked at Wilson’s and later, Ephraim Shores, always frequenting the few late-night eateries after kitchen shifts. When he and wife, Tera, bought the rural AC Tap along state Highway 57, serving food past midnight ranked high among his goals, in addition to providing a place for fun and quality food.

“When we bought this 21 years ago, that was my big thing,” Mueller said. “Pete D’amico, for a while when he had the pizza place in Sister Bay, which is now a coffee shop, he would stay open until after bar time just serving pizzas. That was great. 

“When he sold, a bunch of places said, ‘We’re going to be open late,’” Mueller said. “They have one slow night and then they quit. You can’t do that. You have to stay consistent.”

AC Tap consistently serves food from the entire menu until 1:45 am – 1:30 if it’s extremely crowded – in order to get everyone out for the legal, 2 am closing time.

At Hill and Main in Fish Creek, Hill Street proprietors Scott and Karin Watts developed a consistent, reliable schedule, changing over to a late-night menu every day they’re open – Tuesday through Sunday in winter, “11 am until late.” 

Scott went to art school in the Pacific Northwest, worked in kitchens for two decades and always appreciated places that served food after his shifts.

“We serve food all night. If we’re open until 2, we’re cooking,” said Scott, who ran the “noodles and booze bar” for one year across the highway from Door County Auditorium. “I like the idea of doing another menu that’s only at night and if you’re out and you’re hungry, we have something to offer other than french fries or stuff like that.”

At 9 pm in winter, Hill Street switches to its Taco Gong late-night menu, which other than Vienna-beef corn dogs, features Mexican dishes – three kinds of tacos, a chimichanga, and the deconstructed nachos and “pozole” that Watts features all day long.

Scott loves that latter dish, which he considers a full meal in a bowl, classic comfort food any time of year. The pork and hominy stew comes in a large bowl garnished with corn tortilla chips, lettuce, radishes, raw onions, and cilantro and lime wedges as garnish. 

Hill Street keeps the dish fairly mild, but offers various sauces if customers want more heat.

“I want to make sure everyone can access it,” Scott said. “I think it’s the best thing we serve. I eat it in Mexico in summer and it works. And it’s also hearty and rich and warming in winter.”

“Because we opened a new bar, one of the first new bars in Fish Creek for a long time, we had an opportunity to kind of create our own rules,” Scott said, adding that the strategy is gaining momentum. “People’s neuro-pathways are kind of set to go to the same bar. This is a way to kind of announce ourselves as the new kid in town.”

Other long-established neighborhood bars and restaurants serve fairly late – such as Greystone Castle in Sturgeon Bay serving until 10 pm daily, and Institute Saloon and Husby’s bartenders often offering pizzas after the grill closes.

But Steve and Tera Mueller have steadfastly served everything from the menu until that early-morning bar closing at AC Tap. That includes a different made-from-scratch soup each day, as extravagant as beef and spaetzle, or scallop and spinach – although it’s usually all gone sometime during the Tap hours.

For the first few years, new Tap customers were in for a big surprise when they could order anything off the menu, whether that was a burger and fries, tempura-battered jumbo shrimp, the popular pulled-pork – or those chicken wings praised by A.J. Dillon on social media.

Mueller wants to be there for people and be reliably open, except when roads are awful, such as when the county pulled snow plows off the road during a blizzard this month.

“They have to have somewhere to get something,” Mueller said. 

He always enjoyed getting a bite to eat when he worked late. 

“Back when I was young, Digger’s in Fish Creek was open,” he said. “When I was working at other restaurants, you’d get off work, get cleaned up, it’s 11 o’clock or whatever, and you’d all get something to eat somewhere where you didn’t have to make it.”