Lunch (and more) at Launch: Café Launch

“Eating and drinking at Launch is always the right choice:  great food, great beer, great company. Good times…”

Chris Olson, Door County resident and Launch-goer

In every town, I suspect, there is a place – often but not always an eating and drinking establishment – that locals hope to keep quiet. Sort of like the overflow beach at Peninsula State Park, or Champagne Rock in Fish Creek (not eating and drinking establishments, unless you bring your own) – just a little piece of local lore that one hopes doesn’t make the pages of a locally-published, liberally-read magazine (ahem). In Sturgeon Bay, just a few blocks south of downtown proper and across the street from the sparkling waters of the bay, sits Café Launch:  13 tables, four counter stools and a proprietor and staff who know you by name. Sleek yet cozy, upscale yet low-brow. Just the kind of place that feels like home. I write these words with apologies to those who love to be in the know and don’t like to wait for a table.

Café Launch is open daily for breakfast and lunch. In the evenings, the lights are dimmed and the dining room turns into a more intimate space, serving tapas, wine and beer. Though mostly filled with locals catching a bite to eat, Door County visitors are just beginning to discover this summer sleeper.

Owner Shannon Christenson is no stranger to the restaurant industry. He already owns one of the best businesses in Sturgeon Bay:  Kick Coffee (the little 500-square-foot coffee shop down the street that hustles all day long). Prior to opening Kick, Christenson worked in countless Door County restaurants, learning the ins and outs of operating a seasonal business. Having arrived here 15 years ago via Minnesota, Texas and a long stint working in a carnival (a topic for another story), Christenson has made quite a name for himself. He is well known and well loved in this county, and may be the only Door County resident who can brag of being a 12-time winner of the annual Bayside Tavern Best Halloween Costume Contest. As one local put it, “Shannon is like the Niagara Escarpment…he’s everywhere. It’s hard to imagine Door County without him.” He is, in fact, a not-so-small part of the Café Launch draw.

But there’s more than a colorful proprietor to recommend the place. For starters, the venue itself is phenomenal. Located on the corner of Pennsylvania Street and Third Avenue, Launch is just a few blocks from the busiest part of town, and has ample parking and a view of the water. Diners can choose to eat inside the dining room (be sure to notice the authentic church-pews-turned-banquettes), or outside on cozy tables under striped umbrellas. The historic building that houses the restaurant, the former L.A. Larson Building, has, since 1875, been utilized as a woodworking company, grocery store, attorney’s office and boutique. (At one time it was actually occupied by the Temple of Honor, a local temperance movement group who’d likely be aghast at the current impressive wine list.) With high ceilings, beaded board walls and windows that face the water, it’s hard to imagine it being anything but the perfect venue for meeting and eating. The overall look is clean, airy and inviting, without being sterile or cold. The walls are a pale gray (“seagull gray,” Christenson calls it) and decorated with stretched canvas reprints of old black and white photographs, paying tribute to Sturgeon Bay’s maritime history.

“I researched the area and found out that Pennsylvania Street used to be named Portage Street, and Third Avenue had been named Cedar Street,” says Christenson. “I then found out that Banty Schimmel, manager of  Sturgeon Bay Boat Works which was located across the street during the 1920s, used to hang out here. This was referred to as Block Ten. When I was trying to name the restaurant, it became quite a contest to come up with a name that was historic and appropriate. Originally, we considered ‘Banty Shimmel’s Block Ten Bistro on the Corner of Portage and Third,’” he laughs, “but settled on the much simpler ‘Café Launch’ as a nod to Sturgeon Bay’s impressive shipbuilding industry.” (During World War II, the men and women of Sturgeon’s four shipbuilding companies launched a new ship every five days, making Sturgeon Bay the largest inland shipbuilding area in the country.)

“It seemed to fit the location and our theme. I’m a sailor myself, so I like the tone it suggests,” he states. Once the name was chosen, the rest seemed to fall into place.”

“Our plan is simple:  fresh ingredients, good recipes, friendly service. We buy most things locally and make our menu affordable. What I didn’t initially realize was that by buying local products from local vendors – Marchant’s, Weinke’s Market,  Renard’s Cheese – I’d be forced to buy in smaller quantities, and to buy more often. Our ingredients are so fresh it’s crazy,” says Christenson.

Crazy delicious, that is. The breakfast menu boasts multi-grain pancakes, huevos rancheros, and quiche that’s “baked-up tall and served upside down with fresh fruit.” The whitefish cakes, served at lunch on a ciabatta roll and at dinner as a tapas item, are top notch and quickly becoming Launch’s signature dish. The Wisconsin grilled cheese sandwich made with fresh Muenster and cheddar cheeses on your choice of bread (try the sourdough, it’s a meal in itself) is fantastic. The evening tapas menu is my favorite, and I suggest the grilled prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, followed by an order of yellow fin tuna with sun-dried tomato pesto. Like most good tapas joints, the idea here is to order one or two items, enjoy them at leisure, and then order a few more. For those of us who love not only eating, but also the ritual of enjoying an unhurried meal together, Café Launch can’t be beat.

Christenson has also put together an amazing wine list that’s sure to fit every mood. Celebratory? Try the Woop Woop Shiraz. Remorseful? How ‘bout the Clean Slate Riesling. All are available for only $6 a glass. And if you are a beer drinker, you’re in luck. In addition to the more usual domestics, Launch offers Fat Squirrel, Totally Naked, Road Slush Stout and Organic ESB, to name a few. Domestics are $3 a bottle and imports range from $4 to $5.

If you’re a local, you know where to find Launch. If you’re a visitor, just pull off in Sturgeon Bay and make your way to the water. Once you’re in the general region, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of happy diners will lead you in the right direction. Good times…