The facade may have changed, but the soul remains at a stool at the back of the Bayside Tavern.
That’s where, every day around 3 pm, Elaine MacDonald takes to her post at the sociable side of the bar. That’s where, in her 47th year of owning the bar that remains at the center of village life, she keeps a watchful eye on the operation despite loathing the idea of stepping around to the other side of the bar.
“I like a bar, but I hate bartending, so I never really had to do it,” she said this summer from a seat on the patio of Bayside Coffee, the coffee shop that her son, Bobby, opened at the end of the Bayside Alley Shops in 2020. “I’m more of a person that sits at a bar than works at a bar.”
Yet she is the glue that has held the business together. Her ex-husband, the late “Smilen” Bob MacDonald, was long the face of the bar, despite the fact that Elaine and others dubbed him “the worst bartender we ever had.”
“Smilen had never made a drink in his life before we came here,” she said. But he was the gregarious man out front whom everyone knew. Elaine was a server, but she also spent hours toiling over the books and payroll, and managing staff.
Elaine and Bob divorced in 1980, but they remained business partners until Bob died in 2019 at age 90, with the tavern acting as the living room for their six children, where they remained a family despite the marital split. Those children – pat, Ron, Bobby, Billy, Karen and Christie – returned over the years, with hundreds of extended-family members in the kitchen, behind the bar and at the stools.
“The first years were built on young people and characters,” Elaine said. Characters such as Harold “Coony” Fish, whose photo still hangs prominently in the bar. “But things change. Now the customers are older. There are families in the bar; those kids now bring their kids.”
And this year, there’s a big change out front. Decades earlier, Elaine and Bob considered renovating the facade of the building, but they were turned off by the drawing produced by the architect they’d hired. When Bobby started toying with the idea of restoring the tavern to the original style of the Fish Creek grade school the building once was, he thought it would take some convincing to get his mom on board.
“I thought the 100th anniversary was a great opportunity to bring it back to its historic look,” Bobby said, “but I knew she always hated the drawing from years ago.”
Before it was the Bayside, it was Bill’s Tavern. And before that, the building originally served as the Fish Creek schoolhouse, but was moved to its home on a dusty Main Street in 1922, where it became the town watering hole it has now been for a century. It held the shape of the schoolhouse for several decades before a remodel covered that up with a shingled roof and a mustard-yellow paint job.
Bob and Elaine renovated the interior and painted the exterior white, but they never got back around to the big reconstruction.
Then last year, Bobby came ready with a sketch drawn on a bar napkin. To his surprise, his mom told him to throw out a guess about what he thought it would cost, then told him to go for it.
“He wasn’t even close to the estimate,” Elaine said. But she likes it anyway, and so do patrons. As Bobby reviewed progress on the front entry in July, several passersby stopped to thank him for making the change, if only for improving the look of the town.
It continues a tradition for the MacDonald family of laboring for passion over profit, including pat and Christie’s battle to save the Michigan Street Bridge and Christie’s effort to preserve the Teweles & Brandeis grain elevator, both in Sturgeon Bay.
The Bayside renovation didn’t add space for tables or an expanded kitchen, but it takes the tavern back to the roots to which it has long held strong on the inside of those walls. The windows are bigger, shedding a little more light in the bar, but not too much light for those who’ve always loved the way the interior welcomes you, almost like a warm hug.
That’s where the soul is, said longtime bartender Bill Budelman, who has served stints during two distinct eras of the Bayside: the live-music-loving ’90s and the family-friendlier version of today.
“What makes this place special is the democratization of the crowd that filters through here,” Budelman said. “You have hard-core locals, celebrities, Cottage Row people. You have people from Milwaukee who drive up for a bowl of chili and a road trip. You have those who come for destination, and those who come for necessity.”
The Bayside is one of those few staples, like Husby’s in Sister Bay, that is there for the visitors in the heat of July and for the locals in the depths of a gray weekday in January. Those are some of Budelman’s favorite days, in fact.
“Those are the days you really don’t know what you’re going to get hit with,” he said. “A person will walk through the door and change the tone of the day. You can talk to people. I can’t complain about the worst day in July because I have five months to recuperate in the winter.”
Those are also the days that create the Bayside’s lasting attribute – one that has nothing to do with packed Saturday nights or festival weekends.
“I always felt like this place has soul,” Elaine said.
Now the building’s face is a better match for what’s inside.