Buzz-worthy places to eat delight groups touring Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. Cherries, cheese and chocolate top the list of palate-pleasers.
When I think back to my recent trip to Door County in eastern Wisconsin, one comforting image pops up time and again—that plateful of thick French toast stuffed with cherries and cream cheesy goodness, a breakfast specialty at White Gull Inn in the village of Fish Creek.
Actually, the best memories of that trip revolve around places to eat, as eating one’s way through Door County is my idea of a good time. The hard part is choosing where to indulge—there just aren’t enough meal and snack times in the day to sample all the taste treats that await travelers exploring this 75-mile-long peninsula famous for its cherries, cheeses, chocolates and other mouthwatering temptations. Restaurants, artisan food shops, orchards and wineries are prime visitor attractions.
A finger of land jutting into Lake Michigan, Door County is its own little kingdom, a getaway haven of tidy waterfront towns with boat marinas, art galleries and studios, and family-owned specialty shops and eateries. There are forests, farms and friendly folks, and the air just seems just a bit fresher here than anywhere else. All these elements make for an inviting vacationland. The culinary scene, to my mind, is the cherry on top.
Time-Honored Places to Eat in Door County
White Gull Inn’s signature Door County Cherry Stuffed French Toast consists of two slices of egg bread with pockets of Door County Montmorency cherries and Wisconsin cream cheese. Dusted with powdered sugar, drizzled with Door County maple syrup and sprinkled with more cherries, the dish is a super combination of sweet and tart. No wonder it’s been recognized by ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” as the best breakfast in America. My group also got a taste of the inn’s apple caramel French toast and raspberry coffee cake, two winners in my book. Next time I may try the cherry pancakes.
White Gull Inn, under various owners and names, has been around since the late 1800s. Many of the rooms and cottages, most with their own fireplace, are furnished with antiques.
Another happy place with nostalgic overtones is Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim, near Peninsula State Park. Established in 1906, the old-fashioned soda fountain is a Door County tradition with many repeat travelers. Known for home-brewed draft root beer in a frosted mug, Wilson’s cooks its BBQ pulled pork in root beer. I enjoyed a crock of chili liberally topped with cheese and served with garlic toast. For dessert, I got the Eagle Harbor Perfection, a delicious four-scoop sundae with hot fudge and cherry sauce—a great duo.
Adding to the ambience at Wilson’s are mini jukeboxes at the tables and a big one that plays oldies by the likes of the Beach Boys and Four Seasons. With indoor seating and a screened-in outdoor area overlooking Eagle Harbor, Wilson’s is all about cruising down memory lane.
Orchards and Wineries Play a Big Role in Door County Tourism
Door County once supplied 95 percent of the nation’s cherries. Though it still claims 2,500 acres of cherry orchards, the peninsula has been eclipsed by Michigan’s cherry industry. Mid-May is prime time for blossom viewing, with apple blooms coming out a week later. Most orchards offer pick-your-own. Cherry-picking season runs from mid-July to mid-August, while apple harvesting begins mid-September. Besides chefs that take advantage of the locally grown tart cherries, shops throughout Door County purvey all kinds of cherry-infused foods and drinks, from wines to candy bars.
Groups can tour the orchards and vineyards at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market, whose store sells dozens of products made from fruits grown on the 100-acre Fish Creek estate. The restored dairy barn houses the winery, which turns out 15 different cherry wines, including sangria and a wine mixed with grape brandy. Its best-seller, though, is the honeycrisp apple wine. From the wine-tasting patio, guests can view the cherry-spitting track and may want to test their skill. (The men’s state record is 48’1,” the women’s 44’ 5.”) Bakery items at Lautenbach’s include cherry donuts, muffins, strudel and cookies.
Door Peninsula Winery, occupying an 1800s schoolhouse in Carlsville, is Wisconsin’s largest winery, making 70 wines from grapes, apples, cherries and other fruits. Most popular are the Blackberry Merlot and Cherry Mimosa, the latter an “applewine” blending cherry wine and sparkling apple cider. Sister company Door County Distillery, in the same building, produces apple and cherry brandies, cherry rum, cherry vodka, cherry moonshine and award-winning gins, along with mead made from Wisconsin wildflower honey. Drinks can be enjoyed in lounges and out on the patio. Wine tastings at the bar are free, while spirit samples are $2.
Group tours of the winery/distillery shed light on the products, processes and company history. In the basement, where all the wine was once made, tour participants view old photos, a vintage school desk and other artifacts from school days (1868-1964).
Door County Entrepreneurs Take Pride in Their Products
Though repetitive words easily can blur the retail landscape for the casual tourist, many artisan businesses smartly use “Door” or “Door County” (or “DC” in one case) in their names as it connotes high quality and pride of place. Among other “Door” stores worth a visit:
- Door County Coffee & Tea Company in Carlsville, across the road from Door Peninsula Winery. This coffee connoisseur’s dream roasts up to 5,000 pounds of the best Arabica beans every day, with coffee varieties ranging from chocolate cherry to bourbon pecan pie. Bags of the coffee are sold online, in-store and at retail giants like Walmart and Target. The breakfast menu offers scrumptious quiche and other baked egg dishes.
- Door County Candle Company, in the same Carlsville complex as Door County Coffee & Tea. The second-generation, Ukrainian-American owner, Christiana Gorchynsky-Trapani, has earned national attention for her campaign to aid war-torn Ukraine. Sales of vanilla-scented, blue-and-yellow Ukraine candles in 16-ounce jars ($29.95) have raised more than $900,000 going toward humanitarian relief and medical supplies.
- Door Artisan Cheese Company in Egg Harbor, where you can watch Master Cheesemakers at work and tour the Cheese Cave, the aging chamber for Top Hat Cheddar, World and US Championship Cheese winner, and 15 other varieties. Group tours feature plenty of samples. Cheeses can be paired with Wisconsin craft beers or wines at the Wine Bar, and Glacier Edge Restaurant & Bar offers full lunch and dinner menus.
- DC Chocolates, Fish Creek. Indulge in beautifully decorated truffles made with the finest ingredients. Each piece—first bathed in vodka, then hand-painted and buffed to a glossy sheen—is truly a work of art. Top sellers are the cherry cream and sea salt caramel. DC’s product line also features bars and molded chocolates, plus special items like the Door Peninsula map flavored with dried cherries or almonds and sea salt.
- Door County Candy, downtown Sturgeon Bay. At this sweet tooth’s emporium, you’ll find freshly made fudge and packaged delights, including a cherry bridge mix and deluxe malted milk balls. Also novelty items and national brands.
- Door County Creamery, Sister Bay. Gelato fans will want to try quirky flavors like lemon cake, raspberry panna cotta, and almond and fig. Also worth a look are the cheese spreads (like buffalo and pimento) and goat milk cheeses. Just down the street, Door County Confectionery is the place for fudge, taffy and chocolates.
Traditional Places to Eat in Door County
Door County’s most photographed dining spot is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, a Sister Bay fixture now in its 74th year. What other business sports a grass roof populated by grazing goats? Swedish pancakes, topped with whipped cream and lingonberries, strawberries, cherries or maple syrup, are offered all day long. Dirndl-clad servers also deliver Swedish meatballs and other Swedish specialties, along with soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers and fish. A good dessert choice: the warm cherry pecan bread pudding. Commanding a prime location on the waterfront’s North Bay Shore Drive, Al Johnson’s also has a front yard beer garden and a gift shop selling Scandinavian imports.
Down the road resides another old-time favorite, Earl’s Sister Bay Bowl & Supper Club. It offers six lanes for bowling and an extensive menu listing everything from steaks, barbecued ribs and pizza to whitefish, perch and walleye.
The traditional fish boil, a staple on Door County group itineraries, is offered by many restaurants and resorts. The meal involves boiling Lake Michigan whitefish, small red potatoes and little onions on an open fire, usually in a large kettle. Once the fish are nearly cooked, the boil master throws kerosene onto the fire, creating a fiery spectacle. After being strained, the stew is served with melted butter, lemon wedges, coleslaw or salad and breads, with cherry pie for dessert.
And what would a Wisconsin visit be without fried cheese curds. A common appetizer on restaurant menus, they’re often sourced from Renard’s Cheese, a third-generation Door County business. This is just a sampling of other menu items that bring people back to Renard’s Melt Bistro, a store/restaurant in Sturgeon Bay:
- The Classic, an artisan melt featuring cheese curds, sharp cheddar, scallions and Dijon mustard, grilled on cheddar-crusted sourdough bread
- Homemade tomato bisque with grilled cheese croutons
- Loaded Mac, a macaroni & cheese dish with bacon, pulled pork, shredded medium cheddar with baked panko bread crumbs and BBQ sauce
- A crispy 12-inch, thin-crust pizza with cheese curds and bacon
- Cherry Chicken Salad Sandwich—pulled chicken, local cherries, red onion, almonds and greens rolled inside a 12-inch wrap
- Door County Cherry Melt, an all-day breakfast favorite of sweetened cream cheese and sourdough bread dipped in French toast batter, grilled and topped with cherries, toasted almonds and whipped cream
- Smoked Chicken and Cherry Pasta Salad, a smoky-sweet combination of cavatappi pasta, pesto aioli, pulled chicken, red onion and Door County cherries, topped with roasted shaved almonds
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By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Lead photo: Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, Ephraim. (Photo credit: Jon Jarosh/Destination Door County)