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Lake Geneva Market Update

Lake Geneva Market Update

It’s been a while since I’ve written a broad market update. It had also been a while since I felt the warmth of a bright sun on my skin. But yesterday fixed that latter absence, and today I’m sporting a proper spring sunburn. Sunburns are generally understood as being bad. Bad for your health, bad for sleeping. But an early spring burn, with just a slight sensation of sting, well, that’s something that everyone of our winter condition needs. It’s an event. A ceremony. A wonderful happening that signals the passing of winter with the emergence of spring. I don’t like sunburns, not one bit. Except in April.

The Lake Geneva vacation home market has endured quite a winter. Winter was fine, I suppose. It snowed a bit and it was cold a bit, but it didn’t snow a ton and it wasn’t cold all that often. That was winter. But March and April, the two months to which we generally assign some spring tendencies, they didn’t cooperate. The weather was awful. It was. Terrible, really. Rainy and windy or snowing and windy. Early ice out means nothing if the ice is replaced with snow. And so we endured. Showings were made and showings were canceled. Who could drive in this snow and that rain?  The market faced obstacles, mostly from the clouds above, and yet here we are. The market triumphed over so-called-spring, and is, today, poised to do some serious selling.

Because we’d be remiss to fail to recognize that the weather has indeed had an impact on our market. The market has performed valiantly, don’t be confused, but I can only imagine how much stronger the market might be today if not for the desperate grip of a belligerent winter. We’ve had sales, closings, showings, galore.  If I’m a buyer today, I’m worried. The market performed well in spite of the weather.  Can you guess how much better it might do if it were able to excel because of it?

Current vacation segment activity knows no limit. The entry level lake access market is active, with pending deals in Country Club Estates and Cedar Point Park. Country Club has had the hot hand of late, with buyers greedily gobbling up any bits of inventory, with few exceptions.  Further up the price scale, there are three off-water homes pending sale between $800k and $1.5MM. Those homes include one in Wooddale ($899k), one on Hunt Club Lane ($1.3MM), and the long-listed, renovated Loramoor home ($1.499MM). These homes are all fine in their own right, and each sale will ultimately make plenty of sense to me, and to the market.

There was a time back during the prior market cycle when the least expensive listing on Geneva Lake was right at $2MM.  If you liked that market, you’re in luck, because today there are just two true lakefront homes available priced under $2MM. The bulk of the lakefront inventory today is priced between $2-3MM, with several fine offerings in that mix. Some of those properties have been listed for quite some time, others are fresh to market this season.  My predictive qualities are quite refined, and as of now I’m going on a limb and guessing we’ll see two or three new accepted offers out of those nine lakefronts in that particular price range by Memorial Day Weekend.

There are two lakefront spec homes being built in Cedar Point Park. Both of those homes are listed at $3.85MM and both have been under contract since last summer. The first one is now finished, and just closed for full price. I’m not going to elaborate on these sales publicly (you should be working with me if you want to know what I think about them), but I’ll just state the obvious: this market craves new construction. It loves it. It needs it. It cannot live without it.  $3.85MM x 2 proves it.

The top end of the market has been quiet in terms of new inventory, and just two long-contracted deals remain to be closed. Those are of the Born Free property on the North Shore of Geneva ($5.75MM) and Clear Sky Lodge ($6.5MM) on the South Shore. Sometimes I randomly capitalize the shores to make them feel more important.  Both of those sales will be fine, though both feel somewhat pricey given their prior, recent sales prices. That’s $3.5MM for Born Free in 2011 and $3.7MM for Clear Sky in 2012 (I represented the seller in that sale).  Still, the market is hot and these two properties prove that appreciation over recent years has been, in some cases, quite impressive. The best remaining upper bracket offering is my Basswood listing.  Watch the video here   to remember what summer looks and feels like.

Inventory remains the biggest concern as we transition into the summer market.  This concern isn’t limited to the lakefront market, as there are lots of buyers in search of a reasonably priced ($500k-$1.3MM) off-water home with either a lake view or a boat slip. But the lakefront is the market that generates the headlines, and the lakefront could also use an injection of new inventory. What segment has buyers waiting? Um, all of them? There are active buyers right now in every price range, from $200k cottages in Country Club to $10MM lakefronts. If I’m a seller today I consider the market and wonder if I should sell (maybe). If I’m a buyer I consider the market and wonder if I should jump (probably). But if I’m me, I’m just concerned about hanging on to this new spring-time tan (unlikely).

Above, sunrise from my 274 Sylvan listing in Fontana’s Buena Vista.
Whiskey Ranch Fish Fry Review

Whiskey Ranch Fish Fry Review

There’s a certain thing about a restaurant name that sets the tone for diner expectations. If you visit a restaurant called Whiskey Ranch, your expectations are set long before you pull into the gravel driveway.  This particular restaurant occupies an old house at the intersection of Highways 14 and 11, just outside of Delavan and Darien. Across the street there’s a strip club, in case you’d like to wash away your whiskey sorrows with a dash of glitter. The parking lot at Whiskey Ranch is nearly always full, whether from patrons of the Ranch or patrons of the aforementioned club. Parking in the lot across the street feels like an awfully flimsy alibi.

When we caught a glimpse of the parking lot at Whiskey Ranch on Friday night it seemed as though we’d be finding somewhere else to dine. It was around 6:30 and the lot was absolutely slammed. I parked near the front door and entered the bar to ask how long of a wait I’d have to suffer through. Five minutes was all, so I found a permanent parking spot and we pulled up two chairs to a high top in the bar. There appears to be only two dining areas in this bar, both very bar like.  The waitress and the host both told us often about the beer sampling that was taking place in the other room, which might be a more traditional dining room, but I couldn’t tell. The free beer would explain the abundance of cars in the lot.

The crowd here was a bit boisterous, celebrating the certain fact that they had made it through another work week. How I wish I could celebrate like that. I can barely celebrate New Years Eve, (it’ll be a new year no matter if I celebrate or not), or my birthday (big deal, lots of people have lived this long), or a large closing (Great, now I don’t have any deals pending). This was a group engineered to celebrate just making it, and there they were, enjoying the evening and the free beer and the fish fry.  When the waitress was table side I asked about the fish, which, for the first time in this tour, actually required some explanation.

The Friday specials, the waitress explained, included a traditional fish fry (two pieces find cod), a Fried Walleye Dinner (two pieces), Pan Fried Walleye (two pieces), Baked Cod (two pieces), some fried shrimp dish, a grilled salmon dinner, and a fish fry sandwich, in case you were in a hurry. I appreciated the multiple options, and asked the waitress for her recommendation. Without pause, she said she liked the fried Walleye. So that’s what I ordered, ignoring the cod completely. If a restaurant serves Walleye (like the Waterfront at the Abbey), I must oblige their effort and order the Walleye with potato pancakes. My wife ordered the shrimp dish with fries.

One of my many poor eating habits involves the appetizer. As a child, I didn’t get to eat appetizers. I wasn’t really sure what they were. My dad would never consider pre-gaming a meal with a smaller meal, because who would spend $8.99 on something so unnecessary? I asked the waitress if any appetizer was important here, and she explained some sort of fried corn ball thing that sounded sort of appealing but sort of strange. I ordered the jalapeño  poppers, which was a mistake. They were brought out first, and they were bland and pretty much terrible. I should have known better. This is my fault.

The fish dinner, on the other hand, was a beautiful plate of fried food. The Walleye filets were large, battered, as the menu said, to perfection. The potato pancakes (two) were thin, but well crisped. The plate had a small piece of cornbread, a tiny container of applesauce (too smooth, bland), and matching plastic containers of coleslaw and tartar sauce. There was also a small plastic container filled with some sort of maple syrup concoction. I’m not sure what it was or what I was supposed to do with it. A lemon wedge provided the only color.  The cornbread was on the dry side, but flavorful. It could have used a nice smear of softened butter, but my only butter option was a foil packet from somewhere in Houston. For shame, Whisky Ranch. For deep and terrible shame.

The Walleye was delightful. Beer battered and fried to a wonderful golden hue, it was moist and tender, quite divine. I think the Waterfront’s (Abbey) fried Walleye might have been slightly better, but this Walleye was delicious. The potato pancakes were more traditional, one note, some potato and onion crisped on the flattop. I liked the fact that they didn’t try to church the potato up with some sort of add-in.  There were only two pieces of fish and two pancakes, but that was plenty of food. My wife said her shrimp were pretty good, and I had to eat some her fries so I could properly report back on my findings. They were superlative.

Our waitress was friendly, but she let our water glasses go dry for what felt like most of my dinner, which wasn’t terrific. We waited for quite along while after our plates were cleared to be presented with the check, which did allow for a bit more people watching but was also slightly annoying. The hostess reminded us again of the free beer in the other room, and continued to be somewhat perplexed at our lack of enthusiasm.  The Whiskey Ranch is a bar. It’s in an old house. The ceilings are low, the bar is loud. It feels like an up north bar, which is actually a good thing. Their Friday Fish Fry was above average, but not on par with the standouts I’ve so far discovered. If you’re in the mood for fish and want to hang out with some locals, give the Whiskey Ranch in Delavan a visit. It won’t let you down.

 

Whiskey Ranch 8/10

W9002 Highway 11, Delavan, WI 

$14.99 Fried Walleye Dinner, $10.99 Fried Cod, $11.99, Pan Fried Walleye $14.99, Fish Fry Sandwich $8.99

 

Geneva National Vs. The World

Geneva National Vs. The World

If you think the vacation home market at the lake is active, you should check out the market for sub-$350k single family and condominium residences that lack lake access. That market is absolutely on fire. A recent search I performed showed 23 single family homes in Williams Bay priced between $310k and $400k. Of those 23, 15 were pending sale. That’s a hot market. Similarly so, the vacation home segment under $400k is also active, and that activity isn’t only involving properties with lake access. There’s an entire subset of vacation homes here, those condominiums that lack dedicated water access but still, often, appeal to a vacation home buyer.

Condominiums, wherever they are found, lend themselves to vacation home ownership for pure ease of ownership, and as a result, the off-water, non-access condominium market in Walworth County is a common target for vacation home seekers who find themselves with a fixed budget. Many of these buyers find their way to Abbey Springs, where they receive lake access, or to other condominiums like Willabay Shores in Williams Bay or the Abbey Villas in Fontana. It’s obvious, too, that these buyers end up in Geneva National. But increasingly I’m finding it annoying that Geneva National is overlooked by so many in this sub-$300k price range.

As I don’t often work this market, you’ll know my annoyance is genuine, as I’m not stumbling into this condition simply because it doesn’t serve my purpose. Geneva National might offer solid value and a rare setting, but as budget minded buyers know, it also offers a hefty monthly association fee. Often lakefront condominiums on Geneva will have elevated fees, but that’s an understood situation given the piers and pools and increased amenities. Geneva National has high fees, and while it offers justifiable amenities, many buyers will look directly past GN based solely on those monthlies. I think this is a mistake.

Let’s consider a random Geneva National condominium and contrast it to competing inventory in the broad market. For our purpose today, we’re going to look at a Highlands unit listed around $220k. This unit is a three bedroom, three bath, with a two car attached garage, three levels of finished space and a walkout lower level. The unit is a bit dated at this point, but who isn’t? The tax bill is around $3500 with monthly association fees of $590. That fee covers exterior maintenance, pools, tennis court, gated security, private roads, etc and etc. It’s a nice condo for the money.

If we’re a buyer of a three bedroom condominium in the Lake Geneva area, another reasonable option would be a unit listed for sale on the East end of the City of Lake Geneva listed at $290k. This is a four bedroom unit with slightly more square footage, but a two car garage and a one less full bath. To be certain, this is also a nice unit, and any buyer on a budget would likely find living here to be pleasant. The condo fees are $235, the taxes $4200.  The fee covers exterior maintenance. And exterior maintenance. There’s nothing else for it to cover.

The sort of buyer that might be drawn to the city condo would likely find the low monthly fees to be an important data point. Those fees might be the same reason they avoided Geneva National. But let’s really consider those fees. The GN fees allow use of a resort community with pools, tennis, walking trails, gated security, and more. The fees at the other development cover simple exterior maintenance. There’s no resort there. No other value added amenities. Just a condo that lists access to the highway as an amenity. These may seem like similar units, but they are not, as a matter of fact, even remotely the same.

But that’s just the lifestyle difference, and that’s where Geneva National shines, so let’s go back and look at those monthly fees. To own in Geneva National, versus our fill-in-competition, it’ll cost an extra $4260 per year. Ouch, that’s rough. That’s why people avoid GN. But let’s dig a bit more. The taxes at GN are $700 cheaper, owing that to a Town of Geneva tax scale, rather than the City of Lake Geneva. Now our annual premium is down to $3560. The fee in Geneva National covers water and sewer charges, which the other condo adds in separately (according to the MLS listing). It’s fair to assume the annual water/sewer charge for moderate use would be around $800. Now our Geneva National premium is down to $2760.

Now that we’ve figured out the monthly fee difference, consider what that $2760 buys you. Tennis, pools, gated security. Is that worth $230 a month? I think it is, but you might not be so easily convinced. What we’re forgetting here is that the Geneva National condo is a full $70k less in initial purchase price. If we’re financing our transaction with a 20% down payment, that means the non-GN condo cost us $14k more up front, and adds $335 to our monthly liability. If we’re paying cash for the purchase, assuming a similar discount to ask for each unit, we’re forking over an additional $70k for the amenity-void unit.  That’ll cover the next 25 years of Geneva National premium.

The exercise today is simple. Let’s stop ruling out condominiums based solely on monthly fees. Let’s consider the real numbers behind that initial number, and let’s buy something that matches our lifestyle and our budget, not just our budget.

Photo Courtesy either Ideal Impressions or Matt Mason Photography. I’m really not sure… 
Bay Colony For Sale

Bay Colony For Sale

Back on the market just in time for whatever season we’re now calling April, a most memorable Bay Colony lakefront condominium…

There’s a thing about lakefront condominiums. The typical way to remodel these condos is, well, typical. Some new countertops. Paint. A backsplash of something from Home Depot. And this way of doing things is just fine. When people come to see the newly remodeled condo they’ll tell you it looks nice. Good job, they’ll say. But they won’t really mean it. They’ll wonder why you put new counters on old cabinets and painted the old doors. They’re still hollow, after all. White paint doesn’t change that. But they’ll tell you it’s nice and they’ll leave wondering if the lie was convincing.

At my newest lakefront listing in Bay Colony, there’s nothing to look at that isn’t new. There’s nothing that was missed. What started out as an intended surface renovation ended up including new everything. Everything? Everything. And instead of the typical wares you’re used to seeing in this segment, the owner decided to do the unit right. The floors are oak. The counters are quartz. The bathrooms are marble. There are custom built ins galore. There’s a new laundry room. There’s style here that is not just rare on this lake- before now it didn’t even exist.

Two bedrooms and two baths with a slip. Immediate outdoor access from both the parking side and the lakefront, making for no annoying hallway conversations. Is this unit simple? Yes. It’s simple. But in the simplicity is the value. I’m offering this unit today at $899k, fully renovated by Lowell Construction. Fully furnished. Fully ready to transform your weekends. If you’ve been in the market for a turn key lakefront residence but have been let down by your condominium options, come visit me at Bay Colony unit 101.  It’s stunning, and that’s not the slightest exaggeration.

Abbey Springs Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

Abbey Springs Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

I take some offense to the term “yacht club”. It’s a bit over the top, a bit ostentatious. A bit too much.  There are boats that are launched with routine frequency at the lakefront in Abbey Springs, but I’ve seen these boats and while many are nice, none are yachts. We should reserve use of the word for when we really mean it. Like when we say something is breathtaking. If it took your breath away, it’s breathtaking. If it’s a view of the lake, it’s just a nice view. But in spite of this grudge against this phrase I pulled up a chair at a lakeside table last Friday night and did what it is that I do. I ordered the fish.

But before I could order and before I made that reservation I filled out the membership application and sent in my $200 to Abbey Springs. That membership fee allows me access to the restaurants of Abbey Springs, both the clubhouse grill on the golf course side of the property and the Yacht Club Dining Room on the lakeside. It’s a small price to pay for another dining option on the water, and so there I was, membership in hand, seated at the table watching the rollers build and sway from one end of our big lake to the other.

The dining room here is nice. It’s not incredibly nice, but it’s nice. It lacks some of the sophistication of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, but the space is comfortable and nicely appointed. There’s a large bar on the West with adjacent dining space, and a large dining room on the East. Like most restaurants of this style, the dining room was full of folks that belonged to a different generation, the greatest, perhaps. While we waited for our friends I perused the menu.

I’m fond of restaurants that list their fish fry in their menu. I don’t like restaurants that mention the fish fry as though it’s some unique treasure, some special that they just thought of and had little time to add it to the menu. In bold print, there it was:  Friday Fish Fry. Cod, potato, sides, $15 for all you can eat.  Our friends were late but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the bread basket, complete with a pumpernickel, a whole grain, and sourdough roll.  The bread was warmed and quite wonderful and likely would have done well on its own, but the most glorious addition to a Friday Fish Fry was also present: A dish of soft, whipped, room temperature butter. What a delight, after weeks of bread and butter disappointment, to start my meal with this treat.

The waitress was pleasant and attentive and quick to take our order. Mine was clear. I’d have half broiled and half fried along with the potato pancakes.   Within fifteen minutes our dinner was served. At first blush the plate was a delight. Several smaller pieces of broiled cod, one large piece of fried, two potato pancakes, a lemon wedge, two hushpuppies, and a nice ceramic dish of applesauce and tartar sauce. The coleslaw was served on the plate, which was unique, and not especially preferred considering I don’t like coleslaw, but I abided the addition and neatly pushed it to the side.

In a first, the broiled cod also featured distinct grill marks. The fish may have been broiled and then briefly finished on the grill, but it looked to me like it was only grilled. Either way the pieces were tender and sported an extra flash of flavor from those grill marks. My dinner mates enjoyed the broiled cod quite a bit, perhaps more than I did. I liked it well enough, but I don’t think it was the best broiled cod I’ve had on this journey. The fried piece of cod was supremely crunchy, battered in a tempura style. The fish inside was moist and tender, but lacked salt. It was good, but again, not quite the best I’ve had.

The potato pancakes were well crisped on the exterior while still maintaining a creamy interior. They were delicious. It’s a rare feat, or so I’m discovering, to serve potato pancakes worthy of actual praise, but the Abbey’s pancakes were near perfection. The hushpuppies, two to an order, were drier than a typical hushpuppy, and sweeter, too. But I wouldn’t let that get in the way of devouring both of them, as the sweetness was a nice interruption to the savory fish and potato.  Were they as good as the Popeye’s hushpuppies? No, but they were certainly close. The tartar sauce won some praise from the table, and the applesauce was remarkably flavorful, if a bit too smooth.

It was apparent to me that this was a superlative dinner. Some of the items were not perfect, but the combination of lakeside dining, comfortable seating, and delicious food is a rare combo here. If you’ll recall, I loved the fish fry at the Outlook Bar at Lake Lawn Lodge, but I hated the restaurant space. I loved the restaurant space at the Ridge Hotel’s Crafted Americana, but the cod was dry. There’s always something that takes a meal and derails it. But at the Abbey Springs Yacht Club, whether there are actual yachts there or not, most things were executed to near perfection. Buy yourself a membership and order the fish. It’s worth it.

 

Abbey Springs Yacht Club 9/10

1 Country Club Drive, Fontana, WI 53125

$15 All  You Can Eat Cod (plus $200 annual dining membership)

 

(Author note: The definition of Yacht in my usage has nothing to do with Coast Guard certification, rather only my own interpretation of the class of boat that should be referred to as a yacht…)

 

Lake Geneva Prices

Lake Geneva Prices

There’s an interesting bit of information available this morning courtesy a recent lakefront sale. The sale was of an older house on a 90′ lakefront lot in the Birches. The property was fine. The MLS description made no mention of it, but I believe the house may have been a Zook.  Zook homes are a lot like Frank Lloyd Wright homes, in that the sellers care about the pedigree of the architect, but the market doesn’t.  This property was initially listed for $3.5MM back in 2008, and after a series of price reductions and listing pauses, the property mercifully sold this week for $2.3MM.  I didn’t have the listing or the buy side, which is pretty awful for me but worse for the buyer and seller.

The parcel of land was reasonably decent, though I don’t count Maple Lane to be among the best streets on the lake. It’s a fine street with fine homes, but it’s not necessarily a street that has a history of selling for elevated prices. Today isn’t about that parcel, it’s about the market context of this sale.  Brokers are clamoring over potential listings to such an extent that prices are being driven up less by market conditions and more by the breathlessness of agents who are new enough to the business that they have no way to be sure of valuations. It’s not their fault, they’re just chasing dollars.  To understand what this sale means to the market we must first look back at some very recent history.

In 2016 I sold three lakefront homes on Lackey Lane. Of those three, two were modest homes, one of which has since been torn down while the other was renovated. Those two properties that sold at land value printed at $1.9MM and change, for 100′ lots on a really desirable street. Geographically, Lackey and Maple are close, so we’ll consider them to be likely comparables for each other, even though I find Lackey to be far more appealing.  Those two sales printed at around $19,000 per front foot. This isn’t some long ago number, this is 24 months ago. Market conditions today have improved, but market conditions in 2016 were still quite good.

The recent sale on Maple printed at $25,555 per front foot. The overall land mass at Maple was larger than Lackey by two fold, but the market pays little attention to overall mass and focuses instead, perhaps at times incorrectly, on frontage.   The Maple sale closed 34% higher than the 2016 sales on Lackey. Does this mean the lakefront market has appreciated 34% in the past 24 months? Of course not.  Does it mean that some properties have appreciated that much in such a short period of time? Absolutely yes.

In 2016, those Lackey sales were not easy sales. Both properties endured some time on market. Both properties were overlooked, even by smart buyers who were working with me.  Today, the Maple property proves out what I knew then: 100′ vacant lots that are selling at land value are becoming increasingly rare. Just as we’ll someday run out of dumpy lakefront cottages that you might be able to buy for $1.2MM, we’re also running out of 100′ lakefront lots with older, modest homes on them.  This scarcity is driving up prices in both categories, though the entry level market remains rather stagnant compared to the 100′ market. Expect this trend to continue as buyers seek out properties that offer them some upward mobility should they one day decide to build new, or undertake a serious renovation.

Beware The Traps

Beware The Traps

There’s a house for sale not too far from where I’m sitting. It has a roof and some siding and windows. There’s even a deck. It’s close to the lake I suppose, walking distance, for whatever that’s worth. There’s an ice cream shop nearby and another ice cream shop not too far from that one. There’s an art gallery, and another ice cream shop.  A bit down the way you’ll find Geneva Lake and a nice beach. When I was a kid the beach goers would shriek when a large Snapping Turtle would ease through the stream and make an appearance on the beach.

The house reminds me a lot of the prior market peak. Those days in the mid 2000s when everything seemed fine, and inventory was as tight as tight could be.  There were brief moments back then when the most affordable listing on the lake was two million dollars. When the most affordable house listed in Williams Bay was over $200k. Those times were difficult for buyers, and in their misery they’d find their way to non-typical vacation homes just so they’d have something. Not so they’d have what they really wanted, but so they’d have a place to hang their hat on a Friday night after a Wisconsin fish fry.

If they had to walk to the public beach, so be it. The lake is the same there as it is in front of your fancy private pier. Or so they’d tell themselves. At their new vacation home they can walk to get ice cream. Try doing that from the middle of Basswood Drive,  they’d say. It didn’t matter that their vacation home didn’t have any deeded lake access. It didn’t matter that their new vacation home was surrounded by non-vacation homes. What mattered is that they paid $250k when the cheapest home available in Cedar Point Park was $350k. They paid $250k when the cheapest home in Country Club Estates was $370k. They paid $250k when there was nothing for sale in the Loch Vista Club or in Oakwood Estates. What mattered was that they paid $250k and they were here, in this place, enjoying the things they wanted to enjoy.

And that, I suppose, is good. But what wasn’t good was what happened when the market tumbled. The vacation homes tumbled, too. Those homes in the Harvard Club and Glenwood Springs, they felt some pain. But the homes in non-vacation home settings, those homes in town that were tapped as fill-ins for buyers who couldn’t find anything else, those homes saw their values crushed.  They were crushed because they spent vacation home dollars in a primary home market. That, my good friends, is a tremendous mistake.

Today, the market is active. Inventory is low. My job is not all that much fun at the moment. Buyers wish for inventory, sellers wish for too much money, and the market is trying to decide who will win. Signs are pointing to the sellers winning, but the war is still being decided one battle at a time.  When the market is low on inventory buyers tend to do one of two things. They either wait, patiently, but anxiously, knowing that some day the right thing, or something close enough to the right thing, will materialize. Or they don’t wait, and they buy something dumb. Something close to town. Something walking distance to the ice cream shop. Something that fills the immediate void, but something that is, undoubtedly, a mistake.

In this market, be patient. Be ready. Be prepared. Be anxious. But don’t be foolish. Work with me and I’ll make sure you don’t make a very terrible mistake.

Culver’s Fish Fry Review

Culver’s Fish Fry Review

I was a bit nervous about having to write this review. It reminded me of the time I decided to go visit Harbor Country for the first time, just to see what it was all about. I booked my hotel and drove East, down that terrible route and across Indiana, the Fireworks and Strip Club signs lighting my way.  Once I was done driving East, I drove North, up and along that shore, worried that what I would find would be so wonderful that I’d have no means to ever compete with it. When I pulled into the town a deep sense of relief gently washed over me.  This place wasn’t great at all. I had worried about this competition for no reason, for no reason at all. This place was lame, and I was relieved.

I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to sit in the VC meeting where Culver’s first pitched its business plan. The Culvers’ brothers on one side of the table, with their attorney, me and my VC cohorts on the other side.   I’d lead off by asking what this new plan was that brought them to my office.  “It’s a burger joint”,  one Culver would respond. I’d say, so what’s the catch? There’s a lot of burger joints, obviously. How do you plan to attract customers? What’s your angle? Will you serve the food like super fast? “No, we’ll take the order and then give people and little plastic number and make them wait in their cars for a while, maybe like five or seven minutes, then we’ll bring them out their food”. 

Ok. So is the food like super cheap and affordable? “No, it’ll be very nearly the same cost as a sit down meal might be at a regular restaurant where they have waitresses and metal silverware”.  Ok. So, you’re going to create a fast food restaurant that will be quite expensive and you’ll make people wait in their cars for an extraordinarily long amount of time before you serve them some burgers and crinkle cut fries?  “Yes, that’s right”.   That’s when I’d pass on the deal and that’s why the Culver’s family is super rich and I’m typing fish fry reviews.

Last Friday called for a short road trip, which means there was no time for the traditional Friday Fish Fry. But alas, the trip was through Wisconsin, and so we decided there would be no better time to test the waters at Culver’s. The fast food chain has become a ubiquitous Wisconsin staple, and their television commercials spend considerable effort touting their fish fry. I have little doubt that their fish is among the best in the fast food world, but how does it stand up to the typical Wisconsin dinner?

The Cross Plains Culver’s is in an awkward location. It’s right off of Highway 14, but the drive-thru is wonky and the parking lot is small. The display screen doesn’t show any particular fish fry option, though it does offer an Atlantic Cod Sandwich, which is presumably the same fish that is served as a fish fry. Wild caught from the Barents Sea, apparently. I asked the fella on the other side of the screen if there was a fish fry. There was. Two or three pieces, served with two sides.  The price wasn’t listed, but I came to find out when the total was announced that it was $12.99. That’s in line with any sit down establishment where you don’t have to eat with one knee on the steering wheel.

I ordered three pieces with fries. Then I paid the enormous tab of $36 (my son had a fish sandwich, my wife chicken tenders with no fries, my daughter a kid’s meal, no ice cream, no sides, no extra drinks) and pulled around to my designated waiting spot. Several minutes later a nice girl brought out a large brown bag with our dinner. After disbursing the contents, we noticed we were short a couple of items, so my wife had to run in to ask for what was left off our order. This is pretty lame, but it’s Culver’s, so nothing fast should be expected.

My fish dinner was served in a plastic plate with matching plastic lid. Three pieces of cod, all nice size filets, with a lemon wedge, fries, and a small dinner roll. The roll was a nice touch, but if ever I would have given a pass for serving foiled, cold butter, this was it. Yet no butter was included. Perhaps it was left behind, like the rest of our order. With no potato pancake to judge, I’ll just say that the fries were fine but in no way should Culver’s be proud of their crinkle cut fries. Their custard is praise worthy, but their potato is not.

The cod was fine. The battered exterior was crunchy, the fish was respectable but in no way memorable. It was a touch dry,  bland, and not worth the $12.99 ransom. I ate it as I drove West, one hand on the fish, the other on the wheel. Nothing about the dinner was good. Nothing about it was memorable. Nothing about it is worthy of your fish fry time. If you’re running late on a Friday night and feel like a fast food fish fry might be a convenient substitute for a sit-down fish fry, don’t do it. Just skip it and wait for the next Friday to roll around.

Culver’s 3/10

Everywhere, Wisconsin

$12.99 Three Piece Fried Cod

Process

Process

There’s a process to this whole thing.  This is something the buyers who wish to be here on these shores, but lack either the financial ability or the mental focus to actually be here, need to embrace. I sold a particular lakefront house a couple of years ago. A modest house on a beautiful lot, purchased by a young couple with their young children. There’s a sign on the street welcoming guests to their home. It says, “Someday”.  The interpretation of the sign is simple: They dreamt of the day they’d be on this lake, and now they are. It’s Someday, everyday. Passersby see the manifestation of that dream, but not the messy, painful process of making it a reality.

It is no secret that I harbor a fierce addiction to fly fishing. I would argue that the addiction has waned some in recent years, as my work and my love of this lake has a tendency to keep me here, rather than where the fly fishing occurs, there.  Several years ago, when this addiction was new and escalating, I decided that it would be good if I had a small cabin in this hilly part of this great state.  So I did what any Realtor would do, I started looking.

I looked high and low, ideally for something modest, bare, hardly there. Something simple that could hold my hat for a night once in a while, so that I wouldn’t always have to drive home at midnight after a long day hiking these streams.  An Amish cabin, perhaps, with optional plumbing but some built in cots, maybe in a loft. I looked at some of these cabins and quickly decided that composting toilets are of the devil, and wood structures built by the Amish tend to bow out at the heel height, causing some awkward leans that I could not, and would not abide. Maybe not a small cabin, but maybe something a bit better? The budget would need to expand.

An acre, down in the valley, by a trout stream. That’s what I want. To see risers from the deck. A slow stroll with fly rod in hand, a BWO tied to the slight leader. An evening fish or two, before returning to the peaceful still of my little acre and my little deck. But one acre or two, that won’t cut it. There’s no privacy in a place like that if one acre is all you have, so ten or twenty, that would be better. And the house, that should be better, too. The budget would need to expand.

But these houses, for an area settled by Germans and Norwegians, two groups I thought had a proclivity towards quality design and construction, these houses are so terrible. Raised ranches on hillsides with vinyl cladding. Old farmhouses with terrible bones, brittle shacks with a propensity to lean. That valley dream? It’s a floodplain.  The term Hydraulic Shadow means nothing to Lake Geneva, but it means certain someday death to the homes that lie in its path. Valley is out, hillside is in. And these houses? They’re no good.  I’ve built several homes throughout my life, certainly one more wouldn’t hurt. The budget should increase.

But these hillsides, they’re all the same. County after county, hillside after hillside. They’re like lakes in the Midwest, all the same. But lakes aren’t all the same, and I know that here, so I should have known that there. The counties, well, they’re all the same to those who don’t understand or subscribe to nuance. But I am the self proclaimed nuance king, and so I should know which county is best. And I did, so the search had focus, but still not enough. The one valley, one stretch of river and the draws with their own rivers, that one area would be my aim. That area commands a premium to the other areas in this vague, general region of this state? The budget needs attention.

And then one day, after years of on and off searching, one day the right lot appeared. Was it perfect? No. Was it everything I ever wanted? No. Did I let a desire for great get in the way of a hope for good? No, I didn’t. And so I bought that lot, as imperfect or perfect as it may be, and in June of 2016 I started building a little cabin for my family.  The process was as imperfect and blatantly annoying as any process has ever been. I had issues with weather, issues with tradesmen, issues with finding tradesmen whom I had already hired, and issues with finding tradesmen to hire.  The build was a total disaster, the process a painful experience, the result an imperfect realization of a dream I first hatched a decade ago.

That’s the thing about a place like this, whether it’s here or there.  Every once in a while, someone, somewhere, finds the perfect house for the perfect price in the perfect location. Lake Geneva cannot generally accommodate you on those wishes. We might give you the perfect house, but at a price that you don’t believe to be anywhere near perfect. Or we’ll give you the perfect location, with a mightily, aggressively imperfect house. We can’t give you everything you want. But you should be like me. Strive for the best, knowing that all you’re really after is a piece of this place. A place that gives you things other places can’t. Narrow your focus, true your aim, and do your best. It’ll all be worth it in the end, at least that’s what I kept telling myself for the past two years.

Along The Way

Along The Way

I love my kids. I really do. Of the few things in this life of which I’m certain, that condition is firmly assured. But I can’t stand driving anywhere with them. Short trips, long trips, it’s all the same, and it’s all awful. Social Media, this week and the last, has been full of road tripping families, heading to some awful place in Northern Florida, the kids crammed into the backseat with pillows and blankets and iPads and earbuds. The images are supposed to evoke feelings of good old fashioned family fun, but to me, they are the stuff of nightmares. Loving my kids is one thing, loving spending time in cars with them is an entirely other thing.

During the summers of my youth, in between bouts of rag tag, lawn mowing and, well, rag tag and lawn mowing, my family would take to the interstates and spend two weeks in another place. We did this for many reasons, but mostly so my dad could rent out his house to raise money to help pay his property taxes.  We packed our station wagon, whichever one it was at the time, hitched up the trailered Boston Whaler, and proceeded to pack the Whaler full of everything we thought we might need for two weeks in the north woods of Minnesota. The preparation for the trip was remarkably stressful, and to this day, I cannot pack for a trip anywhere without falling into my father’s pattern of yelling and stressing over every detail of the chaos.

Most years, we’d cram into the back of that station wagon, first a blue one and then a red one, three brothers in the back, parents in the front, and we’d drive through the night without much excitement. The drive was long, perhaps eight hours worth, and exceedingly boring. There were no iPads to distract. No iPhones to amuse. Just the road and the night and three sweaty boys, packed like sardines in a can lined with red upholstery.

One year, a wheel bearing gave out in Minneapolis sometime around midnight. I don’t remember the details of that night, but it was similar to when Clark fell asleep and took that exit to the wrong part of Saint Louis.  In spite of the hiccup, we arrived the next morning in those northwoods, the washboard rumble of the camp driveway serving as our only notice.  Once we arrived, we’d spend our time swimming and following girls and attending more church services in two weeks than most fit into a year.  After two weeks we’d pack up and drive through the summer night. We’d be home by morning, because there were lawns to mow.

The summer trips we took were never about the journey. They were only about the destination. We didn’t stop to see the World’s Largest Ball Of Twine. We didn’t stop to take pictures at overpasses. We just drove because we knew the destination was worth the effort.  The journey, well that was just the price we had to pay.

There’s a new Pure Michigan commercial disrupting my television commercials of late, and it’s a commercial that praises the journey.  Along the way, Tim Allen insists, is where we have the most fun.  Along the way, he says, is the place we’ve been longing for. I’ve always been trained to endure the journey to embrace the destination. Suffer through the trip, because it’ll be worthwhile when you get to where you’re going. This is why I fly Frontier to Denver.  Tim Allen says otherwise. He’s told us that the journey is where it’s at. But, like always, he’s wrong. This is what people say when the destination isn’t very good. This is what people say when the journey is long and the travelers are weary.  Drive to Michigan if you must, just remember the commercial asks you to enjoy the trip because the destination isn’t all that great.

Image by Matt Mason Photography
Lake Geneva Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

Lake Geneva Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

Sometimes, dive bars aren’t where it’s at. They’re fun, the irony of it all, of the dated this and the out of style that.  But once in a while you just want to be surrounded by nice things. This is why we have nice lake houses. Old cottages are cute and fun, but luxury isn’t so bad either. Last Friday night I abandoned the dive bar scene and embraced the fanciful surroundings of the lake set. The Lake Geneva Yacht Club serves a Fish Fry, which means it must be judged.

Friday night wasn’t a great night. It was a bit windy and a bit cloudy, excepting a bright burst of sun that pushed through the low clouds right around sunset. The dying light made one last gasp and filled the lakefront bar just as we pulled up a chair. Our benevolent hosts had arrived before my wife and I, and as we chatted in that beautiful bar that lakefront light slowly faded beyond the western shore.

This is a restaurant at a yacht club (with a venerable history), so the E-Scow hanging from the ceiling and the trophies filling the glass cases shouldn’t come as any surprise. The surroundings here are vibrant and clean, beautiful, really, as they should be given the building is only a few years old. A large fireplace anchors the Eastern wall of that large, lakeside dining room.  The glow flickered throughout the room, with the overhead chandeliers warmed to low.  Excepting Pier 290, this is the nicest scene of any fish fry you’ll find in the Lake Geneva area.  But this is also a private club, so you’ll need to consider membership to enjoy this place. Or just be like me, and tag along with friends.

After some time lingering near the bar, where I nursed my Sprite, we sat at a table for four in the middle of that lovely dining room.  The crowd was well dressed, happy, with most sporting birth years that fell closer to those of my parents than my own. The waiter was quickly table side, and with a slightly uneasy cadence described our dining options. The Fish Fry was two piece cod, served broiled or fried, served with potato pancakes, applesauce, tartar sauce, hushpuppies, and coleslaw.  That sounds good, I’ll take it.

The Crab Cake appetizer looked worthwhile, so we took a stab. It was a singular cake ($14), nicely crisped but tender as a crab cake should be. It was served with a smear of something or other and a small assembly of finely diced vegetables, bacon, and some corn. It was a delicious appetizer, though I would have liked to have some larger chunks of crab in the cake.  In the distance, the old men in blazers discussed the wind and knots and cleats and sails.

The fish arrived within a reasonable amount of time, served on a white platter with quality, smaller dishes holding in the tartar sauce and other accompaniments. I liked this, as the plague of plastic takeout containers had been kept out of this fine establishment. The fish filets were not large, but they were large enough, and shaped like a proper rectangle, not a silly square. A lemon wedge sat atop my broiled piece. The potato pancakes were moderately sized, and after a disappointing run where my cakes were served in the singular, I had a nice pair of pancakes to consider.

My first bite was of the fried cod.  The batter was super crunchy, thin, not tough, the cod white and tender like the cod in my dreams. It was perfect. Well salted, slightly sweet, and perhaps the best fried cod I’ve had so far, only rivaled by the Lookout Bar at Lake Lawn Lodge. The broiled piece was slightly undercooked, which is preferable to slightly overcooked.  The hushpuppies (2) were sweet and creamy, the best hushpuppies I’ve had to date. If dusted with powdered sugar and served after dinner on a small white plate, I would have appreciated them even as a dessert.

The potato pancakes were well salted, with a bit of extra flavor that I couldn’t quite identify. They were thin, but properly cooked, nicely crisped, and delightful. Were they the best pancake I’ve had? No, but they were close.  The applesauce was too smooth for my liking, but it was cold and flavorful. The tartar sauce, according to my dinner mates, was lighter than typical, nuanced with flavor, and generally accepted as being delicious.

This was a beautiful dinner. The food was wonderful. The scene divine. The hushed murmurs of sailing strategy only slightly distracting to my fishy focus.  Given that this is a private club, it only stands to reason that it would be better than your average fish fry, but this dinner was exceptional. The next day, I inquired of the membership manager as to what a social membership would cost me. This is a fish fry I might not be able to live without.

 

Lake Geneva Yacht Club 9/10

1250 South Lakeshore Drive, Fontana, WI 

Members Only

$17 Single Serve Fried or Broiled Cod

Walk This Way

Walk This Way

Somehow,  someway, someone once decided that walking was a nice thing to do.  Let’s go for a walk, someone once said. Others joined in. Those weary of walking likely declined, but the rest followed.  Scan any sidewalk today in any city and you’ll see them. Walkers. If you’re on the beach this morning, like everyone else from the Midwest, take a look at what’s happening around you. It’s a bunch of people walking, getting those ankle pains from walking on that sideways, shifty earth. Oh look, a special shell! Out of trillions and trillions of shells, I can assure you that your shell is not particularly special.  This is the sort of thing of which walkers have convinced us.

Let’s put our shoes on and go for a walk, they say. Walk to the store, walk to get coffee. Is it walking distance?  There are websites with algorithms that score the walkability of a particular property. Congratulations, your house scored an 8 on the Walkability Scale!  This is where we’ve all been tricked. Walkability? I can walk anywhere. I can lace up my shoes and walk to New York City. Is New York City walking distance from here? You bet it is!  Walking knows no bounds. Walking can be done anywhere. Is there a difference between Wisconsin walking and San Diego walking? Excepting the syringes stuck into your walking shoes, it’s exactly the same.

Walking, this institution of travel, is overrated.  I can walk and walk and walk and someday I’ll get somewhere. This is true of anywhere, any place, at any time.  Walking is out, strolling is in. There’s a distinct and meaningful difference between these two verbs. If I’m going for a walk, it implies I have some purpose. I’m walking. I’m starting here and going there. I’m lacing my up shoes, checking my callouses, hydrating, and pushing off on my walk. Like a ship leaving harbor, I’m on my way. Strolling? Now that’s a movement I can get behind.

To stroll is to walk, sure, but only under the loosest definition of the word. To stroll is more likely to saunter, to wander, to casually shuffle from one place to another. There’s no timeline for a stroll. You don’t ask how long the stroll took. When you walk from your house to the coffee shop, you check your watch. How long did that take? No stroller has ever asked how long something took. No stroller ever promised to meet someone anywhere at a specific time. Strolling doesn’t allow for such rigidity.

This summer, you can stay at home. You can. It’s your right. And when you’re at home, you can cinch tight your laces, stretch in your driveway, and walk on a sidewalk into Whatever Town. This is up to you. Entirely and totally up to you. You can spend the summer walking, as your cardiologist advised. Or you can come here.  To this place where you can leave your shoes at home. To this shore and this path, and you can join us on a stroll. When are we leaving? We don’t know. Where are we going? No idea.

Hillcroft Lake Geneva Sale

Hillcroft Lake Geneva Sale

It’s fun to see the media make a fuss about a sale on Geneva Lake.   First up, please know that the media itself doesn’t pay such close attention to these lakefront sales. Once a sale is completed, the brokerage involved has a representative reach out to numerous media outlets to generate some buzz. This happens at large firms that need to hang on to their market share.  This is why, on the fresh heels of the Hillcroft sale, you’ve read so much about it and from so many different sources. Local news sources fawn all over Lake Geneva, largely because our market is so much different than that of the rest of this great state.  Lots of places in Wisconsin have large homes. Lots of places have high valuations. But at Lake Geneva, we not only have high valuations we also have high prints. You can own your expensive home anywhere in Wisconsin and that’ll be nice for you. The difference at Lake Geneva is that we can actually sell that house when you’re done with it.  It’s good to be king.

In spite of the media attention and the well known nature of this story, there is still work to be done. There is analysis that must be considered. The Hillcroft property was immensely large for this lake. 415′ of rare, mostly level frontage, situated on a small point. The frontage was spectacular. The location on the lake, just West of downtown and off of Snake Road, pretty much ideal. The overall property is 20 acres. That’s an obscene amount of property on this lake. Don’t forget, for the purposes of our local definition, 200′ of frontage and 3 acres constitutes a reasonable estate.  Hillcroft is off the charts in terms of land mass, and it should be applauded for simply being.  Consider the 2017 average for price per square foot of overall lakefront land mass was $58.09. Applied to Hillcroft, that would place the valuation over $50,000,000. (Compression doesn’t allow for this, of course).

There has been much fawning over the home itself. Over the size of it, the bedrooms, the baths. The dining room and library.  I always loved this home from the lakeside. The way the structure follows the curve of the lakefront is rather divine. But as an agent who showed this home when it was available I can say this: The house, while beautiful on the exterior, was average.   The layout compromised, the finishes mostly dated. Any praise this property receives should be dedicated to the property, to the old Wrigley buildings that still exist, and to the history of it all.

The average price per front foot of lakefront settled at $27,193 for 2017. Typically, larger properties are unable to achieve that average, as compression once again rears its ugly, insistent head. But in the case of the Hillcroft property, the price held up. At 415 feet of frontage, the average would have yielded a print at $11,285,095, which is nearly identical to the actual print of $11,250,000. That’s a surprise of sorts, given the structure was so meh, but when you factor in that overall value of land mass, the lakefront average makes perfect sense.

Is this the highest priced sale in Lake Geneva history? Yes.   Was the sale a surprise? Not at all. It makes perfect sense, and the only issue in our marketplace now is that we won’t likely have another Hillcroft to sell for a while. But that brings us to an important concept regarding this lakefront market. Is Hillcroft a rare property? Obviously. Will it remain as the top dollar sale for a long time? Not likely. Consider the previous high sale was the property that I represented at W4449 North Lakeshore in Linn. I closed that property for $9,950,000 in late 2016. Hillcroft surpassed that sale by only 13%.  The North Lakeshore sale was of a gorgeous house on reasonably nice dirt. The Hillcroft sale was of legacy dirt with a reasonably blah house. What the market has yet to see is the ultra rare combination of a gorgeous, newer house built on top of rare, meaningful dirt. Yes, 200′ lots with beautiful homes on them exist, and they exist plenty. Yes, those prices could easily be in the $7-10MM range. But those prices won’t dethrone Hillcroft. What will dethrone Hillcroft, and likely soon, will be the combination of that perfect house on that perfect dirt.

Don’t blink, it’s coming.

(I wasn’t the listing or sale agent for Hillcroft, which is a terrible and embarrassing shame. If you’re a buyer or seller of such a property, you should be working with me. This sort of top sale without my involvement can never, ever happen again).

Harpoon Willies Fish Fry Review

Harpoon Willies Fish Fry Review

Last Friday marked my twelfth consecutive Friday night fish fry, at my twelfth different restaurant. The process of deciding which establishment to judge hasn’t been as easy as you might think.  Should I drive to East Troy to some restaurant that someone on this blog said I should visit? Or do I stick to the staples, to the restaurants that everyone knows? Visiting the unknown might be more fun, and if I visit the unknown and the fish is awful then at least I won’t offend anyone in my home town. Last Friday, my wife and I went to Harpoon Willies in Williams Bay. I’ve been there more times than I can count, but this was the first time I’ve ever ordered the fish.

Unlike the other restaurants I’ve visited, Harpoon Willies matters to me.  On a hot summer afternoon in the early 1990s I stood nervously in that parking lot in my dirty lawn mowing clothes while Harry Caray autographed a receipt for me. Holy Cow, Cub’s Win. Followed by a scribble that must have been his signature. I took some time off from Harpoons after that day, but in recent years the in-house smoker brought me back. The brisket sandwich is as smoky and tender as it might be anywhere. The waffle fries are the best french fry on any menu in the county.  It’s with this understood bias that I entered into that dark establishment last Friday night.

The restaurant is across the street from the lake in Williams Bay, but it still classifies as lakeside to me. There’s a large screened porch that was understandably quiet on this chilly Friday evening. The primary dining area consists of a long bar surrounded by some high tops and a few booths. The booths were rebuilt with reclaimed barn wood a year or so ago, and they’re quite nice. The whole scene is nice. It’s like a dive bar that looks cool and doesn’t make you regret entering the second the door pulls shut behind you. There’s an old boat hanging from the ceiling, sports on the televisions, and generally upbeat crowd that would make me comfortable with my mom and dad or my daughter in tow.

Once we were situated at our high-top for two nearest the porch and lakeside windows, the pleasant waiter was table side to take our order.  I asked if any appetizers were worth my consideration.  Without hesitation the calamari was recommended.  When ordering calamari it’s a toss up between restaurants that serve it with marinara sauce and those that serve it with cocktail sauce. Harpoons makes no equivocation and serves theirs with cocktail sauce, the way God intended.  The Fish Fry, according to the waiter, was a single serve portion of fried, beer battered cod, with a single potato pancake (the single pancake returns to vex me). The sides of applesauce, coleslaw and tartar sauce are included.  We ordered the fish and waited.

The calamari was brought out first, within five or six minutes. It was a decent sized portion, not necessarily generous. But the calamari was tender and the breading light. It was a delicious appetizer. We greedily ate it, which is the only way to eat fried calamari. Should you ever find yourself with someone who casually and delicately eats fried calamari, you must distance yourself from them. They likely swallow pills dry and purposefully bathe in lukewarm water. A few minutes after we finished the calamari the fish was served.  The first glance proved three golden pieces of cod with a large, flat potato pancake underneath. The sides were served in plastic take-out containers, stacked on top of it all.  In spite of my immediate disapproval of the takeout cups, the rest of the dinner looked delicious even if the portion size looked small.  Because I’ve been a patron of Harpoon’s for years, I had high expectations that they would deliver on their typically better than average bar fare.

I knew there was trouble when my fork first, and barely, touched the fried cod. The human brain is a an amazing creation, and it knows just how much pressure a hand holding a fork should have to apply in order to break through a piece of soft cod. My hand applied the pressure, the fork pressing into the battered exterior. Instead of breaking open, as a piece of fried cod should perform, this cod just compressed under the pressure of my fork.  I pressed harder, the fish didn’t yield. I picked up the piece of fish with my hand, this is a bar after all, and took a bite. The crunch was perfect, but the fish was immeasurably dry. The next piece was the same. The third piece, the same. My wife’s fish was equally tough and dry. The fish was the worst piece of fried fish I’ve had on this tour. The week of anticipation, the hunger brought on Friday while thinking of a delicious bite of fried fish, the entire week and forthcoming weekend, ruined by this overcooked fish.

The potato pancake was very thin, and as a result, it was a touch dry. It wasn’t super crispy, and it wasn’t very flavorful.  The singular note of potato was all that I could discern.  It was a disappointment. The applesauce was smooth but flavorful. The coleslaw and tartar sauce acceptable, but not praiseworthy, according to my wife.  There was no bread or butter served with dinner, which is a typical situation at a bar, so while I missed it I didn’t expect it.  We finished our meal and quietly drove home to pick fish out of our teeth.

And in this, there is a lesson. Just because a place serves fish, that doesn’t mean the place is somewhere you should go for fish fry. I’m doing this review series to weed out the restaurants that aren’t worth your time, but that only applies to the fish fry. Harpoon Willie’s serves most delicious smoked meats. The waffle fries are divine. The scene is quite wonderful, summer or winter. But the fish fry was a complete and terrible miss. Perhaps the chef left the fish in the oil for a couple of minutes too long. I’ve done the same. Perhaps every other order that night was perfect. Whatever the reason,  I wouldn’t go to Harpoon’s for their fish. Just like I wouldn’t go to Pino’s for their fish. I’d go to Harpoons to eat a brisket sandwich and waffle fries. I’d go for their pizza, which is quite good. I’d go because I like Williams Bay and I like the idea of a quick dinner or lunch lakeside, either in winter with a game on or during summer in the screened porch. You’ll see me again at Harpoon Willies soon enough, but I won’t be eating the fish.

 

Harpoon Willies 3/10

$13 Fried Cod (three piece) with Potato Pancake

8 East Geneva Street, Williams Bay

New Buena Vista Lakefront Listing

New Buena Vista Lakefront Listing

I have a particular thing for porches. This affinity is owed to my youth, to a childhood home where little mattered except that old porch. Summer lunch, in the porch. Summer coffee and newspaper, in the porch. Summer nights, sleeping on the bed, in the porch. The porch was and is the lifeblood of that old house. Given this porchy preference, it should be mentioned that I have never built a home with a porch. I have torn porches out of homes I have remodeled and cobbled that square footage into a greater living room. I have largely ignored the porch in my own home design, but today as I write I believe the reason behind this is simply that none of my houses have been on the lake. If the house isn’t on the lake and the porch isn’t nearest the lake, then what good is a porch? These are the things I wonder about.

274 Sylvan Avenue is on the North Shore of Fontana Bay, inside of the Buena Vista Association. This location on the lake is desirable. But that’s an understatement that fails to relay the true feelings the market has for this location. Consider this: When you search back through the MLS, the oldest sales you’ll find recorded are from the mid 1990s. From that time until this time, the only other lakefront home in Buena Vista to sell is one that closed on April 4th, 1996.   On that morning I drove my Saab 900 to school, parked in the lot, walked into the kitchen that doubled as our homeroom, and wished for the freedom that was soon to be mine.   1996 was a long time ago, and if you were a lakefront buyer looking for Buena Vista,  you probably should have bought that house.

But that’s just this location, inside Buena Vista, with access to their magnificent lakefront park and pier system and the only tennis courts on the lake that actually appear to be used with regularity. This location inside Buena Vista is beyond ideal. Not adjacent the large park, not adjacent the pier system, just in between, slightly elevated but not so elevated that the steps are tiresome. The views are divine, to the South, East, and West. This sunrise was captured from the patio. Not terrible.  Sunrise to the left, sunset to the right, Fontana’s Fourth of July fireworks, front and center.

The cottage style home might look vintage, with that lakeside wall of glassed and screened porch, but inside it’s a modern home with recent and numerous upgrades.  The current owner renovated the home top to bottom, and built an addition to increase the living space and add a true master suite. The result is lakefront perfection. Two cut-granite fireplaces flank the main level, where hardwood floors run from room to room. The owner is an epicurean, so the kitchen is divine, oversized, and outfitted with large Viking range and Sub-Zero.  If you’re wondering, there are four bedrooms plus lower level bunk space, five and a half baths, and over 4228 square feet.

Lakeside there are decks and patios with lush perennial gardens carefully highlighted by high quality landscape lighting. Streetside there’s parking for four or more cars, and more of those gardens, kept in place by fieldstone walls and connected to the entrance by another large blue-stone patio. There’s a private pier that currently plays summertime host for the owner’s thirty-one foot boat.  The property is a full lot and a half, offering loads of lakeside entertaining space and easy access to the pier and shore path. Want to walk to Gordy’s for a summertime lunch? Good idea, it’s less than five minutes down the shore path.

But all of this and we haven’t discussed the porch. In the case of 274 Sylvan, it’s not porch, it’s porches. On the main level that sunny lakeside porch spans the width of the original home, offering  a sunny winter spot with the original windows closed, or a breezy, cool summer spot with the windows open and screens deployed. Upstairs, off of the loft and guest bedroom suite, there’s another porch, identical in size, perfect for leisure, but best utilized as a summer sleeping porch. What could be better that falling asleep to the sound of the waves and the rustle of the trees while the quiet hum of a Lake Geneva summer slowly fades? The answer, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is nothing.

 

Selling Season!

Selling Season!

It’s here. The time of year Any Lake, Wisconsin has been waiting for. This is their time. It’s all Any Lake, all the time. At least it is for now. The ice came and the ice went, it’s melting season, sure. But it’s their season. The time when these lakes shine bright.  This is the time of year when Geneva must sit on the sidelines, biding its time, trying not to smirk, trying to appear humble, watching the spectacle unfold. It’s late March in the Midwest and Any Lake is looking to pull an upset.

Think Any Lake might be a bit murky, a bit cloudy, a bit unclear? Not right now it isn’t! Think Any Lake has a weed problem? Think again!  Just take a drive up this weekend, take a walk down to the shore, and give Any Lake a look. A good, hard look. Any Lake is clear. Any Lake is clean!  Any Lake has no weeds, no silt, no issues. Why buy on Geneva when Any Lake is this clean and this cheap??   No algae blooms here, at least not on Any Lake. No silty muck lake floor. Look, it’s shimmery!

Sure, when the wind blows and the water warms and the boats stir, of course then Any Lake won’t look so good. Of course Any Lake will look dirty and cloudy and awful. Of course the weeds will grow and grow until they reach the surface where they’ll wrap and tangle and grope your legs.  But this isn’t about then, it’s about now. Look how clear these lakes are. Gin Clear!  The selling season is here, and like a Christmas Tree farm, there’s not a lot of time left on the calendar to make that annual quota.  If you’re a buyer on Any Lake, now’s the time. You must rush. You have no choice. To wait is to make a fatal, murky mistake.  Want to see what Any Lake looks like in July? Don’t be silly!

Any Lake is ready for you. The metal piers are pulled onto the lawns. The boats are tarped in the driveways. And the water is clear. If you’re a buyer at Any Lake, Wisconsin, now’s the time. Don’t delay. If you delay, you might have to see how awful the water looks in the middle of summer, and what’s the fun in that?

 

 

Pino’s Fish Fry Review

Pino’s Fish Fry Review

Pino’s Last Call has been a Walworth dining option for more than 30 years. I’ve eaten their pizza many times, and count it among the best tavern style pizza in the area. In spite of these years and because of this pizza, I’ve never, ever, eaten anything else from Pino’s. It’s a pizza place, so I order the pizza. Except last Friday night when I went to order the fish. Every restaurant in Wisconsin is a fish restaurant on Friday night, so whether Pino’s wants to or not, they submit to the expectation. Friday night I found myself in the restaurant, hungry.

Pino’s occupies the old Ben Franklin store in Walworth, tucked into the back of a small strip-mall style enclave wedged between the old town square and Sentry. The space is large. Correction, the space is too large. It’s a space that I’m sure fills at certain times, but most of the time it’s just a large restaurant that feels rather sparse.  My wife and I entered around 6:30 pm and made our way to the North side of the restaurant, opposite the bar area, and sat down in what was the frame department of my youth. The high top for two was fine.

The waitress was cheery and table side in a reasonable amount of time. I had asked to be seated in the bar area on account of the NCAA basketball that occupied those televisions. I am nothing if not an inattentive dinner date.  I asked if any appetizers were worth ordering. She said the mozzarella sticks are homemade, rather than saying they were housemade, which is, of course, the correct way of identifying the location of assembly.  I ordered the cheese curds, because my wife is a curd aficionado and we’ve had a nice run with the curd lately.

The fish fry is Haddock, a Cod like fish that’s somehow different. A quick google search told me that Haddock is drier than Cod, a bit more firm, and nearly indistinguishable from its dark water dwelling relative. The Haddock is served broiled or fried, all you can eat, with potato pancakes or fries. I ordered the usual, one piece of each, with the potato pancake.  The cheese curds were brought, along with our waters. Michigan State was winning.

The curds were fine. Not the best I’ve ever had, but fine. Sort of similar to a Culver’s curd with a breading and not a batter. They are served with marinara sauce rather than ranch dressing, and while I prefer the ranch I did like their super sweet marinara sauce very much. The wait for our fish was somewhat lengthy, but not so long that it felt like an inconvenience. I watched some of the game and some of the kids pestering their parents for video game money (there’s a small arcade area near the front door).

When the fish made its initial appearance it was obvious were weren’t dealing with Cod here. The Haddock was in small fish-stick shaped pieces,  two pieces fried and two pieces broiled. The pieces were small, perhaps four or five bites each. The battered was golden brown, the broiled sprinkled with a top spicing of paprika and what I thought to be oregano.  The broiled was a bit dry, which is apparently a hallmark of Haddock. It was passable, but I didn’t find it to be magical in any way. The fried was a bit soggy on the exterior, lacking any particular crunch.  When cutting off a bite sized section with my fork the fish fell out of the battered exterior, leaving me with some hunks of fish and a calamari shaped ring of batter. This wasn’t ideal. The fish had a nice flavor, perhaps preferable to a typical cod dinner, but I didn’t care for the more dry texture and I didn’t like the deconstructed arrangement between the batter and the fish.

The potato pancakes came two to an order, which was a welcome plurality after the singular cake at Crafted Americana. These pancakes were not crispy, a bit greasy, and a touch dry.  This is not a winning combination for a potato pancake. After having found several pancakes with interesting flavor profiles, this was back to the single note, rather bland cake. It falls somewhere in between the average pancake on this tour and the poor pancakes I was served at 290 and Gordy’s.  As I ate, I longed for the delicious pancake of the Lookout Bar, or the Big Foot Inn.

The sides of applesauce, tartar sauce and coleslaw were served in small plastic containers. The applesauce was perhaps two large spoonfuls worth. It was smooth and bland, but at least it wasn’t hot. The coleslaw and tartar sauce were okay, my wife said.  I noted the lack of enthusiasm in her eyes.  In spite of our orders being identical, my wife’s dinner was served with a small container of drawn butter, but no applesauce. I was served applesauce but not butter. This is an inconsistency that shouldn’t be tolerated, at least not by a restaurant that’s been in business for thirty or more years.  There was no bread for the table, no butter, softened, foiled, or otherwise.

I have no relationship with Pino’s. No fond memories of eating here with family and friends, laughing the night away.  Because of this I can judge this dinner without any cloudy encumbrances of nostalgia or familiarity. This fish fry was not memorable. It was cheap, and at $9.95 per for all you can eat it registers as our most economical dinner of 2018.   But the fish fry was mediocre at best. There were too many misses to consider this a fish fry worthy of your time.  In spite of this, I still think you should visit Pino’s on a Friday night. Just order the pizza.

 

Pino’s Last Call 4/10

$9.95 All You Can Eat Haddock

545 Kenosha Street, Walworth

 

Aged Lakefront Inventory

Aged Lakefront Inventory

There are several unavoidable truths involving the Geneva lakefront market of 2018. The market is frustrating for buyers. It’s awful, really. Limited inventory, quick sales, more buyers than sellers to the tune of five or more to one. This is an unfair fight, and the sellers are winning.  In the end we know it’s the buyers who win, the buyers who pay the ransom to receive a lifetime of change. But for now it doesn’t feel that way. The market is tilted heavily towards sellers, and we know this. We understand this. It wasn’t always like this, but from 2010 through 2015 you were too timid to buy. This is what happens, this is what happened, and this is the overriding truth of the market.

A lesser known and seldom understood truth is that the aged inventory on Geneva Lake isn’t just aged because no one wants to buy it. As a buyer, this is the easiest conclusion to make. That house has been for sale for a long time, no one wants it, I’ll be able to steal it.   This was the conclusion that I came to and lived in from 2010 through 2015,  and that conclusion helped me close the most volume of any agent in the county over the last eight years. That conclusion also helped those buyers smart enough to work with me score tremendous value on lakefront properties. Today, that conclusion is still made, but it’s no longer accurate.

Lakefront buyer activity is at insane levels. It’s not insane that so many families and individuals wish to spend their time on our shores, actually, it’s insane that so many people choose to spend time on other, inferior, faulty, embarrassing shores.  The sheer numbers of buyer traffic is somewhat overwhelming. Last Sunday I showed lakefronts, which I tend to do every weekend. But last Sunday I showed three different lakefronts to three different buyers. Back in 2007 I used to work with three different lakefront buyers, too. It was called an entire summer.  This market is buzzing, but what exactly does that mean for a buyer, and does that mean value still exists?

What it means for a buyer is painfully simple. If you like that house and you like the number enough, then you’re going to have to move swiftly to buy it. The number isn’t going to initially feel all that good.  There are deals to be had, in spite of this activity, but for every deal there are five sucker deals, those homes that will sell to buyers who either don’t have skilled lakefront representation, or those buyers who are working with agents who lack discernment in this marketplace. If you think selling real estate is easy, you’re right. If you think selling the real estate at the right price is easy, you’re wrong. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and this isn’t about me it’s about buyers and that faulty conclusion regarding aged inventory.

When a buyer keeps seeing a lakefront for sale, the buyer might be tempted to think the seller is getting desperate. You can’t hold out forever, seller!  Buyers sense a seller’s wariness and assume that a screaming deal is going to be possible. That the aged inventory has fallen out of favor with the market?  That there is a deal just waiting to be made! That the buyer will win.  An asking price of $5MM and a couple of years on market? That sounds like a $4MM print to me!  This was how I thought a few years ago, but this is no longer the typical outcome. The painful thing that buyers must realize in this market is that sellers are receiving offers. Sellers are generating showings. Sellers are seeing activity. And those sellers who are on the receiving end of activity and offers are simply holding firm. The market hasn’t forgotten these properties, it’s just that the sellers aren’t playing ball.

I see several pieces of aged inventory on the market today, and if I look through my old lenses I see opportunity. But I know those aged bits of inventory have had offers that exceed the price I’d be willing to help a buyer pay. These properties that look idle on your computer screen, with Days On Market piling up and dust collecting in the corners of the photos, those are properties that are only still for sale because sellers are too confident. The properties aren’t sitting because no one wants them. They’re sitting because of sellers who are negotiating from  a position of strength, and confident sellers are poison for a buyer looking to score value on aged inventory.  I see that old inventory, and I’d love for you to steal it. You see that aged inventory and you know you’d like to steal it. The problem is the seller sees his aged inventory and has a hunch that someone is going to pay him his number, even if it takes another year.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Development Concern

Lake Geneva Lakefront Development Concern

I have a very simple process when it comes to deciding whether or not a development should be approved. If the development is needed, and that need can be successfully articulated,  I’ll generally consider it. If it’s needed and said development is to be located around similar properties, where densities are similar and price ranges are similar, then I’ll consider it further. If the product looks nice enough to compliment those surroundings, I’ll keep considering it. And if it doesn’t impact the community in any negative way, I’ll consider supporting it. That’s the process. (Note it has nothing to do with what SEWRPC suggests, because I’m smarter than SEWRPC and so are you). Unfortunately, typical development fails on one or all of those criteria. Today it isn’t about generalities, it’s about a development and called Symphony Bay and its desire to become a lake access community.

This development is new. Like brand new. Like not yet ready to live in new. Like bulldozers new. It’s on the outskirts of a commercial district in Lake Geneva, so I’m generally okay with the location of it.  If I were a nearby or adjacent neighbor, I’m guessing I’d hate it. But still, it’s a development and it’s okay I suppose. The issue today is not this development, but rather its desire to transform this country-side development into a lake access development. See, the developer owns a small piece of lakefront near the Geneva Inn, and he’d like to build a clubhouse down there for the several hundred future residents of his development to have private access to the lake.  This is the issue. And this is why I’m writing today to voice my strong opposition to both this requested conditional use, and to the precedent that it would set.

I don’t know the nuances of this deal. I won’t pretend to understand exactly what rights Linn Township and Walworth County have to stop this sort of key-hole development access. I do know that if the developer needs a conditional use to build this structure, then the township and the county should deny that request, and quickly. The reasons for a denial are quite simple.  Any development that seeks to allow hundreds of additional owners a cramped chance at lake access is something that I’d oppose. Now, let’s say there was a condominium on a site and the condominium housed 10 owners. If they want to tear down that condominium to build ten houses, I’d be generally in favor of that.  Remember the South Shore Club development battle? The public won that battle, as a developer chose to build 40 high end homes instead of several hundred lake access cottages and condominiums.  If we care about this lake, we should seek to prioritize what happens along its shores.  Density is our enemy.

The location on the water, near the Geneva Inn, is a location primed for present and future trouble. The Geneva Inn itself is a potential development concern.  The adjacent farm fields are another concern. The area features a rare combination of commercial lakefront with large swaths of nearby vacant land.  That combination is rare on our shores, creating possible development opportunities both endless and extremely troubling. That’s why the Symphony Bay lake access proposal must be stopped in its tracks. Kill off any hope that this sort of development will be found acceptable to the community, and kill it quickly before these ideas spread.

I’m not sure the best way to formalize a resistance against this conditional use request, but for now it’s a good idea to contact the Town of Linn and urge them to vote against it. There’s a link below that will take you to a community group’s webpage there they’re seeking signatures on a petition. The Plan Commission meeting is March 20th, so please do share this post and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.  The precedent that the developer is seeking to set is one that this lake can not abide. The only reason we’re here is because of this lake. We have to protect it. We have to do what’s best not for a developer with visions of lake access profits, but for the community as a whole.

 

UPDATE:

This Plan Commission meeting also features a development attempt on the North Shore of Geneva Lake. The development would create a three lot Certified Survey Map out of the old Born Free Estate on North Lakeshore Drive near Pebble Point.  This sort of fancy plat map manipulation was stopped when it was attempted on the north shore of Fontana several years ago, and it should be stopped here as well.   The lot appears as though it could easily be split into two parcels, if that’s what the would-be owner would like to do, but three parcels is one too many. Tell the Township to turn this request down.

Sign the pledge.

(This link will take you off of Geneva Lakefront Realty’s website and to a third party site).

Email the Linn Township Planning Commission:

jweiss@townoflinn.com

Apalmer@townoflinn.com

clerk@townoflinn.com

(Disclaimer- I am not affiliated with either project in any way and am writing as a citizen of Walworth County and a concerned Geneva Lake lover).

Crafted Americana Fish Fry Review

Crafted Americana Fish Fry Review

You’ll be forgiven if you have no idea what a Crafted Americana is.  It might be a beer or an ice cream sundae or an antique shop or a woodworking studio deep in the heart of Appalachia. It’s none of those. It’s just a restaurant in the Interlaken Hotel. Or The Ridge, as it’s being called these days. It might have been something else for a while, too.   Whatever the name, whatever the condition, it’s on Highway 50 and it’ll always be Interlaken to me. I went there with my family last Friday night at the beckoning of their outdoor signage. FISH FRY $14.

The interior space at this old hotel has been transformed into something new. Something different, at least for this market.  It’s very shiny and very modern and there’s a coffee shop that serves Wisconsin’s Collectivo Coffee, which is nice.  I’m glad to see this old hotel looking its best. But in spite of the glitz and the shimmer it feels very much like a hotel attached to an airport. The dining room, while rather impressive with large chandeliers and comfy leather backed banquet seating, still felt like I was whiling away an hour before my flight to Toledo.

The dining room was quite full on that Friday evening. Full with fish fry eaters, yes, but mostly with groups that looked like they were on some sort of business. A pharmaceutical sales retreat, perhaps. Dinner at Crafted Americana at 6:30, presentation by Astrozenica at 8, sharp. We were seated at a four top, with two chairs opposite a long leather bench. I sat on the bench, to better surveil the room, and found the seating to be quite comfortable. The table was nicely arranged, The chandeliers twinkly. The waiter quickly arrived table side, with a checked shirt with seems to be the new uniform for restaurant staff.

I asked if there was an appetizer worth my time. Cheese Curds, he replied with immediate enthusiasm. I asked about the fish fry, per usual. He said it was two pieces of fried or broiled Atlantic Cod, a distinguished regional fish apparently, and one potato pancake or fries. He assured me the pancake was large.  The dinner was single serve, which I always find disappointing after starving myself in anticipation of my weekly fish feast.  Four waters and an order of cheese curds it would be, followed by fish fry, one piece of each, with the singular pancake.

The curds arrived within seven or eight minutes. They were in a small modern style serving container, perhaps 12 curds in total. This is my typical complaint about the curd. Too much money for too little cheese. These curds were battered and served with an aioli, which is a fancy word for mayonnaise. The curds were good. Better than most, not as good as some.  Following the curds I was delighted when the water brought out a slab of slate with several slices of bread and a prodigious mound of whipped butter.  The bread was Pumpernickel, which I obviously hate, at least usually. This bread had nuts and raisins and barely the slightest sniff of rye. The bread was pretty good, but the butter was divine. Sent from the heavens, whipped by the angels, delivered to me on this Friday night. I liked the bread, and the butter was the absolute best butter I’ve had on this tasting tour.

The fish was brought next. A large plate with one pancake, and one piece broiled and fried cod. Both were a bit square in shape for my initial liking. A couple of lemon wedges dressed up the plate, and the sides of tartar sauce, applesauce, and coleslaw filled the table. At first glance, aside from the square filets and the singular pancake, the meal looked pretty terrific. First, the broiled cod. The second my fork touched the fish I knew it was tough. The texture wasn’t flaky and light like a delicately cooked fish should be. Instead it was a bit hard, sort of tough. Overcooked. Fail.

The fried piece was marginally better, with a beautiful dark brown batter concealing a reasonably well seasoned piece of cod. Still, while this fish was better than the broiled, it was a bit dry and a bit underwhelming.  A taste of the applesauce revealed a hot sauce, warmed like a bowl of soup on a cold day. It was heavy on the cinnamon, which is okay, but smooth and hot. I like my applesauce like I like my Blizzards. Cold and chunky.  The tartar sauce and coleslaw were apparently passable, but, like me, neither elicited high praise from my wife.

The potato pancake was already facing an uphill battle since it was on its own, without a companion to offer support.  It looked the part, and was made of properly shredded potato, but it lacked any depth of flavor and was a bit too dry. It was also salty, very salty, as if the chef over salted some soup earlier in the day and let the potatoes soak in the soup to absorb the excess salt. Then he made my potato pancake with those potatoes.  It wasn’t a very good cake, though it wasn’t as dry as the Pier 290 and Gordy’s DustCakes.

The good: A pretty restaurant with a higher level of finishes. A deliciously unexpected bread and butter tray. That butter, man. That butter. The bad: Dry fish. Salty, slightly dry pancake. My immediate thought was that this space would earn a seven out of ten. But after the weekend, I thought I cannot let the nicer surroundings offset the fact that the fish was dry. After all, this is a fish fry review, not a restaurant design review.  The Ridge Hotel and its Crafted Americana restaurant should be on your tour for Fish Fry. Perhaps they’ll take out the fish a minute earlier than mine, and the pancake won’t be so salty. Even so, on this night, those two mistakes cannot be forgiven.

Crafted Americana (At The Ridge Hotel) 5.5/10

W4240 State Highway 50, Lake Geneva

Fried or Broiled Cod, two pieces, $14

Walworth County Development Update

Walworth County Development Update

A few weeks ago I received an email from the Wisconsin Realtors Association.  The email asked that I, as a member, contact my representative in the state legislature and ask him or her to vote in favor of an upcoming bill. The bill was like all bills. Some good, some bad, lots of extras. But the primary crux of this bill is that it would make it easier for developers to develop land.  The bill was aimed at “increasing the amount of housing inventory by reforming the residential real estate development process.”  Since Realtors sell real estate, it was only fitting that the WRA pushed the passage of this bill.  Realtors, never claiming to be a group that likes to question the management, likely went along with the initial request and contacted their local legislatures and urged them to vote yes.

When I read that initial email, I replied and told the sender that I would be asking my representatives to vote down this bill.  The reply I then received asked me why. I asked a better question: How many vacant lots exist in the state of Wisconsin? How many future developments are already approved, with tidy re-zone requests granted, but have yet to begin construction?  My questions were met with silence. And this is the problem with development in the state of Wisconsin.

The market today is healthy. There is a veritable construction boom around Lake Geneva, Walworth County, and elsewhere in this fine state of ours. FoxConn is brining jobs, Amazon is adding more, and Uline can’t seem to hire fast enough.  The market is expanding, and with it, an increased demand for housing. Add in a hot re-sale market, which is usually the most under appreciated asset of any market rebound, and you’ve got some serious liquidity.  Call a contractor in Lake Geneva today and ask him to come out and build you a deck. Wait a few months for him to show up. That’ll give you a taste of how active the construction trades are at this moment. All in all, it’s a fantastic thing.

Those in power at the state and municipal level see this growth and feel as though they must react to it. Let’s Make More Housing!, they cry.   And they set to writing legislation to make it easier to develop land. After all, with all of these pesky zoning laws in place how can Joe Developer strip out a farm field to build 200 vinyl ranches?  The legislators drive around their small home towns and see construction. They see cranes in the sky over Milwaukee. They see businesses moving from the North Suburbs of Chicago to those South Suburbs of Milwaukee. They see the demand and they want to feed it.  They think they’re doing the right thing.

But they aren’t. Because what they’re all failing to realize is that this current building boom comes on the heels of a building bust. The vacant inventory that was created during the last boom (2000-2008) is still there. The platted but unbuilt developments might look like farm fields to the naked eye, but to the GIS Map they show their true identity. These are sleeping giants. Huge sections of  residential development is ready to go, but yet it sits idle.  Realtors and Legislators think the solution is to add more development on top of this old product. I say finish your plate before you ask for seconds.

Today there are 676 vacant lots listed for sale in Walworth County.  There are likely at least two thousand more lots approved to be built on but remain in undeveloped subdivisions.  That estimate is likely low. Last year there were 216 vacant lots sold in the county (per MLS).  Long after the term Zombie Foreclosures left our lexicon, consider these the Zombie Developments of 2018. If we consider briefly that we have 2500 or so lots approved and ready for roads/shovels/permits, and we sold 216 lots during the strongest housing market in a decade, then we have roughly 12 years worth of inventory ready for construction. Is that not enough? To the developers and their minions on county and township boards, are you not entertained?

Yes, the housing market today is vibrant. Yes, the near future looks just as bright. But markets never expand forever. What happens when the current round of zoning changes are finalized and we add another thousand or more lots to the Walworth County plat map, and that additional inventory coincides with an inevitable future market downturn? What happens to Joe Homeowner in his $199k cornfield ranch then?  I remain firm in my opposition to large scale redevelopment of vacant land not because I hate development, but because of whose side I’m on. In the battle between the existing homeowner who would love to add a few percent of appreciation to his house every year and the developer who wishes to flood a market with product for people that may or may not some day move there, I choose to root for the current homeowner every. single. time.

Of Houses

Of Houses

I have a good friend who has found himself in the middle of a housing conundrum. It’s a geographic conundrum, really.  It might be a different sort of conundrum, but what is for sure is that it is a conundrum.  The appeal of the known has worn off. It no longer feels as useful as it once did. Perhaps it’s time for a change. A drastic, sweeping change. Everything, different. From a city to a small hamlet, from a lake nearby to a mountainside.  From the varied experience that has become mundane, to a mundane experience that will, for a while, feel varied. What to do?

When you live in Wisconsin, or Illinois, or Minnesota, or Michigan, there’s a constant tug to explore something new.  In winter, this is evidenced most openly on Facebook and other social media.  (snows) “Remind me why I live here?” (rains) “I want to be on a beach somewhere!” (hot)“I’m melting, why do we live here?” (cold) “It’s another bitterly cold day in Wisconsin and I can’t feel my fingers!”  The seasons change, the complaints adapt to the season, and we roll through the years outwardly wishing for something better.  We do this for a while and then we die.

We do this because it’s an easy thing to complain about. It’s the default complaint. It requires no effort.  If my problems are here, in this place where I live, then maybe the problems will go away if I move to somewhere else. Another town, that’s the answer. I hate the cold and I hate the wind and I hate the way my car looks when it’s covered in salt. If I move to where it’s warm, and where the wind doesn’t blow, and where they don’t douse the roads in salt, then these problems will disappear and my life will improve. I’ll just move, that’ll solve it.

It’s brown outside. It’s gray outside. It’s ugly. The snow fell and now it’s melting and the sides of the road are littered with winter trash.  It’s terrible here, and I want something better. I want sunshine and white snow. I want palm trees and soft beaches. Always wanting something different. It’s what we all do. But what happens when something different isn’t better, it’s just different? What happens when the different that we thought we wanted turns into the known that lacks what we already know?

It’s easy to feel trapped. To feel limited by your surroundings. But it’s only easy to feel that way once you take them for granted. The snow has melted and it’s ugly outside? That’s factually incorrect. The snow has melted but it’s not ugly outside, it’s just different. It’s not bright and blue and green. The lake is locked in a struggle for consistency, some water frozen some not. Is the lake ugly like this? Does it look better when it’s all blowing blue? Of course it looks better then, but does it look terrible now? Only if you want to see it that way.  Are 38 degree days useless? Sure they are, but will today be useless because of it? Not at all.

I’d like to suggest something that might seem self serving, but this is my blog and I’m actually only in business for myself, so that shouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary. Perhaps what really bothers those Midwesterners who spend their days pining for something else isn’t the geography of their condition, it’s their housing.  If I live in a house that’s dark because it lacks south facing windows, and the winter days feel too dark because of this, what is the root problem here? Is it that some days are cloudy? Or is it that my house doesn’t have the right design?

If I park my car outside at night and wake up in the morning with a coating of ice and snow on the windshield, do I need to be mad at the ice and snow?  I’ll take to Facebook to complain about those things, and then wonder aloud why I live here, but wouldn’t it be easier to just try to buy a house with a garage? I know I’ve spent years in houses with and without garages, and I vastly prefer the garage house better. If I dislike the noise of the city I live in, and I hate the cars that park in front of my house and clog my limited view, should I hate the cars and the city and move far away to run from those things?  Maybe I should just find a house on a quiet street in a different part of town.

Maybe you really do hate the cold. Maybe you really do hate the clouds. Maybe you really do hate the city. Maybe you really do hate the way the ground looks when winter has ended but spring hasn’t yet begun.  But maybe you just need a better house with some woodburning fireplaces, the sort that crackle and hiss when a new log is thrown on it. Maybe you just need a house with southern exposure, so every day feels bright, even when the clouds build. Maybe you don’t hate the city, maybe you just hate the street that you walk every day. Maybe it’s time to find a better street. Maybe it’s just time to find a better house. A different house.

Above, a gray day at the lake.
Popeye’s Fish Fry Review

Popeye’s Fish Fry Review

I called ahead. It was 5:50 pm and I figured I’d arrive at Popeye’s with my party of six sometime just after 6.  I learned many weeks ago not to take  off-season dinner seating for granted, so I called Popeye’s and a woman answered. I asked if I needed a reservation for dinner.  She said, “honey, we seat 600.”  But then she proceeded to tell me that a reservation wouldn’t be a terrible idea and she took my name. I asked if they had fish fry, a question asked with an answer already known. Honey, we have the best fish fry in Southeastern Wisconsin. 

It’s difficult to be a big restaurant in the biggest location in the biggest resort town in the Midwest. While I imagine it’s nice to have seating for 600, and that premium location will never go out of style, if you would have asked Andre, he’d agree. It’s not easy being a giant. When I suggested Popeye’s for fish fry my friend immediately replied,  “Is the food good or is it just a cheesy tourist trap?” 

The parking meters are no longer free. We learned this after parking and noticing the meter maid waltzing along the lakeside street, after 6 pm.  I insisted to the meter maid that assuredly parking had to be free after 6 pm, at least in March, right? 7 pm, the maid replied. I fed my credit card into the machine and felt certain that had it been 7 pm his answer would have been 8 pm.  Slightly irritated by the gall of the Lake Geneva Parking Policies, we entered Popeyes and were led to our seats in the elevated dining room to the East of the entry and bar.  In the event that you didn’t know, Popeye’s Lake Geneva is not affiliated with the fast food restaurant that shares their name.

Our water glasses were quickly filled and my typical question about the fish fry posed. $14.99, all you can eat fried or broiled cod, with a choice of potato pancake or fries, hush puppies and a few of the usual sides. The waitress moved quickly through the dining room, quickly to our table, quickly from our table. Quickly. The evening rush was on and this large restaurant was filling up nicely. We ordered the fish and a half rack of ribs as a pregame to our fishy meal.

The ribs arrived quickly, and were fine. Nothing special. It’s a shame really, since there’s a charcoal spit roasting chickens outside at nearly all times. I’d make a custom basket for the ribs and twirl those over the charcoal along with the chicken.  But that’s just me, and I like tasty food. The menu says the ribs are smoked, which they may very well be, but I couldn’t detect a whiff of smoke in these ribs.  Within 10 minutes our dinner was served.

A huge tray of food was placed on an elevated platform in the middle of our table. It was like a pizza platform, but filled with fried and broiled fish, potato pancakes, and hushpuppies.  A few lemon wedges dressed up the edges. The french fries came in their own basket. It was a feast. I must say that I don’t like family style servings. It cheapens the food.  That’s the reason shrimp cocktail is usually served with five or six or eight shrimp tails. Throw 100 shrimp tails on a platter and smear some cocktail sauce in the middle and the special treat has turned into a free for all.

I grabbed a few pieces of fried cod, one piece of broiled cod, a potato pancake and a hushpuppy. The hushpuppy was nicely crisped, tender in the middle. It tasted of crab. It may have had some crab in it, but I didn’t check the menu to see if it really did. The pancake was quite good. My grandmother was a terrible cook, but she did whip up a fine dish of Tetrazzini with bits of pimento peppers. These pancakes had pimento peppers, and I enjoyed the nostalgic flavor quite a bit. The potato was shredded, as it should be, the exterior crisped but not greasy. These were delicious potato pancakes, and for the first time this tour, I was offered a dollop of sour cream for my pancakes. I liked the effort.

The fried cod was shaped more like an extravagant fish stick.  The pieces were slender and narrow, like fingers. But there was some variation in the sizing, and I like variation in my fish filets. The batter was light and airy, the first of its kind on this winter tour. The fish was tender, well seasoned, and quite delicious. I was impressed. The broiled cod was your basic square of cod, needing salt and lacking any particular dimension.  The french fries were delicious, slightly spicy, and memorable. I place them in a tie with Gordy’s for finest traditional french fry in the area.

The sides were a disappointment. I have long adored the dinner rolls at Popeyes, and used to eat one with a bowl of clam chowder long ago when I ate semi-frequent lunches there. This fish feast, not that it needed it, didn’t include any bread. No dinner roll. No loaf of bread. No slice of intolerable Rye. I suppose I’d rather have no bread than be blindsided by Rye, but still. With no bread there was no butter, no judging. The applesauce was bland and smooth, and sadly served in a small plastic take out container.

The tartar sauce was apparently rather sweet, but not terrible, also served in a take out container. There was no coleslaw. Had there been coleslaw, it would have been served in one of those take out containers, the sort you’d pump ketchup into at a Culver’s. We finished most of the mountain of food and the waitress quickly cleared our table. There was some leftover fish and at least one potato pancake, but the food was unceremoniously taken from the table.  The menu warns that leftovers will not be taken home.

Popeyes very well might be a cheesy tourist restaurant.  There is so much flair here, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Chotchkie’s.  It’s an undeniably large, loud space. The prime seats are the two tops nearest the window, even on a dark March night.  While this Lake Geneva institution won’t win any awards for excellence in design, Popeyes manages to be both cheesy tourist trap and purveyor of above average fare.   On this Friday night, I left impressed by the fish fry. Sure, I bemoaned the lack of bread, coleslaw (the menu says it’s included), and softened butter. And I felt ill over the plastic  cup my flavorless, smooth applesauce was served in. But the lightly fried cod was delicate and well seasoned, the potato pancake with pimento rather divine, and that’s all it takes to win my affection.

 

Popeye’s Fish Fry 8/10

Cod, All You Can Eat, $14.99

811 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

Above, Popeye’s image courtesy Visit Lake Geneva.
Pricing Temptation

Pricing Temptation

If you own a lakefront or lake access home in the Lake Geneva market, you’re well aware of the increased broker competition in our area. New agents, new brokers, new this and new that. The old ones, they’re here too.  Everyone is an expert. Everyone a top producer. Everyone won an award at their company party. They’ve got the photos to prove it. Facebook, photos. Instagram photos. Best Use Of Technology To Showcase Expertise. That’s a nice trophy, fella.

The state legislature is about to pass a bill to make it easier for developers to develop.  Life is hard on these developers, what with the annoyances of existing zoning laws. They should be easier. More homes, more agents, more of this and definitely more of that. The market is hot. So hot. Hot Hot Hot. That’s what the ad says. Name your price. I mean it.  Trust me,  I just won this Top Producer Award for Most Residential Sides On The South Side Of Main Street During The Second Half Of January.  Surprised you didn’t know that. Look for  picture of the trophy in my upcoming newspaper ad.

Name Your Price. You think I’m kidding?  Go ahead, seller. Name it. I’ll go get it. Your house is worth $2.8MM but you want $3MM but you’re not actually going to sell unless you get $4MM? Let’s list it! You must have seen my most recent press release, right? The one I wrote about myself and the incredible awards I won at the mid-February meeting? Well, trust me. Name your price and I’ll get it. I’ve been selling lots of houses for many, many months. I’m certain I can get that number for you. I’m super enthusiastic! Can’t you tell?  In 1992 my senior class voted me Most Bubbly.

It’s February now, but it feels like March. March feels like April, sort of. It might snow tomorrow, but that won’t matter. The market is hot and sellers know it. Buyers know it, too, and they lament the heat. But really they don’t. Because many of those buyers who are buyers now where buyers in 2013 when you could have bought anything anywhere and made money on it.  Except maybe Michigan. Buyers buy when they feel motivated by competition, and sellers list higher when they feel as though they have none.

Today, the market is full of promises. Brokers will sell your house for the highest possible dollar, guaranteed! Sellers enjoy this attention, and there’s nothing that makes a seller feel more pleased than encouraging a listing competition for their home. Here’s how that works. Invite three or four brokers to your house. Tell each of them that there are others coming after they’re done.   The brokers know this, and now they know there’s competition. Competition to list the house. Competition to come up with the highest list price possible. Any seller likes a competent, skilled broker. But you know what sellers like more?  Super high list prices.

The problem, of course, with the super high list price (SHLP) is that the SHLP is actually detrimental. Sure it’s tempting. Sure it seems like a wonderful windfall. Buy Bitcoin at $19,000 because it’ll be $50,000 by the end of the month! And certainly there’s a slim chance that the SHLP finds a sucker (Zillow buyer). If that happens, congratulations, you win. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if you list the house and many months later you’re still the owner? What then?

I’ll tell you what happens then. Your house sits. You reduce your price a bit. Then you reduce it some more. Then the market stops paying attention. So you reduce again. And again. Quickly you’re below the list price that was initially suggested by the skilled agent, the one who visited on that Saturday before the other agents. You’re below that price and yet the market doesn’t respond. What to do? Red carpet open house? Balloons on the yard sign? A second yard sign? A plea on Facebook?

The answer is another reduction. This is the cycle of the seller who chose to shoot for the moon. And this is the mistake. It’s so tempting to make it. The outcome has so much potential, yet when the dust settles and the lame agent has won your listing, the only thing left to do is wait. You’ve missed your window, and now the market is going to punish you. We manage risk in our investments. We manage risk when we drive down the road. Let’s manage risk when we list our houses as well. How?

Hire the agent with the best track record in your individual market segment. Demand a thorough market analysis. Understand your sold comps and current competition. Understand the drawbacks of your property, not just the benefits.  List the house for a price near the top end of the expected sales range.  Sell your house. Be happy.

The Village Supper Club Fish Fry Review

The Village Supper Club Fish Fry Review

From Friday to Friday, one side of Delavan Lake to the other, I turned into the parking lot at the Village Supper Club at 5 pm sharp. Early, you say. Necessary, I reply. The prior week I tried to eat here at 6 pm but was faced with a 30 minute wait, so I made a concerted effort to arrive early. Such a popular place for Friday fish must be worth that minor sacrifice.

This is a supper club, much in the same vein as Anthony’s or the Big Foot Inn. The foyer is dark, a requirement of supper club design. If you invite me to your supper club and the foyer is brightly lit I’m going to suggest what you’ve actually got there is a restaurant, not a supper club. The hostess was pleasant and walked us past the bar, around a salad bar, and to our table in the front room, facing the lake. There are a series of dining rooms here, but only two face the water. That’s where we were seated, with a nice view of Delavan Lake, if such a thing exists.

The waitress quickly brought our waters and I inquired about the fish fry. She was a pleasant woman, and excitedly told us about the fish. She knew what we wanted. $13.75 for all you can eat fried cod, served family style. Broiled is single serve. Choice of potato pancakes or french fries, along with the usual sides. The kids fish fry was only $9.25.  I ordered the fried cod, with a side of broiled, and that, was that.

There’s nothing much to consider when seated at the Village Supper Club awaiting your fish. So we spent a few blank minutes and were quickly presented with our dinner. It almost felt like we received our food too quickly. Without any delay there is no anticipation, without anticipation there are no pangs of developing hunger, without hunger there is no relief.  A heaping plate of fried cod, a side of broiled cod,  a plate of potato pancakes, some fries for the kids,  applesauce, tartar sauce, coleslaw, along with a sliced loaf of bread. At first blush the fish looked good, the potato pancakes looked odd, and the bread sported the tell-tale blistering that results from some time spent in the microwave.

I was immediately drawn to the unique potato pancake. It was pillow shaped, fried to a quite dark brown, and softer than a typical pancake. The texture of the potato was not shredded, but rather riced, creating a mouthfeel not at all like a potato pancake.  It was oddly sweet, and I couldn’t quite tell if I was eating a potato pancake or some sort of hush puppy with some potato bits thrown in.  That distinction shouldn’t ever be blurred.  Excepting Pier 290’s dried out saw-dust pancake, this was my least favorite pancake I’ve eaten this year. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I have little time to spend suffering through that acquisition.

The fried cod was good. The batter crunchy, the filet appropriately shaped. I didn’t mind the fried fish. The broiled piece was a thick rectangle served with a side of drawn butter and a lemon wedge. I will always appreciate a pot of butter on my plate, no matter how tough and bland the cod might be. And the cod was both.  The bread, with those microwaved skin blisters, was chewy, as microwaved bread tends to be.  The flavor was good, but how can you expect me to enjoy this sort of bread served with cold foiled butter? You can’t, and I didn’t.  The applesauce was bland and too smooth. The tartar sauce, my wife said, was fine, but a bit sweet. We didn’t ask for seconds of anything, and within 30 minutes the whole ordeal was over. Two adult fish fries, two kids fish fries, and a side of cod ($1.95): $60.59 with tip.

While we walked out a steady stream of hungry patrons poured in. Do these people not know what good fish fry tastes like? Are they unaware that a much better dinner exists on the other side of that shallow lake?  When it comes to fish fry, often tradition takes first place in deciding where to go. Tradition can outweigh good food any day of the week, especially on a Friday. Thankfully I have no tradition to obstruct my objectivity. The restaurant is blah. It’s a classic supper club, but it isn’t quite dated enough or cheesy enough to win my affection. The fried cod was meh. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. The potato pancake was more a potato hushpuppy, and I cannot abide such an interpretation. The bread was blah, the butter foiled. The applesauce? Blah.

The Village might be one of the most popular places to eat fried fish on a Friday in Wisconsin, but that Friday visit will count as my first and my last.

The Village Supper Club  3/10

$13.75 All You Can Eat Fried Cod

1725 South Shore Drive, Delavan, WI

Lake Geneva Market Update

Lake Geneva Market Update

It feels like it wasn’t so long ago that I wished for more snow. For more cold. For more winter. Shortly after wishing, all of that came true. Briefly. Since then the weather has been a mix of spring and sort of winter, the dreaded in between that will come to define the next six weeks of our existence. But fret not, for February is nearly over. With it we leave behind the Olympics, and with that, we leave behind the nightly disappointment of a country with so many participants, but so few medals.  It’ll be March soon, and then we can lament the weather in March and wish for it to be April. Once April starts, we have just one more month of wishing for May. Soon, it’ll be nice out.

Even though the weather is haphazard, the real estate market doesn’t really care.  New inventory has been introduced to market, much of it by yours truly.  Pending sales have printed, and new contracts have been written. Some have been accepted. My lakefront in Loramoor closed late last month for $4,950,000, placing that property in what will be a short-lived position of first. Like when a US skater is in the gold medal position before anyone else has laced up their skates. Another lakefront in the city of Lake Geneva closed recently, that of a small hillside home listed and closed at $1.799MM.  I’ll be expecting to see that home torn down or significantly remodeled. A home in the Birches on 105′ of elevated frontage closed for $3MM.

A new lakefront came to market with 150′ of frontage and a $3.975MM asking price. I sent it around but didn’t think too much of it, and then it sold. The market doesn’t always care what I think, which is probably good, since I tend to be conservative in my valuations. A small lakefront in Williams Bay listed just over a buck is pending sale, but there’s nothing more I feel like adding to that one. A level lakefront in the Narrows is under contract recently, listed in the $2.3s.  Rounding out the lakefront activity, there are three remaining 2017 contracts left out there waiting to close, those of lakefronts listed at $3.85MM, $6.5MM, and $12.5MM. It’s going to be a terrific 2018, and we’ve only just begun.  For a full list of available lake access and lakefront homes, CLICK HERE. Feel free to share this post with anyone you know who also might appreciate an accurate list of inventory.

I’ve added some new lake access inventory this month, including a large home in Indian Hills.  Listed at $675k, it will give the new owner an opportunity to engage in the Fontana scene, with very little effort. The home is spacious, with two story foyer, main floor master bedroom, and five total bedrooms. There’s also a two car garage, along with those private Indian Hills lake rights.  I added another home in the lower price ranges this month as well, that of an off-water home in Geneva West. This is about a mile north of the lake in Williams Bay. That home, pictured above, offers a charming spread for a buyer looking for a primary residence in the Williams Bay School District, or perhaps a vacation home owner looking to find privacy at an affordable price.

A particular sale of note involves a large condo in Fontana at the Fontana Club.  I sold this unit to the original owner, when I represented the developer back in 2001. The first sale was of a single unit, then the buyer bought an adjacent unit and remodeled the space into one large residence. I sold that combined unit for him in 2006 for $1.125MM, at the time that would represent the obvious peak in the lakefront condo market. That new owner  has offered the unit for sale off and on over recent years, while the price steadily eroded. That double unit closed this month for $685k. That’s a terrible thing.  The good news for the Fontana Club is that with this sale, and that of my single unit that closed last fall for $390k, the aged inventory has finally and mercifully been cleared from the market. The best situation for the Fontana Club would now be to withhold any inventory from the market so that demand can slowly build.

Overall, I like the way the market is behaving so far this year, but I’m increasingly wary of over confident sellers. I’ve often told you how I personally behave when I’m a seller of my own home. I recognize the fact that I need that buyer more than that buyer needs me. My particular home is the only home I need to sell, whereas that buyer has several different homes he can choose. Sellers so far in 2018 are negotiating from a position of strength, which they have understandably earned.  There are some buyers, as evidenced in the market today, that will pay a seller’s price, no matter if it’s 15% too high or not. But most of the buyers are still smart, even if they choose to work with an agent they found on Zillow, because Premier Agent’s must be amazing! (or willing to pay huge sums of money to buy leads) But these buyers are still reasonably concerned about their investment, and they’re not pushing prices quite as high as sellers would like. I’ve heard of and been part of several negotiations over the last six months that featured buyers and sellers in odd standoffs over insignificant amounts of money.  Should buyers come up? Maybe. Should sellers come down? Maybe. Should you stop working with any agent who isn’t David Curry? Duh.

Above, my listing in Geneva West. $499k.
Lake Lawn Lodge Fish Fry Review

Lake Lawn Lodge Fish Fry Review

We pulled into the Village Supper Club parking lot at 6:20 pm. Everyone else had pulled in at least a few minutes before that. The large lot that sends cars across Delavan’s South Shore Drive was full.  I called the restaurant to find out if there was a wait. There was. 30 minutes. My commitment to the fish fry does not allow for such a wait, not when there are dozens of other restaurants that beg my attention (or beg to remain anonymous).  We drove North, then West, then through the entrance to Lake Lawn Lodge.  The Christmas lights were still up, still twinkling.

Lake Lawn Lodge has had a tumultuous last decade, and I’ll admit to you now that I’ve avoided the resort like the plague.  I don’t really golf so much anymore, so the golf course no longer draws. I have loads of dining options closer to Geneva Lake, so I won’t be running over to Lake Lawn to grab a bite. And I’ve always said that if you ever see me swimming in Delavan Lake I implore you to check the rope and cinder blocks around my feet, because I’m not in the lake on my own accord.  We followed the parking lot arrows towards “RESTAURANTS” and walked into the first of a series of interconnected buildings.

There are detailed building maps inside Lake Lawn Lodge. Illuminated maps. You Are Here.  At first glance you’d wonder why so much attention is paid to these maps, but after wandering down the maze of hallways that connect this sprawling resort, you’ll soon appreciate the guidance.  My family used to eat at Lake Lawn on Friday nights many many years ago, so I’m no stranger to the general location of the restaurant. We followed the hallways, past the gift shop, past an ice cream shop, past an arcade, and found the restaurant. In the foyer of the restaurant space the smell of perfume overwhelmed me. It was as if my dead grandmother and her dead sisters got together one last time to have a contest to see who could douse themselves in the most Chanel No 5. There are no winners in such a contest, and I wondered why a restaurant would employ such powerful, artificial odors. Is the Fish Fry that bad?

The restaurant was large and somewhat fancy. I thought, aside from the overpowering air fresheners, that it might be a nice place to eat.  I asked the hostess if there was a fish fry available. There wasn’t, she explained, but the restaurant farther down the maze of hallways serves a fish fry. We left the perfume strafed area and forged ahead. Past this and past that. Outside, a fireplace was lit. No one stood near it, because remember this isn’t Colorado and we have our wits about us? After some time of wandering we found the Lookout Bar. It’s at the far southern end of the particular building we were in, close to the lake.  I imagined the view would be decent in the summer, but it was winter and it was dark and so we took our seats.

The restaurant is just a small area with a low ceiling and perhaps 25-35 tables, along with a lakeside bar. The Lookout Bar, presumably.  The bar area looked more interesting and inviting, but the room we were in was rather awful. It felt like an out of the way room in an old hotel, which is exactly what it is. The table had a neat old timey map of Delavan Lake on it, and when I remarked to my wife that Delavan Lake looked like a whale, she didn’t agree. The walls had old prints of the lodge and of old men with stringers of fish, indiscriminate varieties including walleye and pike. Old timers always look so proud of themselves in those photos. Our waitress was quickly table side and explained the fish fry.

Fried cod, two or three pieces, with a side of potato.  No broiled cod. No substitutes. No all you can eat. At first I was disenchanted. If I’m going to eat fried fish, I want to eat so much of it that I wonder what’s wrong with me. With no such option, I ordered three pieces. I asked that the potato be served as one potato pancake and a scant inclusion of french fries, which the waitress said were delicious. I asked if any appetizers were particularly important and she stressed the cheese curds. Never one to pass on the insistence of a convincing waitress, I ordered as she instructed.

Within five minutes our cheese curds were brought out, served in a metal fryer style basket. I should say I’m not a huge cheese curd fan, as an order of curds is usually small and expensive and I am proudly large and cheap. These curds, however, were amazing. I’ll tell you now that they were the best curds I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve had them all over the world. They were fried perfectly, soft and tender inside, crisp and light outside. They were battered, not breaded, which is an important distinction with cheese curds. Culver breads theirs, which makes them less than. These curds were delightful and the serving size was huge. We didn’t eat the entire basket, which doesn’t sound out of the ordinary to many people but is, as a point of fact, a rare occurrence at my table.

The fish followed, and my three piece order with a mix of potatoes was served as a two piece order with two potato pancakes. This was a regrettable error, but I’ll let it slide. Applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce and bread accompanied the fried platter. The applesauce was bland and smooth, a miss. The coleslaw was dry, and my wife said it was blah. The tartar sauce she said was delicious, perhaps as good as the Waterfront’s from the Friday before. The bread was pumpernickel, with is basically rye bread in disguise. Nice try, rye. The butter for this sacrilegious bread was served cold, in a small rectangular foil wrapper. This is unacceptable, and I’d encourage Lake Lawn to fix the error of their bread and butter ways.

The fish, on the other hand, was absolutely delightful. The batter was crunchy and light, the fish tender and well seasoned. It was the best fried fish I’ve eaten. The two pieces proved to be more than enough, even without touching the devil’s bread. The potato pancakes were very interesting. They were thick, well crisped on the top and bottom, and creamy on the interior. They tasted heavily of leeks, or perhaps just green onions, and for a while I couldn’t decide if I liked them. After some contemplation, I concluded that indeed, these were mighty fine pancakes. Different, but good. It was a risk to serve a different style potato pancake, but the risk paid off. The combination of wonderful fish and unique potato pancake elevated these two staples to the top of the leaderboard. Lake Lawn, you’ve done well.

But it isn’t all perfectly fried cod. The bread and butter cannot be forgiven. The clumsy restaurant space is not something easily forgotten.  Both of our water glasses went dry, without any offer for a refill. I ordered three pieces of cod and only received two, and the potato switcheroo. These things unfortunately offset the delicious fish dinner. Still, I’m impressed with the effort, and encourage you to visit Lake Lawn’s Lookout restaurant. Maybe it’s much better in the summer when you can sit outside.  Maybe it’s better if you sit in the bar room. Either way, it was a delicious dinner and that means more to me than anything else.  I’m pleased to place Lake Lawn in a tie for first.

 

Lake Lawn Lodge Lookout Restaurant 9/10

Two Piece Fried Cod $12.50, Three Piece $14

2400 East Geneva Street, Delavan, WI 53115

 

 

New Geneva Lakefront Listing

New Geneva Lakefront Listing

It is no secret that the South Shore Club is an exclusive development. Anything numbering just 40 in total would be viewed as exclusive. While this is known, what isn’t so well known is that exclusivity does exist here on a higher level. The homes are each unique,  each impressive. The slate, the stone, the imported this and hand hammered that, it’s all very intoxicating. There’s plenty of reason why the South Shore Club is entirely sold out, with no available inventory as of this writing. Whether the home is on Forest Hill near the tennis court, or right on the semi-circle that rings the lake like a modern day Congress Club, the structure is divine and the home a veritable castle for its fortunate owner. But this is the obvious.  This is what everyone, no, anyone, can see with their own two open eyes if they so much as drive past, or perhaps through, the South Shore Club.

But what is a higher prize are the select homes that line not just the circle of lush grass where a swimming pool and clubhouse reside, but those homes that rest immediately adjacent to the lake itself. These are the few lakefront homes of the South Shore Club, and these are the homes that compete with private frontage in such a way that they are not just a different option for those seeking private frontage, they can indeed become the better option. In this hunt for the exclusive within the exclusive, we find ourselves at the door of 1621 East Lakeside Lane.

We’ve already established that each home in the SSC is a shining jewel in its own right, but what we miss when we paint with this wide brush is that individual homes do stand out among this spiffy crowd. Some homes are larger, as is this one. At just over 10,000 square feet, this home is large enough to meet any square footage desire, and yet boasts a design that is approachable with rooms that feel airy but not so large that they become unnecessary or somehow irrelevant. This home has more privacy, more outdoor space, more this and more that.  The floor plan here is delightful, with everything a discerning buyer might require for a true lakefront home. There are finishes that exceed the highest of expectations. The Ralph Lauren interior design works perfectly at the lake.

In spite of all this perfection, the location of this home might be its most important attribute. Nestled on the extreme eastern edge of the club, there is more space between this home and its lakefront neighbor to the East. This spacious side yard is a result of superior site planning, and it’s this side yard that makes this home feel less like just another home in the South Shore Club and more like one of the finest lakefront homes you’ll ever lay eyes on. The views from the home rival or exceed that of any lakefront home on Geneva, with unavoidable lake views present in many of the rooms, and most pronounced from the epic lakeside stone patio.

This is the appeal of this exquisite home. It is part of the South Shore Club, and along with that membership it enjoys the unrivaled trappings of such luxury- the free and varied boats, the tennis court, the pool and hot tub, the clubhouse.  Think you need to buy a life vest for your daughter here? Think again, they’re included as it’s all part of the South Shore Club experience. These are the amenities, and when a home like this requires the use of those, they are available at any moment. But what is different here is the ability to detach from the South Shore Club and live as a true lakefront home. If the activities are needed, they are there. But if they are not needed, and the new owner requires little more than a comfortable lounge chair to rest on and the sound of lapping waves as their soundtrack, this is also available. It’s in the ability to live as a true lakefront home with the wide array of South Shore Club activities available when they are wanted and out of sight, and perhaps mind, when they are not.

 

This is the only available home in the South Shore Club, and it just so happens to be one of the most special. If you’re looking for lakefront and want to purchase something that’s both beautiful and easy to own, this is your chance. I sold the house next door in less than three weeks last summer. Available for private tour with notice.  $4,850,000

Clear Sky Lodge Home For Sale

Clear Sky Lodge Home For Sale

You don’t really want to be me. Some of my friends think they’d like to be me. To work a bit and make money a bit and drive a nice car a bit. To have nice things and to sell this place. It’s luxurious, they think. It’s fun, they imagine. But they’re wrong. Everyone is wrong. What I really do is take nice people out in my car and show them this lake. I show them this lane and that drive. I take them here and down there. I show them what it is we do here, how much better it is.  The scene is easy to love. The water, same. The boats and the woods and the sails, it’s all rather intoxicating, and nearly everyone agrees with this. The problem is the real estate. Do you know how deflating it is to show someone homes that cost millions of dollars that are, as a point of fact, awful homes?

This is the Lake Geneva problem. This is my problem. This market is expensive, there’s just no getting around it. But it’s expensive for a reason, for many reasons, and it’s worth it.  But whether it’s worth it or not, the homes that buyers can buy are often disappointing. They need significant updating. Or a wrecking ball. Or they lack this and that. They always lack. I’d buy this house if only it had (insert anything here, anything at all).  With this housing deficiency understood, imagine now my delight in bringing you this new listing at 1100E South Lakeshore Drive in Fontana.

This house measures more than 5000 square feet. It has a two car garage. Five bedrooms. A large great room with tall ceilings. Four fireplaces. Huge outdoor patio space. 1.78 acres of wooded privacy. Two driveways with ample room to park as many as a dozen vehicles. It has a shared pier with a canopied slip. The current owner keeps his 27′ Cobalt there. I suppose you could put yours there as well.  There’s SubZero and Wolf.  Stone and granite. Big wooded doors that swing on huge steel hinges. This isn’t so much a mere lake house in Fontana as much as it’s an Adirondack Lodge in Fontana.

But this is the house, the big, beautiful house. That’s not what really sets the property apart. It’s that privacy, that delicious, rare, wooded privacy. It’s the Fontana location with water and sewer and an easy walk to town or the Lake Geneva Yacht Club.  It’s these things, but it’s much more.  Here we have an inground swimming pool, set back in the woods surrounded by lush perennial gardens. There’s a Lord and Burnham Greenhouse, one that causes me to green with jealousy every time I enter. The current owners don’t use it as a greenhouse, they just use it as a pool-toy storage center, but I’d use it as a greenhouse if it were mine. Once you buy this house, I’d like it if you’d use it as a greenhouse again.

It’s not just a big house with all those fireplaces and a pool and a greenhouse and so much wooded privacy on all that land. There’s a tennis court, too. A tennis court with lights and basketball hoops. The current owner holds the Spotted Cow Open here each year. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it. The sponsorship by Spotted Cow isn’t official yet, but they should appreciate the free advertising.  If you’re tired from tennis you can retreat to the pool, and when you tire of the pool you can enter the greenhouse. The tomatoes need picking.

This comes back to the price. $2.99MM for all of this lakeside luxury. This house gives you what other homes in this price range can’t. You can buy a lakefront home for this money, easily and often. But you can’t buy an estate with these country club amenities. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be in Fontana and it wouldn’t have a pier, and it certainly wouldn’t be walking distance to the Yacht Club.   My job typically forces me to sell around what isn’t there. In the case of this Clear Sky Lodge property,  there’s nothing I need to sell. The property does it for me.  Available for private showings this weekend.

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

We intended to arrive as a party of seven sometime around 6 pm. Having been rebuffed in my dinner attempt on the prior Friday, I called ahead to make a reservation. It felt unnecessary, a dinner reservation on a snowy night in February, but I didn’t want to face the difficulty of a 30 minute wait. The hotel operator answered and asked how many in my party. Seven, I replied. She informed me that reservations are only taken for tables of eight or more.  Seven is trivial, eight is everything. And so we went to the restaurant and hoped there would be a table. There was.

The Waterfront restaurant sits on the lower level of the Abbey hotel in Fontana, closest to the harbor. The hotel has undergone some significant improvements over recent years, but some of it still feels sad and old. This is the plague of an old hotel with low ceilings. You can gild the walls and diamond encrust the ceilings but when the last stone is set you’ll just be left with an ornate coffin.  The restaurant is broken into two distinct dining areas separated by a bar. The initial space is comfortable, with a lower ceiling,  while the lakeside room opens up to a soaring ceiling with ample glass to take in the views. The hostess quickly sat us at a high-top in the lakeside room overlooking the icy harbor. Outside, twinkly lights lit a makeshift skating rink, nearby an outdoor fire. If this were Colorado, dozens of people would have been gathered, toasting to the mountain gods and reveling in the dry cold. But this is Wisconsin, so we all sat inside and wondered what insanity would  compel someone to stand outside, fire or not.

Our waiter was a bit nervous, perhaps on account of the large group.  We ordered a round of waters, and my friend asked for a half order of ribs for a warm up. The fish fry featured a choice of broiled or fried cod or walleye, and to my surprise, the walleye and cod were both just $13, all you can eat. The side offerings include potato pancakes, fries, and sweet potato fries- the first restaurant to offer the additional potato. I ordered the fish, one piece walleye and one piece cod, both fried, with the potato pancakes.  The rest of the table ordered various bits and fishy things.

The Waterfront boasts a menu with several smoked items, much in the way that Harpoon Willies has added a smoker and the accompanying meats to their menu. The ribs arrived quickly, slathered in sauce, smoked to tender. The half rack was small, as if taken from a tiny pet cow at a petting zoo on the outskirts of some small Midwestern town. The ribs came with a side order, which we filled with sweet potato fries. The fries were robust wedges of sweet potato, cooked perfectly. I’ve had these fries before and sometimes they tend to be a bit undercooked, so I was pleased to find the outside crispy and the inside soft. The ribs were quite good, and given their miniature size, we ate them without pause.  The only complaint I had on the ribs was the dry rub, presumably the rub they are smoked with prior to saucing, still tasted a bit too grainy. Perhaps the ribs are smoked and then tossed in some additional dry run before saucing. If that’s the case, I’d recommend they skip that step.

The fish was brought within 20 minutes of ordering which felt like the right timing. The plates were large, filled with fried things and served with ample sides of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw. The apple sauce was deliciously chunky.  I skipped the tartar sauce as usual, but my tablemates proclaimed the tartar sauce to the best ever. High praise from women who eat only to stay nourished. In the Midwest, Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewery is a pretty important beer. Imagine then the delight of Waterfront patrons when they learn that their fish fry batter is a Spotted Cow batter.  The fish was nicely battered and fried to a perfect golden brown. The pieces were well sized, thick enough to hold moisture, and filet shaped.  The square cuts of fish that have plagued some of our reviewed restaurants were thankfully absent.

Both the walleye and cod received glowing reviews from our table, though I found the walleye to be better than the cod. I am not a walleye aficionado. I do not eat walleye shore lunches with the Chicago businessmen who fly to remote locations in Ontario to impress gullible walleye with their awful angling skills.  Still, the walleye was tender and so was the cod, though each could have used a touch more salt. This evening was shaping up to be the evening where Anthony’s was dethroned. The applesauce, chunky. The fish, tasty. The batter, crunchy. Nothing could derail the Waterfront now.  Nothing, except the potato pancake. It wasn’t as bad as Gordy’s Sawdust Cake, but it was close. It looked good and had a nicely crusted exterior, but inside, the cake was a bit dry. If you’re going to impress me, you cannot serve me a dry pancake. No amount of delicious tartar sauce or chunky applesauce can mask this fatal mistake.

Even though I should find a way to eat less bread, I was nonetheless displeased with the Waterfront’s lack of table bread. No roll, no loaf, no slices. At least they didn’t try to serve me Rye, I suppose. But no bread meant no butter, which means a key component of the fish fry review was rendered untested. Once I had eaten my fish and choked through the potato pancake and recovered from the breadless disappointment, I ordered my second helping of fish. This time broiled, one piece cod and one piece walleye.  During this wait I nibbled at the hushpuppies that come with each order. They were fine, though a bit drier than I would have liked. I appreciated the inclusion and the effort.

Our timid, but polite, waiter brought the fish out, one piece to one plate. The filets both looked remarkably similar. Both skinny and long, one indistinguishable from the other. If you know what a walleye looks like and you know what a cod looks like, I suppose they could have the same dimensions, though I found this highly unlikely. I just hope I wasn’t eating Florida golf course tilapia. The broiled pieces were far inferior to their fried counterparts. That rub that felt misplaced on the ribs was present again, or at least the paprika component, and the filets were liberally covered in this spice. I didn’t like it. The walleye was served skin on, which is fine, but since the fish was broiled and not first tossed in flour and quickly pan fried (sautéed, like the Gordy’s perch), the skin became slippery and slimy. I didn’t care for it.  Far worse, my son found two bones in his single piece of broiled walleye, which is the first bone anyone has found at any  of the restaurants we’ve visited.  For shame.

Another Friday night, another near miss. The fish was good, likely the best fried fish I’ve had on this tour. The broiled fish was a miss. The potato pancake was a miss. The bone-in filet was a huge miss.  The lack of bread was a miss. But the restaurant was reasonably busy on this cold night and the finishes in the space are stylish.  The service was attentive and polite, and the timing of the food deliveries was appropriate. I just wish they hadn’t screw up the potato pancake, and I left wondering if my wife would take offense to me stopping at Sentry on the way hope to buy some bread and butter. Try the Abbey’s Waterfront for fish fry. It’s quite good. Order the walleye, get it fried not broiled, and let’s hope your potato pancake is better than mine.

 

The Waterfront Restaurant at the Abbey Hotel  7/10

269 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana, WI

$13 All you can eat cod or walleye

 

Fish Fry photo courtesy the Abbey Resort and Waterfront Restaurant