A man and his wife sat at the corner table and argued over the bark on a tree. Half way down, he insisted. She responded with something about the weather. Snow, soon. The waitress confirmed it. He talked about earthquakes. She asked about the tree. They nursed their drinks, each engaged in a conversation that seemed to have no bearing on the other. A man at another table. Rick, or Jim, or Bill. He walked in slowly and sat down. The waitresses came over, one by one, to give him a hug. Good to see you, Jim/Bill/Rick. The bartender knew his drink. He had on his Cubs hat, and the Cubs had just won. He had reason to be in a good mood. It wasn’t yet 4 pm.
Mars Resort has anchored the south shore of Lake Como since 1923. Originally named “The Old Glory Camp”, this lakeside restaurant/bar had a few ownership and name changes before finally resting on the name Mars Resort in 1949. It has operated continuously ever since. No matter the fish, no matter the ribs, something in this area that has operated for so long under the same roof deserves our praise and our attention. That’s why I slinked in to a window table just before 4 pm last Friday night. No area restaurant has had as much practice serving fried fish, and practice, as I tell my kids, is supposed to make perfect.
There were schedule conflicts on Friday night. I’ve tried to eat at Mars several times during this fishy tour, but each time the sheer number of cars in the parking lot rebuffed my attempt. I like to eat fish, but I don’t like to wait 30 minutes for a table. Because of our odd Friday schedule, I knew I could either eat dinner slightly later or slightly earlier, and as a devoted fan of eating, I opted for earlier. Knowing I needed to capitalize on this early dinner, I headed for Mars. Surely the restaurant couldn’t be busy at 4 pm.
And it wasn’t, excepting the bar that was filling in and the happy customers nursing their Old Fashioned’s. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and it seemed that indeed everyone here knew each other’s name. Except mine, of course, even though my local status is likely even more local than the most local among them. Still, Mars isn’t my thing, and it isn’t my place, so I sat at a local bar with my daughter and her friend and felt very much like an outsider. I almost felt the need to apologize to the waitress, who seemed concerned that she didn’t recognize me.
Mars is a classic supper club. It has classic supper clubby things, like a piano bar, where, on one of my only other visits I was entertained by Wayne Messmer. The decor is old school, thankfully old school. If I learned anything from the Big Foot Inn it’s that you don’t go messing with what works. At a supper club, old works. Don’t dress it up. Don’t ruin what makes the place different. Mars doesn’t, and that’s why Mars feels, even for an outsider like me, very much like home. Sitting lakeside on Como, my daughter commented on the water. It’s so shallow, she said. I assured her that she wasn’t seeing the bottom, but just the scum of the water that is Lake Como. After I told her that, I wondered if it could have indeed been the bottom. With Como, one never knows.
The fish fry is All You Can Eat cod, fried or broiled, with a choice of potato and a choice of soup or salad. I liked the option of a soup or salad. A friend of mine was in Boston over the weekend, so in his honor I ordered the soup, Clam Chowder, on this chilly, windy spring evening. My daughter and her friend both skipped the fish fry and ordered off of the menu. Apparently everyone around here is sick of fish except for me. There were other options for fried walleye, but I didn’t want to eat walleye two Friday’s in a row. I’m watching my figure. At $12.95, the cod dinner was a bargain.
Shortly after ordering the waitress brought out a cracker basket and a rounded mound of soft, spreadable cheese. I greedily fought my daughter for the cheese, and enjoyed it very much. There was no traditional bread basket, just this cracked basket, but the addition of the soft cheese made me forget all about the bread, and even made me look past the foiled packets of butter. My clam chowder arrived a minute later. It was hot, creamy, and above average for a clam chowder. It wasn’t all poisoned with too much celery, either. The clams had some nice sand content, so I knew they were good.
The fish was table side within a few minutes, which was a benefit of eating dinner at 4 pm with my elderly friends. The plate looked right. A lemon wedge, two large piece of fish, two potato pancakes, and some plastic containers holding my applesauce, tartar sauce, and drawn butter. Don’t assume I’m just a fan of softened butter, by the way. Melted butter works just as well, and I felt rather satisfied and portly as I submerged my pieces of baked cod into the pool. I tasted the applesauce first- nice and cold, a little bit of chunk, delicious. Nice. The tartar sauce would have to go unjudged, as my wife and designed tartar sauce tester was not present. It looked super relishy, which may be good and it may be bad, I couldn’t tell.
The baked cod was good. Firm, reasonably well cooked, and quite satisfying. It was good enough on its own, but with some lemon and a butter bath it was even better. The fried cod was fine, but not particularly memorable. The batter wasn’t really a batter, as it was too thin. It was more like the fish was rolled in flour and tossed into the fryer. Without the batter to protect it, the exterior of the fish dried out a bit. It was still good, and I still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t quite on par with the standouts.
The potato pancakes were pretty good, and closely resembled breakfast hash browns pushed into a pancake shape. I liked them, but I won’t say they were at the top of the list. That’s sort of how I felt about the whole dinner at Mars. It was quite good, but not as good as others. I liked the scene, a lot. I liked that the patrons were happy and known. I like that a place like this exists, here, in this place, on that shallow water shore. Mars didn’t reach Anthony’s level, but it is certainly a nice little bar. If you go there often, I have no doubt that it won’t take long before everybody knows your name.
Mars Resort 7.5/10
W4098 South Shore Drive, Lake Geneva
$12.95 All You Can Eat Cod (Walleye optional, likely an upcharge)