There are many things that set Lake Geneva apart from its so-called competition. The water quality, the housing stock, the liquidity; all are important aspects of our superiority. But perhaps chief on the minds of residents and would-be residents is the plentiful existence of places to dine or imbibe that are accessible via boat. Lots of lakes have a place to eat on the water. Like one place. Maybe two, but probably one. When living on Geneva, there are loads of restaurants reachable via water chariot, and among those restaurants there are bars like Chucks, casual joints like Gordy’s, and the king of waterfront dining: Pier 290. When Pier 290 opened several years ago it immediately became a shining lakefront beacon, drawing residents and day trippers to this lakefront scene. The fanfare was and is deserved.
Friday night called for an early dinner. My daughter was skiing and my son had basketball practice, so my wife and I put on our going to dinner clothes (in a twist, these are also my going to work clothes and going to Walmart clothes) and arrived at Pier 290 at 5:25 pm. It was dark, cold, and we were pleased to find a parking space near the front door. The hostess led us to an ideal table for two, in the far southeast corner of the main dining room, near the lakeside window and fireplace. It was a wonderful spot in a beautiful room. The firewood was stacked neatly near the fireplace, our table so close I could have tended the fire if I wished. And I did wish. The fireplace was absent of fire on this 14 degree January evening. Why is there a fireplace here if not for an evening such as this? Suddenly my fireside table felt out of the way and meaningless.
The waiter was soon table side and took our order. He was both polite and well spoken. Two waters and an appetizer of deviled eggs. I’ve had these deviled eggs before, and though they were previously a bit overly mustardy, they were always delicious with a splash of Tobasco. The plate, two eggs cut in half ($8) arrived quickly. The deviled eggs were good, though not at all as I remembered. The white of the egg was firm, perhaps too firm. In a twist, it seemed to me that the yolk filling also contained chunks of the egg white, which I found to be interesting at first and then annoying. Bread and butter were served, and I was delighted in the softened butter. I will always delight in softened butter. The bread was warm, though barely. It could have used another minute in the oven, but was a nice bread, airy and chewy, an ideal accompaniment to the soft butter.
When the waiter returned, we ordered the fish fry. On the menu, it’s listed as an All You Can Eat fish fry with two options: Cod or Bluegill. Neither option had a listed price, which I thought strange, but perhaps the market price of frozen cod fluctuates wildly and the menu pricing is best left blank. The waiter recommended the bluegill, so I succumbed and ordered bluegill, it only comes fried. I also ordered one piece of cod fried and one piece of cod broiled. Potato pancakes as the side. Pier 290 offers house made potato chips as a side, and I would suggest you not order those. If you’re going to eat potato, you might as well eat it in the proper dinner form.
In the entirety of the front dining room, just one other table was occupied, so when our fish arrived quickly after ordering I was pleased but not surprised. The plate was large, the serving size ample. Two potato pancakes, one piece of broiled cod, one piece of fried, and perhaps five small bluegill filets. The fried items were not golden fried, as you’d expect with a fish fry, but were rather lightly fried, as if the fish was tossed only in flour or cornstarch before frying. Maybe dredged, not battered. That’s fine, but I found the exterior to lack crispiness and necessary crunch. The potato pancakes were flavorful, hot, and generally delicious. There was more to this mix than is typical, lending a creaminess to the interior that I enjoyed.
The bluegill, with that pale breading, was served skin-on. It was overcooked and had a dull flavor not at all like the bluegill filets I grew up eating. We would always filet our fish and remove the skin entirely before breading with an egg bath and instant mashed potato mix on the exterior. If you’ve never done this, I suggest you do. I’d also suggest Pier 290 consider it, because the bluegill dinner wasn’t something I’d ever order again. The cod was better, though breaded in that same light crust. The broiled piece was fine, if small and square, like a Williams Bay 1986 cafeteria serving. Still, it was well salted and not overcooked like the bluegill. I ordered a second piece of broiled, to make good on that All You Can Eat offer, and was quickly presented with two more squares of cod. These came with a lemon wedge, something the initial plate didn’t include. These are the sort of odd inconsistencies that are common here.
The waiter remained attentive to our water glasses and quickly asked if we wanted any seconds. We declined, and asked for the check. The cod dinner was $13, which comes in just below Anthony’s price. The bluegill dinner cost me $18.95, which came as a surprise only because it wasn’t priced on the menu. I wouldn’t consider ordering that bluegill again, no matter the price. Our total dinner tab for two (no drinks) was $51.15 including tip. In line with expectations, and in line with a typical Wisconsin fish fry.
If you go to Anthony’s, you go to celebrate the big plate of fried fish, and to tolerate the rest, even if the rest is quaintly charming. At Pier 290, you go to celebrate the scene, to celebrate the design of the restaurant and the way the space feels. You tolerate the fish. Will I go back to Pier 290? Of course I will. I’ll always go to Pier 290 because it’s so darn pretty. But the food remains a mystery, and a Friday Fish Fry that should seemingly be the easiest to master because it never, ever changes, was still a slight miss. Visit Pier 290 because you can. Because it’s accessible by boat, and you can dine outdoors in the summer with your toes in the sand. Visit because it’s our most beautiful area restaurant. But when you go, don’t order the bluegill.
1 Leichty Drive, Williams Bay, WI
Friday Fish Fry $13 (Bluegill $18.95)
All You Can Eat