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West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a thing for restaurants that offer Tater Tots as a side.  When a choice of potato is offered, it’s usually baked or fried. The baked potato is a thing of the past, even though Big Baked Potato works hard to convince you of their imaginary relevance. French Fries will always be a thing, always near and dear to me, but there’s no surprise here. It’s the Tater Tot that’s unique in today’s world of potato, and that’s why the West Wind Diner in Darien has a leg up on its competition, even before the rest of the menu is considered and a dinner is ordered.

The West Wind Diner is at the intersection of Highway 14 and Interstate 43, just outside of Darien.  The restaurant looks like something from Steinbach, Manitoba. If you’ve never been, trust me, this is what the restaurants look like. I’ve been. The parking lot is huge, mostly gravel, made that way on purpose to entice hungry truckers. It’s a truck stop, really, but it’s clean and it’s modern and there’s a case with  pies in it right next to the Please Wait To Be Seated sign.

A super friendly waitress sat us at a booth near the window. There’s no view here to consider, just the front grills of the vehicles in the parking lot.  We hadn’t intended to eat here, mind you.  We drove this direction to eat at the Duck Inn, farther to the North. That supper club staple was slammed at 5:40, with a 30-45 minute wait, so we drove back towards home and I remembered some fine diner meals I’ve had over the years at West Wind. That’s why we were there, and that’s why we listened intently to the fish fry offerings.

Baked or fried cod, fried is all-you-can-eat. There’s a perch offering, too, but when pressed the waitress revealed her affinity for the cod. The baked variety is offered plain, lemon-peppered, or blackened.  The choice of potato was as I earlier mentioned, and while I longed for the Tots, I stuck to my guns and ordered the potato pancakes. A choice of soup or salad was nice. My daughter went for the dumpling soup, my wife and I ate salad, appropriately drenched in ranch dressing.  The croutons were oily and misshapen, which at first seemed a bit difficult but was, in fact, a sign of their housemade origins.

I opted for fried and baked (lemon pepper, apparently, though I don’t remember ordering it that way). My wife went with the blackened cod and fries.  The baked pieces were large, rectangular. They were pretty good, though my wife thought the consistency was a bit chewy. They were a touch dry, and mine lacked salt. The seasoning additions were fine, but nothing memorable. I munched on some bread, because that’s what I do. The rolls were wrapped in plastic, like we were in seats 31 E and F, traveling from Newark to Tampa. There was no butter, foiled or otherwise, in sight. For shame.

My fried pieces were extra crispy, uniquely shaped, and sadly, dry. The tartar sauce helped a bit, but alas, they were beyond redemption. The potato pancakes looked the part, but they, too, were off. The texture was spongy, rubbery,  perhaps over-beaten to such a degree that the starch was too wound and bound. The applesauce was smooth, but at least it was served in a small metal tub (as was the tartar sauce).  At the end of our meal we were given the option of a few different sorts of ice cream, which were served in old-timey sunday glasses. The ice cream was meh but the touch was appreciated and charming.

When the dust settled, I was stuffed. The meal was perhaps a bit below average, but the waitress was sweet and there was obvious care put into the menu and the preparation. Sadly, this is not a congeniality contest. For the Lake Geneva Set, I can’t recommend driving this far out of your way for this fish fry.  While I appreciate the West Wind Diner, I think next time I’ll visit in the morning hours, and order an omelet with a side of tots.

 

West Wind Diner 5/10

620 North Walworth Street (highway 14) Darien, WI

All you can eat fried cod, or baked cod dinner (one or two pieces), typical sides plus tater tots.

South Shore Bar Fish Fry Review

South Shore Bar Fish Fry Review

I was born in Elkhorn. Raised in Williams Bay. Then I lived in Linn Township, Geneva Township, Delavan Township, Fontana, and now Walworth Township. I am the embodiment of local. The word was made for me. If I’m not a local here, no one is a local anywhere. I was in France last week, being a non-local. If not for my strapping American frame and my obvious American nature, I might, after some lengthy period of time, be considered, at least by some, as a local.  This business of localness typically requires significant effort and significant time.  Last Friday night I walked in to the South Shore Bar and Grill on Delavan’s southern shore, feeling very much not like a local.

I’ve been to this bar before, or I should say, at least once before. I went with a friend for pizza on a night when our wives weren’t looking. On that night, I generally enjoyed the pizza, which is tavern style. But on this night, I was there for the fish fry, and the parking lot sign proclaimed that I was indeed at the right place. I should say that I didn’t intend to visit the South Shore Bar that night. I first went to the Rushing Waters Trout House restaurant in Delavan. The restaurant there is very large, and when we walked in we were delighted to see open tables and no one waiting. The hostess told us there would be a 20-30 minute wait. But there were open tables, I replied, incredulous in my tone. She said there weren’t enough servers. And so we left. This is embarrassing for the Trout House, and if I were in any position of authority there I’d quickly right my ship before all of this excess water sinks it.

The South Shore Bar and Grill is a bar. There’s a large bar in the main room, with a small dining room off to the West side. When we arrived the parking lot was full and so was the restaurant. We were told the wait would be maybe 10 minutes, so we stood by the door, sticking out like very sore thumbs. Eyes glanced our direction. At least one man at the bar whispered something to another man at the bar. It might have been about my powder blue shorts, but I couldn’t be certain. A man on the other side of the bar drank from a tall can of Busch Light. His wife nursed a cocktail.  Everyone knew each other, no one knew us. If it weren’t for the Wisconsin law, I’m guessing 40% of the bar would have been pulling on a heater.

A polite but somewhat harried hostess led us to our booth. The booth cushion on the one side was torn open in many spots, so I opted for the other side. But the other side had very little breathing room, and the table was affixed to the wall, a condition I only realized after pushing and tugging at it for a while. I switched with my son and sat on the torn side. I reviewed my fishy options.

All you can eat fried cod, $11.50. Baked cod dinner, $11.50. Pan Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Perch Dinner, $15.95. These are fine options. Impressive really, for a small bar on the way to no-where, just around the corner from Nothing. The menu reflected a general understanding of the Wisconsin Fish Fry. All items were served with a  side of potato and access to the small salad bar that resided in between the bar and the dining room. I asked the waitress what she recommended. The fried walleye was a bit bland for her taste. She loved the perch. I opted for the fried cod, with a piece of baked cod for good measure.

The salad bar was modest. A few bowls of mayonnaise based salad of some variety, along with some lettuce, chopped onion and tomato, and shredded cheese. I could have used a few more accoutrements, but seeing as how I was at a bar for fish fry, I didn’t mind. If you wanted a salad bar, you should have gone to a salad restaurant. This was a fried food restaurant with a side of pizza, and I was content to nibble a bit of salad and wait for my fish. After a week  of French food,  my stomach was hankering for some classic Wisconsin fish fry.

And the South Shore Bar didn’t disappoint. The fried cod came out, two pieces with my initial order, and it was delightful. The batter was well seasoned, and the fish was moist, sweet, and salty. I really loved it. The baked was a bit dry, but it was served with a small plastic tub of drawn butter, and that made everything better. There was a single slice of rye bread on my plate, which was awful as expected but it was buttered so how terrible could it really be? Give me liberty or give me death, but if you’re going to give me rye bread you should at least butter it for me.

The two potato pancakes were nicely fried to a golden brown, and while they were a touch dry, they met the expectation of an average pancake.  I quickly ate all of my food and asked for a few more pieces of fried cod, not because I was hungry but because I refuse to walk away from an all-you-can-eat dinner offering without ordering seconds. The cod was again delightful, even if my second piece was thicker and ended up being slightly undercooked.  My wife said the tartar sauce was okay, and I found the applesauce to be delicious. It was served ice cold, and had immense flavor. It was, perhaps, my favorite applesauce to date.

I enjoyed my dinner at the South Shore Bar and Grill.  The waitress was sweet and attentive, the food above average for this tour. The fried cod was a real treat, as the seasoned batter elevated otherwise bland cod to a higher level. I’d add the South Shore Bar to your Fish Fry rotation, especially if your preferred joint is slammed this summer.  I left feeling satisfied in my dinner, and had it not been for those powder blue shorts and my wife’s white jeans, we might have fit right in.

 

South Shore Bar and Grill 7/10

W6763 South Shore Drive, Delavan, WI

$11.50 All You Can Eat Fried Cod

 

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

 

 

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

 

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

There is risk in trying a new restaurant. When given the menu choice between discovering something new and retreating to the familiar, I opt for the familiar. The familiar doesn’t let you down. New choices can lead to wonderful discovery, but more often they lead to huge embarrassing disappointment. This is the basis of dinner envy, or order error, of coveting thy neighbor’s plate.  It’s out of this same fear that I’ve never found my way to the Big Foot Inn, located just south of Walworth. Technically it’s in Illinois, but that’s only technicality. This is a Wisconsin supper club, whether it wants to be or not.

The restaurant sits a solid throw off of Highway 14, just south of State Line Road. You can leave the Fontana lakefront and be to the Big Foot Inn in less than 7 minutes. If you drive by during the day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be closed. A relic of another era, you’d think. Too bad it didn’t make it, you’d say. But it did make it and it is open, and on Friday night I pulled in the driveway to find a busy parking lot and a warmly lit entrance. This evening I was joined by my wife and daughter while my son toiled away at another Friday night basketball practice. We arrived at 5:35 pm. The foyer was classic supper club, reminiscent of Anthony’s, with a drawing of whom I presumed to be Chief Big Foot on the south wall.  The bar is to the left, the dining rooms to the right. I looked longingly into the bar as we were led past it, not because I was thirsty but because it looked the part. Vintage furniture, softly lit, a handful of patrons at the bar and a scattering at tables. Nice.

The dining room wasn’t at all like the bar.  The website says the restaurant received a thorough renovation in 1987, and this was indeed the style of the dining rooms.   The furniture wasn’t new enough to be nice and it wasn’t old enough to be cool. It was trapped in the middle. Not vintage, not shiny. Just dated. Our oak dining table was in the far corner of the front dining room, which was nearly full with diners. Aside from one table near ours, we were the youngest people in the building.  While the bar was softly lit, the dining area was bright. Too bright, my wife and I agreed. Soon after,  as if having noticed our squinting, a waitress turned down the lights to an acceptable dim.

The fish fry is all you can eat cod, but only if you’re ordering the fried cod. Broiled cod is single serving. My wife ordered the broiled and my daughter and I ordered the fried. The table quickly filled with accoutrements. A basket of dinner rolls, a bowl each of applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce, and potato salad.  The dinner rolls were small and shiny, torpedo shaped, and absolutely delicious. Warm with a crunchy exterior, it was hard not to eat the entire basket. And I might have if not for the butter situation. The butter was served not in a dish or a bowl, but in small single serve containers, like a gas station might offer next to their hotdog rolling machine. It was a tremendous disappointment.

The potato salad was German style, but different than any I’ve ever had. Most salad of this style would be heavy on vinegar, but this was basically chopped up boiled potatoes with some bacon and deeply caramelized onions in a sauce of butter. The sauce was sweet, but there was no discernible vinegar present. I thought the dish to be different, and I couldn’t tell if I really like the difference, but I ate it anyway because it was quite good.  Shortly after ordering the fish arrived, a single plate for my wife and family style dishes for my daughter and me to share.  The potato pancakes  were super crunchy, super greasy, and super good.   My daughter ordered the fries, which were pale and looked like every french fry any diner has ever served. My wife’s broiled fish came with a side of vegetables, which were obviously from a frozen bag. And not the gourmet frozen bag, but the frozen bag that goes on sale Four For a Dollar.

My fried fish sections were lightly battered and appropriately golden brown.  When you buy cod in the frozen section of a grocery store, they come in long rectangle shaped bricks. Our fish was similar, except that the fried pieces were cut into 2 x 2 squares.  They were crunchy, adequately salted, and properly cooked. I liked them. But the shape was a distraction, and combined with the glimpse of my wife’s small cut up vegetables and the oak table with paper place settings I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the dining hall of a well cared for nursing home. I tasted a piece of my wife’s broiled cod and it was fine, although she mentioned that the tartar sauce was a bland and had let her down.

In the end, the tab with tip was $50.00. No drinks, no appetizers, no dessert. The portions were large, and I left feeling contented without ordering a second helping of anything. This may have been on account of the additional roll intake, but nonetheless, no seconds were ordered.   The waitress did ask us if we wanted more, which was nice, and she was pleasant and attentive even if our water glasses did get a bit dry midway through dinner. We weaved back through the two dining rooms, past the bar that still looked neat and inviting, and to our car. The night was a success,  and I was glad to visit a new to me restaurant.

I enjoyed my dinner. The price was in line, the service was sweet, and the food plentiful.  Nothing was bad, and the dinner rolls were terrific. But nothing left me feeling as thought I needed to go back. I wasn’t overly impressed with any aspect of the evening.  I liked my fish, but did I love it?  I liked the Big Foot logo work, but did that overcome the paper place settings?  I liked that it was just a handful of miles from my home, but will that make me come back? I think the answer to each is an easy no. Not a forceful no, because things were fine, but I don’t find that I’ll need to add the Big Foot Inn to my standard fish fry rotation. I’d ask that you try it, and maybe the dinner rolls and potato salad will bring you back. Maybe you’ll get a seat in the bar and it will affect your opinion, just as the back dining room affected mine.

Big Foot Inn  6.5/10

All You Can Eat Fried Cod $13 (I think, because I can’t seem to find my receipt and the website doesn’t list the price)

11508 Highway 14, Harvard, IL 

 

Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

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.

 

Rating 5/10

Pier 290  

1 Leichty Drive, Williams Bay, WI

Friday Fish Fry $13 (Bluegill $18.95)

All You Can Eat

 

Friday Fish Fry

Friday Fish Fry

The problem with restaurant reviews is that they’re generally written by people who wish not to offend the restaurant. If we were in a large city, and I were Jonathan Gold or Steve Dolinsky, I would write about a restaurant without any fear of calling out their shortcomings. So long as I praised their successes, no one would mind the negatives. But in small town America, restraurant reviews are written in bulk in the back of seasonal guide magazines, or only after a restaurant opens. The reviews often, always, glow. They glow because they must, because small town America does not wish to see small town America fail. Ah, but fail we do, and so it’s time that someone wrote proper reviews of Lake Geneva area restaurants. I volunteer.

I’ve often written that most area restaurants are not all terrible.  They do one thing well, or a few things well, and equal things, or more things bad. A good dish here and there does not make a restaurant. Consistency across the menu, throughout the experience, that’s what makes a restaurant. And sadly, those are the things that often fail local, small town restaurants.  Because of these inconsistencies it is necessary to judge each restaurant on the same dish. The same night. The same idea. In Wisconsin, thanking the Catholics for their tradition, we have Friday Fish Fry. It’s revered in this state, as it should be, and it’s a staple on every menu across this great state.

That’s why this weekly review is going to pinpoint the Friday Fish Fry, FFF from here on out. I’m going to choose one local restaurant each Friday for the next 12 or more Fridays, and on Monday you’re going to read about it. To keep things fair, I’m going to review based on the experience, the price, the service, the food. For the food, it’s going to be the FFF, and the FFF only. If an appetizer is bought, you’ll know. And unlike other reviews that have proceeded mine, I’m actually going to tell you the truth. If the restaurant’s offering is terrible, I’m going to tell you it’s terrible. If it’s delightful, you’ll know. Since I come to this review with some existing bias, I’ll start where the bias is most poignant: Anthony’s Steak House.

I first visited Anthony’s as a child, perhaps in the fifth or sixth grade. My parents took me and some older relatives. The decor was dated, the interior dark. The circle turn around with covered portico reminiscent of a funeral home. That was likely almost 30 years ago. Friday night,  fresh off a Faith Christian School basketball victory in Hebron, where they’ll never stop talking about that ancient state basketball championship (for good reason, I must admit), I pulled into the dark parking lot (ample, and easy to find a spot in no matter how jammed the restaurant) and walked into the darker restaurant. The iconic roadside sign remains the thing that shines brightest at Anthony’s.

We were joining friends, making the table a party of nine.  After a few minutes to arrange a table (we didn’t make reservations), we were escorted to the back room of the restaurant. There is a large bar on the East end, a large fireplace that long ago burned its last fire on the North, and this banquet room to the far West. It felt like a room in the basement of an older hotel where a low budget wedding reception might take place. The ceiling hangs low in this restaurant. But the space is clean, and the waitstaff was friendly, and avoided calling anyone at the table dear, honey, sweetie, or darling.  The room was warm on that bitterly cold evening. We ordered waters, because I am my father’s son, and were presented with bread and butter. The bread was warm, if lacking any density. Sort of airy, like a Wonder Bread thrown into the oven for a moment to toast the top. The round orb of butter attracted my attention, as butter tends to do, and I tore off a small hunk of white bread and attempted to slather on some butter.

The bread was warm, but the butter was ice cold. Spreading cold butter on warm, airy bread doesn’t work so well. But alas, I had decided to order a bowl of French Onion Soup, labeled “Charley O’s”. I worked at Charley O’s in the very early 90s, and everyone has always known of the special soup that Charley featured. With Charley playing front of house host at Anthony’s, he brought his soup with him, and it was as delicious as I remember. The trip to Anthony’s may be worth while if only for the soup, $5.99 for the bowl. Thick and rich with beef stock and onions, capped with broiled gruyere cheese, this isn’t like that watery fancy-pants-french-restaurant-soup. This is cold hearty, stewy, like it should be, like it was always meant to be. The soup was delicious, the bread light and warmed, the butter ice cold.

The FFF is $13.99 for adults, and it’s all you can eat.  When we ordered, there was some confusion as to whether or not there was a child’s version of this dinner that wouldn’t be $13.99, but no one, including the waitstaff knew if the kid’s version was all you can eat, or not. It didn’t matter. I ordered- half fried and half broiled cod, potato pancakes.  Anthony’s does offer a perch dinner, but it’s not all you can eat and perch tastes like cod, so why not order the cod?  While we waited for dinner, small bowls of tartar sauce, coleslaw, and apple sauce were brought out. Our bread was refreshed without our asking, which was nice. The butter was still nearly as cold as the night air.

We waited around 30 minutes for the fish to arrive. That’s too long, especially considering the restaurant was not yet operating under full capacity, given our early arrival (6 pm).  Whenever a wait is that long  I worry that the food has been sitting on the counter, under warming bulbs, while the waitress takes a smoke break.  When the food arrived it was hot, wiping away my concerns over tepid fish. The potato pancakes were delicious, flavorful patties crisped wonderfully. They were oily, which my healthy friend commented on, but the oil is what makes them taste good. If you want baked potato pancakes, you best stay south of the state line. My fried cod was breaded lightly with a beer-style batter, crispy, hot, and well salted. Fried fish can often lack salt, but these two pieces were ideal.

The broiled cod at Anthony’s features a spice rub of some variety, salt, pepper, oregano and perhaps paprika. It’s a nice rub, though at times it can be overpowering. If you order a full order of broiled, you’ll get a big, thick, handsome filet. But if you order a half order, you’ll generally get the wimpy tail piece of the filet, which is thin and overcooks easily, and is also overpowered by the seasoning. Still, the fish was tender, well salted, and tasty. Given that this is an all-you-can-eat joint, I ordered one extra piece of broiled fish, just to feel like I had gotten my money’s worth. The fish that came out was a skinny piece of tail section, less than ideal.  I don’t eat tartar sauce or coleslaw, so you’ll have to judge those for yourself.

There’s a restaurant in the Driftless that serves a Wednesday night all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner. We went there once and ordered the shrimp. After the first plate was brought to our table, the waiter disappeared for what felt like days. When he finally surfaced we had lost our enthusiasm to re-order seconds, which we had rightfully intended to do. That’s a common trick in the all-you-can-eat business, if you don’t make yourself available to take the order, the patron cannot eat all he can eat. At Anthony’s, we were asked by the waitress if we wanted any more to eat, which is nice, and far better than the shrimp bar out West.

The dinner tab,  for five (two adults, three kids), with a bowl of soup and tip came to $94. That’s not particularly cheap, considering no beverages were ordered, but it should prove to be in line with most area FFF.  The scene at Anthony’s won’t give you any design ideas. You won’t be tempted to take many pictures. It’s just an old, dimly lit restaurant in the model of a Supper Club, charming in the easy way of old establishments,  and you go for the generous portions of hot cod. This cod will set the standard that the other restaurants must be judged against.  If you’re in town on a Friday night, you’d be wise to make your way to Anthony’s for their Friday Fish Fry. Order the soup and be sure to order seconds.   Rating 9/10. 

 

Anthony’s Steak House – 3354 State Road 50, Lake Geneva, WI (about a mile West of downtown Lake Geneva)