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)