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