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Feature Fri Aug 02 2013
Summer is often the only time I'm able to get out of Chicago for more than a day at a time, and I tend to plan my vacations around eating. This, inevitably, becomes a problem around Day 3, when the food hangover and driving-neck crick start to compound my road rage, but that's a story for another time. Excursion eating is one of the joys of the modern road trip, when the scenic route takes you past places you'd never otherwise encounter, and a destination restaurant is often a great excuse to take the scenic route in the first place.
But where to begin? How do you find the scenic route when it's the least likely to show up on Google maps' list of trip options? How do you seek out the hidden gem when it's not on MenuPages, and the sweetly disconnected backwater where your cell phone won't even get a roaming signal doesn't have anything like LTH forum? Crowd-sourced travel sites have done much to point curious pilgrims towards the road less traveled, but two even more primitive sources are worth discussing: the printed word, and word of mouth.
First, to the printed word. Earlier this year, Ron Faiola of Wisconsin Supper Club documentary fame, put out a book on the same topic, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience (Agate, 2013), which cements both his expertise and his love for his subject matter. While his writing may not be the most transportative (sample review from a "My Take" sidebar in Green Bay's Kropp's Supper Club entry: "The hash browns were grilled just right, and the onion rings and soup couldn't have been better") his obviously genuine enthusiasm and accompanying photographs easily evoke the smells of prime rib and fried perch and the twinkle of Christmas tree lights. Faiola also seems to go out of his way to describe broad variations on the supper club theme, even while providing a list of defining characteristics, such as the cold relish tray, the brandy old-fashioned, Friday night fish fries, and ice cream cocktails. In addition to the steaks and deep fried, well, anything, Faiola also describes the out-of-the ordinary: the al fresco lobster boils at Buckhorn Supper Club in Milton, the German-inflected Jaeger schnitzel with spatzle at Bernard's Country Inn in Stevens Point, the cajun alligator nuggets at the High Shores Supper Club in Chippewa Falls, or the Thai-style duck rolls at the very rococo Hobnob in Racine. None of these would be considered classic supper club offerings on their own, yet taken together, Faiola uses them to paint a portrait of a tradition that has been flexible enough to welcome a variety of influences--and to survive in an era where diners are increasingly knowledgeable and demanding about what's on their plates.
In a Q&A document provided by the publisher, Faiola suggests "the northern part of the state where Oneida and Vilas counties meet," is the best bet for a quick and dirty introduction to the supper club milieu, because the cities in the area, Minoqua, Woodruff, Arbor Vitae, St. Germain, Rhinelander, etc., "are not only great tourist destinations but also feature so many unique supper clubs to choose from." This is the area of the state I always associate with supper clubs as well, some of which Faiola includes, such as the White Stag Inn in Rhinelander. I might also add Blink Bonnie's in St. Germain, where you need to be comfortable waiting an hour or so in the bar (or parking lot) for a table to clear, especially on Saturdays; Hintz's North Star Lodge in Star Lake, where you get a choice of soup or juice with your entree; and Smokey's in Manitowish Waters, where despite the more upscale tone of the restaurant, a relish tray is still delivered the moment you sit down. Of this list, only Hintz's (also a resort) and Smoky's (a newer incarnation of the classic supper club idea) have their own websites. I grew up in central Wisconsin where our closest supper club was the Buck-A-Neer, which I was happy to see profiled in Faiola's book--and which also does not boast its own website. A local needs to point you towards these types of places.
That pointing may be done through a coffee table book, or increasingly, the user reviews on a site like Trip Advisor. But sometimes you need a real person--someone who knows the area and its delicacies, and who and has watched the changing hands of restaurant ownership over many years, not a random Internet reviewer just passing through. You need actual words from an actual mouth.
That's what led me to the Stone Barn in Nelson, Wisconsin for my June vacation. Yes, it has a website--it was even just namechecked in a travel article in USA Today (though honestly, do people read that?). So maybe the cat's out of the bag on this one. But I made plans after first hearing about it a few years ago, knowing only it was in western Wisconsin and that it was colloqually called "the pizza barn." My interest was piqued enough to drive six hours to eat there earlier this summer--thankfully, with a local (a family friend who vacations in Waubasha, just on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi) was able to help us find it, nestled in a dictionary definition landscape of "off the beaten track."
My understanding--and let me be clear, I have done absolutely nothing to check the veracity of this narrative; I enjoy its mystique too much, and jeez guys I'm not a hard hitting journalist here--is that the Stone Barn was in a previous life, just a barn. Barns get old, and eventually fall apart, typically imploding in on themselves until the timber and shingles are shredded and weathered and only the stone foundation remains. At the Stone Barn, the foundation became the foundation for a new enterprise for the owners, whose interests presumably shifted at some point from dairy farming to Italian flatbreads. In a rebuilt front room, customers order off a chalkboard menu, and pizzas are tipped (for only a matter of minutes) into a ragingly hot, 700-degree wood burning oven. These pizzas then make their way out into a courtyard formed by barn's foundation. An old concrete water or feeder trough running the length of the courtyard has been repurposed into an herb garden, and kitchen workers are regularly seen running out to snip basil, cilantro, and sage to sprinkle on a freshly baked pie. You can order beer and wine and ice cream to complement your Thai, or southwestern, or Alaskan, or Greek pizza (only a few pies have somewhat traditional toppings, though you can also build your own). There's an antiques store in an appropriately antique house if you need something to distract you from waiting for your food. When we visited, some fellow customers had literally ridden up on their horses, who were tied to a split rail fence, delighting a crew of children.
If "pizza barn" and this story conjure a somewhat magical image in your mind, you're not far off from the reality of this place. The pizza was also fantastic--cracker thin crisp, laden to folding with heat-blistered toppings, huge enough that two pies for four people felt decadent. The evening sun glinted off a bubbling fountain installed in one of the barn's walls, and turned the grass to a neon shade of green. It was perfectly unexpected, utterly unique, and about 180-degrees from a Wisconsin supper club. Totally worth the drive, and discovered only because of word of mouth.
This is not to discount the utility of online reviews or well-known establishments along your summer roadways. But there is a value to putting the smartphone away, driving slowly enough to read the signs, and asking the guy at the gas station where one might find a really good meal around these parts. Sometimes the more disconnected it is, the better it might be--and the better it is, it surely won't be unknown for long. If nothing else, you can save some battery charge and stretch your legs exploring.