Holiday Dining on North Shore a Treasure Hunt
Hidden gems are there, but you have to search to find them.
Among the kindest gifts you can give to the special cook in your life during the hectic holidays is a little relief from the kitchen. What with preparing party fare, baking, decorating, shopping and planning for the big dinner, home life is seldom as demanding as it can be during December.
Why not insist that someone else – someone professional – do the chores for at least one long, relaxing meal?
Keeping it close to home can be a plus, because winter weather, traffic, and just the logistics of getting away from holiday duties make long excursions dicey.
Unfortunately, the North Shore suburbs are lamentably lacking in numbers of restaurants that combine great food and the kind of atmosphere that says, "You're special." There are nice cafes, delis, pubs and coffee shops, but few places to dress up for.
As it happens, though, the North Shore is home to a handful of hidden jewels that are absolutely unique standouts in the Milwaukee region for charm and post-card atmosphere. Two are designated Milwaukee County landmarks, a rarity in suburban settings. Three are so tucked away a GPS is strongly advised just to find them (and, in one case, you'll want to take the unit with you on foot after you park the car).
Once you've arrived, though, you will find it was worth the search, and, in fact, it is the very out-of-the-wayness of these spots that contributes a large part of their character. You may feel, as many who have discovered them have testified, that you have been transported to the Lake Country, the Alps or North Woods Brigadoon.
Hubbard Park Lodge, 3565 N. Morris Blvd., Shorewood.
During the Great Depression, Shorewood was among the first communities in the nation to apply for assistance from the new Works Progress Administration. Many of the village's professionals, including architects and engineers, were out of jobs and willing to take on any task to keep home and family together.
As a reward, the WPA granted Shorewood the right to build a lodge of a design being used mainly in national parks and modeled on the famous one at Yellowstone. Thirteen were built across the nation; only two remain, this one in Hubbard Park and the other now being the National Visitor Center of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, MD.
The lodge, up a winding path atop a bluff, is open to the public only for Friday night fish fry dinners (5 to 9 p.m.) and Sunday brunch (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Under new management this year by Russell Davis, who also manages dining at the Lakefront Brewery Palm Garden, the lodge's brunch offerings have been scaled back to be family-fun and affordable during the Great Recession.
The Lumberjack Brunch features all-you-can-eat pancakes, as well as eggs, meats, potatoes, fruit, cereal and an omelet bar, with service provided by flannel-clad Jacks and Jills.
It's decked out for the holidays, with a tall, glittering Christmas tree centered in the room before the rustic fireplace. You may want to forgo convenience in favor of balcony seating just to get the full effect of the soaring room.
"The menu will be more themed for the holidays as well," said Davis, "with something special, a few more items to choose from."
Bavarian Inn, 700 W. Lexington Blvd., Glendale
You would be hard-pressed to find another place like this one outside Germany, not just because of its utterly Old World atmosphere or food, but because of its unique ownership and history.
In 1934, before Glendale even existed, a group of Bavarian cultural societies leased land along the Milwaukee River for their social and sporting functions. They bought and developed 15-acre Heidelberg Park in 1943, and today the private sanctuary still is owned by five societies devoted to Bavarian song, dance, sport and society.
The Bavarian Inn, built in 1967, is, as you would expect, thickly trimmed with gingerbread scrollwork, plastered with coats of arms and studded with antlers. To find it, like the Hubbard Park Lodge, you must pass under the crown of an embankment, in this case, the substantial barrier of Interstate 43.
This grand clubhouse also is open to the public for Friday fish fries (5 to 9:30 p.m.) and Sunday brunch (10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.). The champagne brunch is $15.95 for adults, $4.95 for children 5 to 10 years old, and $0.95 for those 4 and younger.
The Bavarian Inn's public offering had retreated from its roots in recent years and ultimately was setting out nothing particularly German other than potato pancakes. Desserts, a hallmark of Bavarian cuisine, were being brought in. But this season, the establishment has rekindled the spirit of gemutlicheit on its menu.
"I don't know how we got away from that," said new executive chef Todd Gill, on board just a month. "It's who we are, after all. So we'll be bringing back the rouladens and schnitzels, for one thing.
"And I have a sous chef who's a wonderful baker, so we've banned store-bought, and now everything will be made here, fresh, from scratch. For the holidays, we'll be doing things like spice cakes, gingerbread and maybe peppermint pie."
For reservations, which are strongly recommended, call (414) 964-0300.
River Lane Inn, 4313 W. River Lane, Brown Deer
Almost invisible from the modern, high-volume thoroughfares of Brown Deer and Green Bay roads that hem it in sits a secluded, shut-in neighborhood of a few narrow streets that in fact is the original old village center of Brown Deer. Among a number of fine old buildings in this uncelebrated section of town is one that housed a general store, barber shop and tavern when it was built 110 years ago.
For the past 31 years, it has been home to the hard-to-find but worth-the-look River Lane Inn. Long before trendy, upscale seafood restaurants began popping up everywhere during the past decade or so, the River Lane Inn was considered by those in the know to be the best place around for treasures from the deep. Many still say so.
"I think our customer base keeps us consistent," said manager Fran D'Angelo. "We have loyal, loyal customers, and we never want to let them down. We're consistent; we care about quality and we've never let that change."
"It's just such a family here," said owner Jim Marks. "Our staff never leaves, never moves on unless it's to something completely different than this business."
Cases in point: D'Angelo has been with Marks for 27 years; executive chef Michael Kusch has led the kitchen staff for 17, and he said he has line cooks who've been there almost as long.
Kusch adds multiple nightly specials and seasonal selections to the regular menu's eight seafood entrees, so you can expect to encounter winter catches such as skate wing along with exotica like halibut cheeks. Wednesday night's Maine lobster boil can be either great family fun or a romantic indulgence.
Call (414) 354-1995 for reservations.
Jack Pandl's Whitefish Bay Inn, 1319 E. Henry Clay St., Whitefish Bay
Pandl's is no North Shore secret, although it is situated comfortably distant from any competing commercial bustle, in a residential neighborhood along tony Lake Drive. Established in 1915 by the grandfather of current owner Jack Jr., Pandl's has been a destination dining spot for generations of Milwaukeeans. But no compendium of local hidden treasures would be complete without it.
The menu at Pandl's just goes on and on to touch all the German and American favorites you can think of: roast duck, weiner schnitzel, rouladen, lamb shank, barbecued ribs, walleye, fresh whitefish (a specialty of the house), steaks and lobster, just to name a few. The potato pancakes are a claim to fame, as are rich desserts.
Pandl's harkens back to a day, from which it has little changed, when Milwaukee picnickers lined up at a downtown pier to ride a steamer north to the Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort, a plush beer garden on the lake bluff, or rode up on the train. Pandl's is the only remaining trace of that past.
As in any good German restaurant, dark wood and red upholstery abound, and here too is a very large collection of beer steins (and, again, antlers aplenty).
Pandl's is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner hours are 3:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 3:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. It also features a Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
For reservations, call (414) 964-3800.
Take Time for Tea
If just reading about all that rich German fare and those towering stacks of flapjacks makes you feel a bit overstuffed, a great spot to take a quiet break for something light during or after shopping is Anaba Tea Room, 2107 E. Capitol Dr., Shorewood.
Situated in the lower level of the Garden Room, an upscale garden shop, it's the perfect place to take your mother, best friend, old friend or soulmate for conversation over, of course, tea. But the food at Anaba has proved so popular the proprietors have added late dinner hours as of Nov. 20, for a menu with a decidedly Asian tilt.
Hours are: Tuesday, lunch and tea service, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., tea service only, 3 to 5 p.m. (subject to private parties and events); Wednesday through Saturday, lunch and tea service, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., tea service only, 3 to 5 p.m., dinner, 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, lunch or brunch and tea service, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Mondays. Call (414) 963-9510.
A New Day in North Shore Dining?
It could be that the era of needing a treasure map or a satellite system to find the few good dining rooms on the North Shore is ending. First, the remodeling of Bayshore Mall to become Bayshore Town Center has at least doubled the number of sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood, with Ovation Restaurant, Devon Seafood Grill, Coa, Bravo! Cucina Italiana, and Bar Louie topping the bill.
Much more recently, North Star American Bistro moved across the street and into the Cornerstone Building at 4510 N. Oakland Ave. and officially into Shorewood. Besides having an elegant new location, North Star now is serving hometown Shorewood beer from brand new Big Bay Brewing Co., which plans to open a tasting room next year (although there are no plans to make it a brewpub).
No fear, though, for we now we learn that the rumors are true, a new English room, to be called The Three Lions Pub, is opening at 4515 N. Oakland Ave. in Shorewood.
With Downtown, the Third Ward, Walker's Point, Bay View, Riverwest and, yes, even Wauwatosa having become pretty well saturated with restaurants, it only makes sense that entrepreneurs would look north to fill a void, where, in fact, there is more than a little money lying around. If this is the start of a trend, that could be a real holiday gift to North Shore foodies.