Tiny Bayfield has thriving restaurant scene

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The Old Rittenhouse Inn is a bed and breakfast in Bayfield that offers fine dining. — Photo: rittenhouseinn.com

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Maggie’s. — Photo: travelwisconsin.com

With just 487 permanent residents, Bayfield is one of Wisconsin’s smaller quaint towns, with a steeply sloping main street that ends at Lake Superior. But it’s also the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, consisting of 21 islands and 69,372 acres of shoreline, which makes Bayfield a year-around magnet for tourists throughout the Midwest.

With so many visitors, Bayfield has an unexpected abundance of restaurants for a town its size. These range from good to distinctly excellent.

Bayfield also has its own regional delicacy — whitefish livers.

If you’re heading to Bayfield, be sure to patronize the local culinary scene. Following are some recommendations.

According to legend, Bayfield innkeeper Victor Greunke was the first to offer whitefish livers to the public in the 1940s. The Lake Superior delicacy, which is the size of a thumbnail, sealed Greunke’s fate and made Greunke’s Restaurant (17 Rittenhouse Ave., 800-245-3072) a popular Bayfield destination. 

Batter-dipped and lightly fried, served on a bed of lettuce with homemade tartar sauce and golden toast points, the livers are richly flavorful. When properly prepared, they have a sweet succulence and no “fishy” overtones.

Greunke’s is also a good place for breakfast and evening fish boils.

Speaking of breakfast, The Egg Toss (41 Manypenny Ave., 715-779-5181) offers interesting takes on traditional favorites. Part of the unofficial family of restaurants financed by local philanthropist/entrepreneur Mary H. Rice, heiress to the Andersen Windows fortune, The Egg Toss features hearty, creative fare that taps heavily into locally sourced ingredients. During strawberry season, delicious homemade preserves sourced from locally grown fruit are not to be missed.

Early French explorers first sited the Apostle Islands in the 17th century, naming the 21 wooded isles after Christ’s 12 Apostles. (Dyslexia, rather than simple math, may have been a factor.) Most islands are uninhabited and known mostly for their lighthouses, sea caves and bears (oh my). 

Madeline Island, the largest of the chain and not designated as part of the national seashore, is the year-around residence of about 250 people. It’s also home to what Travel & Leisure once named as one of its top 10 beach bars, even though it’s not on a beach. 

Tom’s Burned Down Café (234 Middle Road, La Pointe, 715-747-6100) began as Leona’s Bar and Dance Hall, a Madeline Island staple since 1950. In the late 1980s, Leona retired, and island resident Tom Nelson bought the bar and moved it to its current location. Nelson and others spent time renovating the place, but in 1992, a month before the renovations were scheduled to be finished, the building caught fire and burned down to its decks. And that was the beginning of the legend.

Today Tom’s Burned Down Café operates as Northern Wisconsin’s only open-air bar — a thriving, partially tented enterprise that hosts live music, has a gallery of work by local artists, and is home to Nelson’s personal collection of cultural effluvia. Less a cafe and more a constant party, Tom’s is great place to stop. Tom’s signature drink Island Rum Punch, a blend of three kinds of rum with pineapple, cranberries and lemonade — all topped with a cherry — is guaranteed to light your own fire.

The Bayfield area’s best surprises are its fine-dining restaurants, which offer outstanding fare at premium prices that bring big-city dining to mind.

The Old Rittenhouse Inn (301 Rittenhouse Ave., 715-779-5111) has achieved almost legendary status, both as Wisconsin’s first — and one of its finest — bed and breakfasts. Its outstanding restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner for the general public as well as B&B guests.

Originally the home of one of Bayfield’s founding fathers, the enormous Queen Anne Victorian house was converted into a B&B by former Madison music teachers Jerry and Mary Phillips nearly 40 years ago. It’s now one of several such Bayfield properties owned by the Phillips family.

In keeping with current fine-dining trends, dinner is a prix fixe affair, with $39 for two courses (soup or salad and an entrée) or $59 for five courses. Expect starters like Lake Superior chowder or, if you’re lucky, chilled strawberry and champagne soup. Salads run from mixed greens to house-smoked trout. An intermezzo to clear the palate follows and then the third course.

Fresh local fish figures prominently on the dinner menu, as does a delicious Steak Bercy and braised pork loin with an apple cider glaze. One of the menu’s most popular items, it’s the only one that’s remained on the menu since the Old Rittenhouse opened its doors in 1976. Choose either the turtle sundae or rum sundae for dessert.

Current innkeeper Mark Phillips has written a book, The Old Rittenhouse Inn Cookbook: Meals and Memories from Bayfield’s Historic B&B, published by Twin Ports Publishing. An official launch party for the book is scheduled for July 30 at the Old Rittenhouse.

The Wild Rice Restaurant (84860 Old San Road, 715-779-9881), just 13 years old, is the most significant part of Mary Rice’s dining legacy. (She also is involved in the more casual Maggie’s at 257 Manypenny Ave.) 

Open only from May through October, the Wild Rice occupies beautiful rustic-modern, art-filled premises just south of Bayfield. Its menu is a step up from the Old Rittenhouse menu, and its execution superior.

First courses include applewood-smoked Norwegian salmon served with greens, triple-cream cheese, roasted beets and sunchokes ($16) and seared La Belle Farm New York foie gras, offered with duck pastrami, local strawberries and a gingersnap foie gras ice cream sandwich ($19). We liked the creamy wild rice soup with house-smoked chicken, bacon and sautéed Granny Smith apples ($12).

At the top of our entrées list were the roasted Lake Superior whitefish and grilled lake trout dusted in pistachio-thyme crumbs and served with a fresh mozzarella-tomato-mâche (a European salad green) and Serrano ham salad ($31). We also liked the prosciutto-wrapped wild Alaska halibut, served with creamed sweet corn with forest mushroom, leeks, fennel, and sautéed kale in a Béarnaise sauce ($40).

Both restaurants sport sophisticated selections at big-city prices, but both deliver on the quality. Is Wild Rice better than Old Rittenhouse? You’ll have to sample them both and judge for yourself.