Door County, Wisconsin, is a small peninsula with a big reputation when it comes to food. Home to some of the Dairy State’s best cheese, more than 2,000 acres of cherry orchards, and plenty of restaurants serving fresh caught fish and other local goods, the county is a culinary treasure. Here’s where (and what) to eat on your next visit:
Cheese–Wisconsinites love their cheese, and Door County (right next to Green Bay, the land of cheeseheads), is no exception. Head to Renard’s Cheese & Deli for award winning cheddar and squeaky cheese curds. Renard’s is a family business, and third generation cheesemaker Chris Renard is keeping up tradition while advancing the family name. His 2-year white cheddar, an old-fashioned aged cheddar with a sharp but smooth flavor, won first place in the World Cheese Contest in 2008. Chris is a Master Cheesemaker, a vigorous certification through the University of Wisconsin, and he prides himself on selling specialty cheeses and wheels instead of blocks. “Basically, I do what the big guys don’t wanna do,” he says, and it’s working. He says specialty cheese sales have skyrocketed in recent years, though cheese curds are still his biggest seller. His cheesemakers get to work at 12:30am every day to make sure fresh curds are ready for customers each morning . The curds are so fresh they’re almost wet, and squeak delightfully when you take a bite. On a recent visit, I sampled almost every kind of cheese available, and went home with a Sriracha cheddar, a bag of cheese curds, string cheese, and of course a hunk of the famous 2-year cheddar.
For fried cheese curds (a Wisconsin staple), visit the Sister Bay Bowl, a supper club celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year. Their cheese curds do Wisconsin proud, and are perfect washed down with a classic brandy old fashioned sweet. After dinner, you can bowl on the original wooden lanes.
Cherries–Door County hosts more than 2,000 acres of cherry orchards, and visitors can pick their own fruit in the spring and enjoy cherry inspired dishes all year round. In the colder months, visit Country Ovens, the original dried cherry producer. In 1987, Mike and Kathy Johnson took their favorite Montmorency Red Tart Cherries and dried them as a sort of experiment, but once their friends tasted them, there was no going back. Cherry De-Lites were born, and with them Country Ovens. The business has grown (dehydrating 6,000 pounds of cherries each day and shipping internationally), but the recipe has stayed the same. There are no artificial coatings, colorings, or sugar in any of the Country Ovens products, and all of the cherries come from local Door County farms. Stop in for the original Cherry De-Lites, or for some tart cherry juice, chocolate covered cherries, and many other products.
Fish–Surrounded by Lake Michigan, it’s only natural that Door County is famous for fish. Trout, whitefish, and perch are all popular, and almost every restaurant open for dinner will serve a fish fry on Fridays. The broasted whitefish at the previously mentioned Sister Bay Bowl is an excellent choice, or for an extra unique experience, visit White Gull Inn for a traditional fish boil. Whitefish is cooked outside in a giant pot over an open fire with onions and potatoes, and visitors can watch as the pot bubbles over, signifying that dinner is ready. With your meal, try the Island Orchard Apple Cherry Cider, a hard cider made with apples from nearby Washington Island, and finish the feast with a slice of cherry pie (made with local cherries of course).
Coffee–Need something strong to keep you going on your food crawl, or just looking for the perfect way to start your morning? Door County Coffee & Tea serves not only some of the best coffee in Wisconsin, but also in the country. Here, they serve only the highest grade coffee and roast it in-house, ensuring a quality cup every time. Awesome breakfast pastries too!
Distillery–Sipping gin at 10am (which is what I found myself doing one morning in Door County), is a lot easier when the gin is as smooth as Door County Distillery’s. This is a must-stop on your visit. Door County Distillery uses an artisanal copper pot, which it says captures the “clean essence” of the county’s flavors. The process starts with a single source ground water containing mineral notes and natural limestone, which is filtered for the still. The result is an award winning, very floral gin, which will make even non-gin lovers (myself included), reconsider. The Door County Moonshine, a 100 proof neutral grain spirit bottled in a jar with Door County cherries, is also fantastic.
Starboard Brewing–It wouldn’t be a list about Wisconsin without mentioning a brewery or two. Let’s start with Starboard Brewing Company, a new nanobrewery in downtown Sturgeon Bay. A nanobrewery is defined as producing fewer than four barrels of beer. Starboard produces in one barrel batches, and keeps a rotating selection of eight of these small batches on tap. Amanda and Patrick Surfus opened the brewery in October 2014 to expand their at home brewing passion, and to provide a comfortable and fun atmosphere for locals and visitors to hang out on weekends. So far they haven’t brewed the same beer twice, though there is a request board, so favorites could make a comeback. I was a big fan of the Edinburgh Scotch Ale, but you should get a flight and try them all.
On a larger scale, Shipwrecked Brew Pub brews 1,100 barrels of beer each year. Brewmaster Rich Zielke and head brewer Sam Koelling brew both hand-crafted year-round and seasonal beers. Again, go with the flight then choose a pint. I was happily surprised with the cherry wheat, which wasn’t as sweet as I worried it would be, and instead had a crisp and refreshing flavor.