Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor
9990 Water Street, Ephraim WI 54211 (map); 920-854-2041, wilsonsicecream.com
Cooking Method: Char-broiled, then machine cooked.
Short Order: A great American burger with all the accoutrements. No pickles on the burger, though
Want Fries with That? Sure, but you really want the fried cheese curds
Price: All-American Cheeseburger, $6.95; make it a double for $8.95; Cheese Curds on a Bed of Fries, $5.25; Wilson's Special, $4.95
There is something about Door County, Wisconsin, that takes one back in time. The motor-court variety motels, the airy pebbled beaches along Green Bay, the quiet splendor of picnics in the grass in perfect 80 degree weather all bring the casual traveler back to a simpler time.
Simpler times is what Wilson's Restaurant in Ephraim is all about. The restaurant has been operating since 1906, serving up ice cream, homemade root beer, and diner classics to the masses. And when I say masses, I mean masses.
The restaurant was packed inside and out when I visited on a fine June day. Customers filled every booth, crowded both dining rooms and spilled out into a fenced patio area along Highway 42 across from Eagle Harbor. They also patiently waited on the porch and into the small parking lot adjacent to the building. Wilson's, after all, is a place of reputation. And part of that reputation involves burger that hasn't changed in decades.
But you have to wait for it. Combine crowds with a busy griddle and you can imagine it's going to be a while before you get a chance to enjoy the All-American Cheeseburger, advertised thusly: "Our large, lean beefburgers, flamebroiled to perfection are presented with fries, tomato, lettuce, onion and pickle on the side." That's okay, because you can order something else while you wait.
For me, that meant a couple of things. The standard is the Cheese Curds on a Bed of Fries, battered and deep fried Wisconsin cheese curds, yellow and tangy, and impossible to stop eating. These will make you forget the idea of mozzarella sticks. They're firm (but not squeaky), hearty, salty and filling. Without proper restraint one might devour nothing but curds and fries and miss out on that burger.
Of course, I didn't stop there. I ordered the homemade root beer and went ahead and ordered dessert with my meal—in this case, the Wilson's Special, a tall glass of French vanilla ice cream with layers of butterscotch, chocolate, marshmallow, and a cherry on top. When it came out I thought to myself how fantastically staged and effective the presentation happened to be—with that nice gloopy bit of marshmallow moving glacially slow down the glass. I'm not a butterscotch fan by nature, but the effect of tying it in with the marshmallow, chocolate, and vanilla was entrancing.
I sipped on my root beer while waiting, enjoying its lovely caramel notes, the strong flavor of sassafras and the little bit of birch in the aftertaste. This isn't a foamy root beer—it comes with no head, but it is served up in a frosted glass. A diet version is available, but I can't even conceive properly of that notion.
It took quite some time—about 30 minutes—before my waitress finally delivered the subject of my visit to my table. I had shown enormous restraint with the cheese curds, almost to the point of asking her to take them away (almost, not quite). But there it was, in its unassembled glory. And my first thought was, "Did I order the Double Cheeseburger?" Yes, yes I did. I had ordered the $8.95 two-patty version of the $6.95 All-American without even thinking. But that was all right.
The burger patties themselves were pasted to the lower bun and to each other with slices of American cheese, quarter-pound patties that had been formed into discs and griddle-fried to a crusty brown exterior. The burger patties came medium well, the other choices being medium or well. The crust reminded me of that particular brown goodness you find on a sausage patty, with seasoning that doubtlessly included black pepper and a little cumin.
The other bun was buried under a generous leaf of green leaf lettuce, a thin slice of tomato and almost impossibly thin red onion slices. There was no dill pickle on the burger; instead, it was served on the side. Every burger place I visited in Door County lacked hamburger dill slices (or any pickle, for that matter) on the burger. Both buns were well toasted, and the top bun came seeded. All condiments come on the side.
It was a rather tasty Americana-style burger—not audacious by any means, but the perfect "french fries-and-a-shake" burger. It sure hit the spot.
Wilson's sure does pack 'em in... but it doesn't all the time. The restaurant is only open during the tourist season, May to October. But if you're planning to find your summer place in Door County, you need to schedule a visit.
Postscript: I had to call back to Wilson's just to check and make sure what I'd heard from my waitress about the cooking of the burgers there. I was surprised to find that the burgers are first char-broiled, then put through a machine that cooks them the rest of the way. This is unusual to me, but explains why they tasted griddle-cooked to me yet still bore char lines. ~ Kat
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