When you go to Door County, Wisconsin, there are a few things you simply must do. At this time of year, you must take a walk in the woods to enjoy the turning leaves; during warmer months, you take in a performance at the Northern Sky Theater; just about any time of year, however, you really must go to a fish boil.
The fish boil may have been traditional among the indigenous Potawatomi, or perhaps it was brought to Michigan with the Swedish settlers during the 17th century.
The concept is simple: you put fish, onions, salt, and (usually) potatoes in a big pot over an open fire. When the pot boils over, it’s time to eat.
The fish boil is an easy way to prepare a lot of food, relatively quickly, to feed a crowd, whether it’s a crowd of Potawatomi, Swedish fishermen, or tourists.
The catch of choice for a Door County fish boil is whitefish, which, to be honest, is not powerfully flavorful. When it’s cooked outdoors, under a blanket of stars, however, whitefish becomes delicious.
“When it comes to fish boils,” says Amelia Levin, author of this year’s “The Lake Michigan Cottage Cookbook,” although the finished plate “might not be the most Insta-worthy — with hunks of boiled whitefish and red potatoes alongside dark rye bread and a smattering of tartare sauce — it’s the freshness of the fish, typically caught that morning in the cold, Lake Michigan waters, and the whole experience that explains the fish boil’s enduring appeal. The tradition involves gathering with friends, family, locals and visitors around a giant kettle. The result is a surprisingly not-too-salty, buttery and delicate fish that tastes even better when doused with homemade tartare sauce. For me, personally, the Door County fish boil is not just a fun and delicious experience, it’s a nostalgic one, bringing back memories of watching the boils as a kid, often amidst the backdrop of a beautiful, pink- and purple-hued sunset over the lake.”
Here are a few of Door County’s premier places to enjoy a fish boil.
10040 N. Water St., Highway 42, Ephraim, Wisconsin, 920-854-4034
In a restored post office from the early 1900s, the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim offers beautiful lake views (and spectacular sunsets!), and here you can enjoy either indoor or outdoor seating. As at many resort restaurants in Door County, the Old Post Office Restaurant is designed to please everyone in the family; for those who don’t prefer fish, there’s chicken or ribs, and, for the kids, hot dogs and chicken tenders. House-made Door County cherry pie concludes the fish boil experience; Door County’s Montmorency cherries are known for their sweet-sour deliciousness, as well as a range of health benefits. Montmorency cherries are believed to contribute to heart health, help in muscle recovery, and as a natural source of melatonin, they may even make it easier for you to get to sleep at night — though getting a good night’s sleep is rarely ever difficult in peaceful, rustic Door County.
When: Every night of the week except Sunday (Seating at 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.)
Season: Opens mid-May through Oct. 27
Cost: $20.75 per person
4225 Main St., Fish Creek, Wisconsin, 920-868-2018
Though it may have originated around a campfire tended by Potawatomi, Swedish fishermen, or lumberjacks, the fish boil at White Gull Inn is a casual and yet somewhat more sophisticated affair: the inn itself is stately, and the fish boil dinner is served on white linen tablecloths and managed by servers who are more than happy to carefully de-bone your whitefish. “When people come to a traditional Door County fish boil,” says Innkeeper Meredith Coulson, “they’re looking for a certain experience in addition to good food, history, ambiance, and a good ole pyrotechnic display. They want to feel like they’re part of a living tradition. Since the White Gull is a historical property and has been doing fish boils since the 1950s, that feeling of tradition is very strong here. We have maintained the warm, historic feel of the main lodge and dining room, and we make sure that our patio and fish boil areas are as inviting as possible. The master boiler position is a permanent employee, not a seasonal worker, because we realize how important it is for that person to make a connection with our fish boil guests … while still keeping an eye on the fire and the fish!”
When: Summer — Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (seating at 5:45 p.m., 7 p.m., and 8:15 p.m.); Winter — Fridays (seating at 7 p.m.)
Season: Year-round (off season November-April only Friday evenings)
Cost: $21.75 per person
4199 Main St., Fish Creek, Wisconsin, 920-868-3313
When you’re on vacation and off the clock, maybe you sometimes get a little too relaxed and neglect to call ahead to a restaurant for a reservation. Pelletier’s Restaurant & Fish Boil makes it easy for you by offering a number of fish boils throughout the evening; a fish boil starts every 30 minutes, rain or shine. Located in the center of Fish Creek, Pelletier’s Restaurant & Fish Boil is easily accessible from anywhere in Door County. If boiled fish is not to your taste, Pelletier’s has a large menu of other items that are available throughout the day and during the evening fish boil.
When: 7 days a week starting at 4:30 p.m. until close at every half hour
Season: Opens May 17 through end of October
Cost: $20 per person
12029 WI-42, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, 920-854-2998
Owners Annette and Lawrence Wickman started doing their fish boils from their quaint corner restaurant in 1961, and some of the folks you’ll see in the dining room have probably been coming to Door County since around that time. The menu is standard — fish, sweet white onions, coleslaw, pumpernickel bread, and cherry pie — but this place has a lot of personality … and it’s one of the most economical fish boils in Door County.
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 4:30 p.m.
Season: Opens mid-May through end of October
Cost: $17.50 per person
1041 County Road ZZ, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, 920-854-2385, 800-999-2466 (toll-free)
Every fish boil at Rowleys Bay Resort and Restaurant begins with a brief presentation by a storyteller who relates the history of the region and the fish boil, with special reference to indigenous traditions. Rowleys is a vintage resort, located on Ellison Bay, right across the water from Newport State Park, which has been officially designated Wisconsin’s first international Dark Sky Park — land that is “exceptional or distinguished” for the “quality of starry nights.” Even if you’re staying in downtown Ephraim or Fish Creek, it’s worth heading out to Rowleys for a sense of what Door County was like in the old days. “Fish boils are just fun and everyone loves to experience the local Door County tradition,” says owner/manager Jewel Peterson Ouradnik. “It’s a reason to gather together over the boiling cauldron where the food is being prepared. The tradition was started with the abundance of whitefish brought in by the fishermen, which was a good reason to get together with family, friends, or church groups. The restaurants have continued with the ‘gathering at the pot’ for the spectacular boil-over. The boil-over has a very specific purpose: by fueling the fire at the end of the cooking time, the heat is intensified, which causes the water to boil over, which takes the oils over the top of the cauldron and over into the fire. The fish, potatoes, and onions can then be lifted out of the pot without any of the fish oils clinging to the ingredients.”
When: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays
Season: Open Memorial Day through end of October
Cost: $23.50 per person
David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.