Elkhart Lake, WI is a quiet little resort town that certainly has a lot to do – considering the winter population is about 1,000 people. It’s had several boom periods over the past century: as a breezy lakeside vacation spot to escape dirty Midwestern cities in the summer, a barely hidden gambling den in the 1920’s and an open road race course for scions of Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis upper-crust families. The open road races were held from 1950 to 1952, until fatalities around the country brought such races to an abrupt end. Today, there’s a mix of genteel activities and relaxing leisure time in the tiny resort town, located about an hour from Milwaukee. The occasional big-time celebrity visiting Milwaukee or Chicago will sometimes stop in, too. I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience it.
Even though racecars are no longer screaming past people’s front yards, the people of Elkhart Lake still hanker for fast automobiles. Road America hosts NASCAR and other races, as well as running advanced driving schools. You can take classes in high-performance driving, winter driving and motorcycle riding. They even have camping set up so you can spend the night.
Check out what Elkhart Lake area driving was like in days of yore. Wade House is a Wisconsin historic site that preserves an original stagecoach inn, vintage farm-equipment maintenance barns and a vast collection of regional carriages that were used to deliver milk, corpses and clowns.
When you’re not wrapped up in racecars or golfing, a spa experience may be more your speed. Aspira at the Osthoff Resort utilizes Eastern and Western indigenous healing techniques in combination with upscale products to soothe body, mind and soul. Elements including feng shui, color therapy, local herbs and Moroccan oils contribute to a wide selection of treatments. Celebrity couples love the massage rooms for two, several of which have fireplaces and private showers.
All of that works up a fierce appetite. You can keep up the benefits through spa cuisine at Lola’s on the Lake . . . or go the other direction. The Wisconsin artisan cheese and meat platter with Lola’s savory duck terrine, toasted pistachios and dried Door County cherries, pork rillettes, Sartori’s BellaVitano, Saxon Creamery’s Pastures and Hook’s Paradise blue cheese may be too tempting to pass up. The same goes for the huge, local Golden Bear Farms grass-fed Berkshire pork chop, raised for Lola’s.
You can get a meal that feels dressed up, but minus the pretention of a big city dining experience, at Elkhart Lake’s Back Porch Bistro. For the classic Continental cuisine that was the historic mainstay of the area, you’ll go for pork Weinerschnitzel with creamed spinach spaetzle and lemon caper beurre blanc.
Behind the bustling, popular bar area of Elkhart Lake’s Lake Street Cafe’ is a chic, gastropub dining area. As unpretentious as the restaurant is, I was surprised to find out that they have one of the finest wine collections in the State of Wisconsin. I tried a special appetizer of fois gras Benedict: pistachio polenta cake, fois gras terrine, Scotch quail egg and fois gras vinaigrette. The polenta added a mix of savory umami and the slightest touch of sweetness, which was further enhanced on both sides of the flavor spectrum by the pistachios. The quail egg was cooked in a manner that the yolk added creamy richness to the dish when cut open. The vinaigrette I learned also had duck sausage and shallots as its aromatic flavoring.
Set aside any preconceptions you may have about eating at a golf club. At Elkhart Lake’s Quit Qui Oc, there’s no Caddyshack style pretention, no “ahoy, polloi!” nonsense. The public is welcome to eat at the restaurant for lunch and dinner year-round and really, the atmosphere feels more like a family-owned diner. I was there on a very important day: Friday. Friday has a place of culinary pride for Wisconsin Catholics: they invented the Friday Fish Fry! Quit Qui Oc offers locally sourced perch from Schwarz Fish Company, as well as bluegill, a local cheese (Sartori Bellavitano, similar to a Manchego) crusted walleye and cod. They can be pan-fried or deep-fried. These are always served with French fries and their personal recipe for German potato salad, always served warm. They also do homemade cream cheese desserts, which are de rigeur when you visit any self-respecting Wisconsin home for a nosh.
At Paddock Club, the whole little town loves to come out on Tuesdays for small plates night. They specialize in seasonal, local food, but with a European flair. They have a garden at the restaurant and at the owner’s home that supplies herbs for the dishes. Even though they’re in the North, they have a wonderful take on the low-country specialty of shrimp and grits. It has a slow-poached egg and tasso sauce. It has smoky ham flavor, with the perfectly cooked egg adding richness. The dish has a bit of spice. Pan-seared Alaskan halibut with truffled sweet corn succotash, potato puree and fried leeks will go over well with fish lovers or chicken lovers: it has a thick, meaty taste enhanced by the rich Southern take on veggie garnish.
Victorian Village is a quaint, turn of the century-type lakeside resort with a number of different accommodation styles. Amenities include a restaurant, a tiki bar, indoor and outdoor pools and deck for the rooms. It’s walking distance from many of the other destinations in town.