Door County, the very tip of the Wisconsin peninsula, is a classic summer getaway from Chicago. About a four-hour drive, the area is made up of a few small towns and it's best known for its outdoor recreation—on my visits, I've gone kayaking over a shipwreck, but you can also go swimming, hiking and biking. But there’s also plenty to do if you prefer to eat and drink your way through vacation by sipping expertly made cocktails, sampling regional dishes and visting coffee shops. Door County is most famous for cherries, and while you’ll see plenty of those pop up in dishes around the county, there’s so much more to eat.
RECOMMENDED: Weekend getaways from Chicago
The Summer Kitchen
Located in Ephraim, the Summer Kitchen is a casual, retro spot with plastic tablecloths, $7 breakfast plates and a huge cinnamon roll crowned with frosting. It’s also open for lunch and dinner, when you can expect soups and sandwiches. In a rush? Stop in to grab a baked good or bread to go.
Door County Coffee and Tea
The coffee roaster and tea shop in Sturgeon Bay also happens to serve a fantastic breakfast. Best known for its baked egg dishes, the shop offers a hashbrown bake (priced as a side dish at $3.75, but large enough for a meal) and lots of sweet dishes that use cherries, like a bread pudding, Belgian waffle and yogurt parfait. Dine in and you'll have an unlimited pick of the coffees roasted onsite.
Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor
The Ephraim restaurant, which dates back to 1906, is a soda fountain and ice cream shop, so order lunch accordingly. Try the patty melt, placed between rye bread with two kinds of cheese, or a whitefish sandwich, but leave room for a rootbeer float, made with Wilson’s house soda, or a cherry sundae.
The Danish Mill
While you’re in Door County, take a day trip to Washington Island, a quaint island located six miles from the mainland. There’s a ferry that goes across, and once there, you can take another ferry to bucolic Rock Island, which has a lighthouse but little else, since cars aren’t allowed. If you head to either spot, make a stop at Washington Island's Danish Mill for lunch or picnic provisions. The area has a distinct Scandinavian influence, and along with kringles and coffee, the restaurant serves smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches with toppings like turkey, lingonberry preserves, brown mustard and cucumber.
White Gull Inn and Rowley’s Bay Resort
While a fish boil, the definitive meal of Door County, isn’t exactly the most flavorful of dishes (it’s basically just fish and potatoes served with butter and lemon), it’s a great bit of theater. Scandinavian settlers added Lake Michigan whitefish to a huge outdoor pot along with potatoes, salt and (sometimes) onions. Kerosene was tossed onto the fire, engulfing the whole pot in flames and causing the fish oils to boil over. White Gull Inn (in Fish Creek) and Rowley’s Bay (in Ellison Bay) each serve a traditional fish boil.
Childhood friends Mike Holmes and Joe Fahrenkrug used to spend summers at Kangaroo Lake in Door County, then later worked at an Ellison Bay restaurant together during college summers. Fast forward to 2012, when the pair returned to Door County after working in New York and Madison to open Wickman House in that very same restaurant space where they worked in college. It's an excellent restaurant that focuses on classic dishes made with local ingredients. Located in a quaint white house in Ellison Bay, the dining room features a large fireplace and it's a cozy spot for tucking into dishes made with ingredients mostly sourced from Door County and greater Wisconsin—a wedge salad comes with Nueske's bacon and Hook's blue cheese, pulled pork from Waseda Farms is made with Sprecher's root beer and local whitefish gets a refresh in a po'boy. The cocktail list is exceptional as well—try the Rusty Leaf, a smoky-sweet Scotch Manhattan made with maple syrup collected from the property.
The Fish Creek restaurant focuses on local suppliers, so produce, cheese, meat and other ingredients (including kombucha), appear in dishes like smoked whitefish spread, burrata with cherry salsa and broiled whitefish with pesto. There’s also a wine bar, which focuses on organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines, plus offerings from local Door County wineries. The cuisine makes it one of the fancier spots in town, but the vibe is still casual. If you can, grab a seat on the second-floor patio, which overlooks the water.
Door County Distillery
Door County has a number of small wineries, but the distillery, located in Sturgeon Bay, is a better bet if you like spirits. Take a tour of the disillery, then head to the tasting room, where there are samples of a variety of vodkas and brandies, plus a nice gin and a single-malt, small-batch whiskey.