The Best Restaurants in Wisconsin's Door County

Timeless appeal has always been a forte of this Midwest vacation destination. We take a look inside Door County's best restaurants.

Photo: Annie Parish

Maybe it was the evening light — soft, golden, the kind you get way up north on those very fine, too rare summer evenings — pouring into the room through the big windows. Perhaps it was the room itself, an achingly modern space with high ceilings and a lively bar at the back — minimal without the punishment, nearly all blinding white but with occasional pops of pink. Or maybe it was the food — out comes a dish of foraged fiddlehead ferns served with puffed wild rice, slivers of radish, all on a slick of pureed lovage, and drizzles of blueberry soy gastrique. And then there was the wine, plucked from a list that obsesses over the obscure, the sustainable, and the delicious.

Everything about the moment, that meal, felt so forward, so worldly — squint and one might imagine oneself in Scandinavia, except that this wasn't some island off the coast of Sweden, this wasn't Copenhagen, and I didn't have to book a year in advance to get a table. This was Trixie's, a tiny restaurant in the tiny town of Ephraim, Wisconsin, which was settled by a group of god-fearing Norwegians back in the 1800s. A town that clung so passionately to its roots, for so long, you couldn't even buy alcohol here until 2016.

Perusing the list at Trixie's, a well-conceived document spotlighting women-powered wineries from all over the world — biodynamics from Burgundy and a dry Muscat from California's underrated Suisun Valley that danced on the tongue, like the sun's last rays on Green Bay, just down the end of the block — even a Door County diehard like myself is having trouble coming to grips with the fact that this is happening, and that this is happening here. This Door County, I don't know yet. But I like it.

Annie Parish

There is nothing wrong, nothing at all, with the other, more familiar Door County, despite what too-cool-for-school types will tell you. Yes, this wildly popular Midwest vacation destination, a narrow, highly scenic peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan just a few hours north of Milwaukee, clings to the old ways. Door County is dedicated to tradition. Everything is cherries and cheese, apple cider, pie and lace doily bed-and-breakfasts, and I love it all, the whole package. I love walking into the antiquated Piggly Wiggly in Sister Bay, and seeing The Cheesehead Devotional on sale at the checkout counter, like I might suddenly decide on a whim that I need a daily inspirational reading tailored to Packers fans on my way out the door. I love the wineries flogging their cherry wines to eager crowds of bus tourists. I love breakfast at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, where they can charge over $300 a night for a room, like this was Martha's Vineyard or something, and where people line up downstairs for two hours on weekends for French toast stuffed with half a pound of cherry cream cheese.

Then, there are the old supper clubs, where you can still get an Old Fashioned made with brandy and 7-Up. There is the drive-in movie theater and there is the fact that some of the peninsula's best pies (there's a lot of competition) come from a place called Bea's Ho-Made, and yet almost nobody giggles. I love that people make annual pilgrimages for apple cider doughnuts from as far away as Chicago and that you can smell the eau d'hazelnut from the parking lot of one of the most popular coffee shops.

In recent years, there have been stirrings, subtle ones, to the point where you almost have to know where to look, in order to experience the new Door County. Trixie's is a fine example of this almost stealth movement — the visitor could drive through Ephraim 100 times and never know one of the peninsula's most exciting restaurants was right there, behind a sensitively restored historic storefront, tucked in next to the municipal building.

Trixie's Spring Rolls
Annie Parish

They might never know that just around the corner from there, some of the region's best coffee is being roasted and brewed by a guy that learned the trade in New York, or about the underground pop-up dinner series and the experimental café tinkering with notions of what the fourth wave of coffee might look like just a couple of doors down from the nearly fossilized Piggly Wiggly. There is something exciting about this slow and steady introduction of the new, alongside the old. It's like there was just one Door County, which was already tremendous, and now there's this whole other Door County, and who on earth is going to complain about that?

If you're headed there, don't ignore the old favorites — they're favorites for a reason — but also set aside a day (at the very least) to explore the region's newer additions. This carefully curated guide of the best restaurants in Door County might completely change your perception of one of the most iconic Great Lakes destinations. Chances are, you'll fall even more in love with it.

Wake up and smell the future at Ephraim Coffee Lab

Being dry and relatively quiet all those years never stopped tiny Ephraim from being one of the nicest places to stay in the region, and if you wake up here — and you really should — you'll be walking distance from the best coffee around. Randy Isely, who spent time in New York and knows a lot about the stuff, roasts the best coffee on the peninsula at Ephraim Coffee Lab by Isley Coffee Roasters. Pick up a perfect cappuccino and hang around for a chat with the man himself or head down to the waterfront (just steps away) and enjoy the view.

Taste cheeses at Wisconsin Cheese Masters

There is so much good cheese being made in Wisconsin right now, it can get a little overwhelming. If you took, say, the top 10 producers in the state, got in a car, and tried to visit them all, you'd spend way too much of your time driving because they're all over the map. Let someone else do the legwork, someone like the passionate and knowledgeable couple behind Wisconsin Cheese Masters. Anyone looking for a crash course in the evolution of America's Dairyland into one of the finest destinations in the hemisphere for serious cheese should stop by for a sample or three.

Stop for lunch at Roots Inn & Kitchen

Charm-wise, the village of Sister Bay is a close runner-up to Ephraim; it's here you'll find Roots Inn, an update on the classic Door County bed-and-breakfast, which happens to open to the public for lunch from Saturday to Tuesday each week. Stop in for simple, honest food — organic local bratwursts loaded with fresh fixings, rustic flatbreads, veggie tacos, or a macaroni and cheese waffle served with basil aioli. Finish up with dessert — they're known for their bread pudding, made from a recipe cribbed from one of the owner's grandparents.

Go for gelato at Door County Creamery

What looks like yet another smart new storefront catering to visitors on Sister Bay's main drag is actually the retail outlet of an ambitious local goat farm. Besides offering goat yoga to the public, Door County Creamery produces some absolutely beautiful cheeses. Stop in for samples, as well as a scoop of their delicious goat milk gelato in flavors ranging from the traditional (stracciatella) to the trendy (olive oil and sea salt) to the extremely Wisconsin (pumpkin pie).

Sit down to a serious tasting at Island Orchard Cider

Located inside a renovated 1930s storehouse in Ellison Bay, Island Orchard Cider is one of the best bars on the Door Peninsula that isn't really a bar but rather an exceedingly popular tasting room. Here, a French-American couple (she's French, he's American) is making gorgeously dry, Normandy-style ciders, from rosé (in apple cherry) to a mellow oak-aged apple.

Have dinner at Trixie's

With that long list of intriguing natural wines, the appealing setting, and knowledgeable service, Trixie's could skate by on the most basic cooking but this Ephraim restaurant also happens to serve some of the most innovative food on the peninsula. This is the only place you will find whitefish (a regional staple) served with roasted mission figs, celeriac, and lemon, along with delicate, house-made pastas that are a joy to look at, as well as to eat. Ask lots of questions about the wine — they'll be only too happy to answer, and you'll walk away happy for having tried something good.

Mingle with the late-night crowd at Wickman House

Before there was Trixie's, there was her big brother, Wickman House, a cosmopolitan, Cape Cod-esque bar and restaurant in tiny Ellison Bay. Housed in a historic inn and feeling more like a private club than another Door County dinner spot, the restaurant shares an executive chef — the talented Ryan Klawitter — with Trixie's, but the menu here is mostly about comfort and smart upgrades on the familiar. Stop in for a snack of hand-battered, deep-fried Wisconsin cheese curds served with a red pepper aioli; a burger made with local, grass-fed beef; a mezcal cocktail, or — if you're still surfing the high from your first dinner — more wine. (The list here is no slouch.) With all of this, you get free people-watching — at full tilt on a weekend evening, rest assured — you're right where you need to be.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles