Personality. Sometimes that’s what it takes for little restaurants to stand out. Consider this trio of family-owned businesses that have quietly defined what they are: It’s about more than meat and potatoes.
All eyes – hundreds of eyes – seem to be on me while waiting for lunch in Tigerton, population 700 and in Shawano County. This place rocks – really rocks – and I challenge anyone to disagree.
The menu is abbreviated, yet the restaurant is a can’t-miss stop. For sale are Sweet Rocks (cake-like doughnut holes, coated in cinnamon sugar and served warm) and 10 types of tasty Rockin-Pocket pasties (meat/veggie turnovers whose ingredients include rutabaga and potatoes).
That’s not all there is to eat, but it’s relatively close. Local grocers and the American Legion post sell the pasties, but what they can’t duplicate is the atmosphere of the restaurant. “Mostly spontaneous humor” is how owner Don McClellan sums up the funky décor of his Rocks for Fun Café.
He has turned more than 300 pebbles, stones and rocks into google-eyed faces that look slightly crazed. They fill walls, counters and display cases. They are attached to salt-and-pepper sets. They bask outdoors, near the entrance, so there’s no way to miss the café’s location.
Many hang with a few words that drive home a message or pun: Marriage on the Rocks. Rock Around the Clock. Jailhouse Rock. Hard Rock. Rock Bass. Rock Fan.
“We joke that it wasn’t really a restaurant that Dad wanted, but the extra space that it gave him to display all of this,” says son Scott, 43, who handles business while Don delivers pasties.
Estimated value of the rock-solid collection is $2.69 million, Don has decided. He prices but refuses to sell these creations. Occasionally a customer tests this resolve – like the golf course owner who offered $1,200 for a little something – but Don hasn’t budged.
Come for a visit, and you’ll go home with a Lucky Rock – one of the 25,719 (and counting) that have been distributed, glued to business cards. Each pebble has an agreeable little face, and the cards are numbered.
The souvenir is one of a kind, and so is Don. Rock on.
For more about Rocks for Fun Café, N 4410 Hwy. 45, Tigerton: www.rocksforfun.com, 715-535-2008. Thanks go to Nancy and Barbara Rueger of Antigo for tipping me off about this business. “The owners are polite, friendly and go the extra mile,” they wrote. “Coffee made every half hour, to keep it fresh.”
Lois Kroeze explained the job choices like this: Would you rather waitress or milk cows?
Daughter Connie, as a teen, was quick to make a decision. Now she and husband Jim Farrell operate the business that her parents bought while they farmed, so Clinton Kitchen Restaurant has been in the family 41 years.
“We make pies every morning, as well as roast beef, real mashed potatoes, gravy and soups,” the Farrells wrote, after my column about great pie places. That was enough to nudge me toward Clinton, population 2,200 (Rock County) and near the Wisconsin-Illinois state line.
On the wallboard: 14 kinds of pie. Connie, to some extent, can predict who wants what. A bank worker always eats peach streusel on Fridays, the same day that a librarian expects a slice of butterscotch.
“When we make Butterfinger torte, one guy eats it for breakfast,” she adds.
Be a customer long enough, and maybe your name will get on the menu. Examples: Lois’ Mess (American fries, bacon and eggs, with sausage gravy heaped over all) and Bill’s Three (three eggs with diced ham and a slice of cheese).
It’s more likely that what you eat can be traced back to longtime family recipes. Meat comes from a local butcher. A neighbor sells the Farrells blackberries from her yard, $4 per quart. A retiree shows up with fresh produce from his garden.
The biggest crowds converge for the Friday night fish (cod or basa) buffet, which includes potato pancakes, quick breads (like rhubarb or lemon-zucchini) and a dozen from-scratch salads. Some choices are unusual, like sauerkraut salad, Snickers-apple salad and yum-yum salad.
That last one? “It has pineapple,” Connie says. “Kind of an upscale version of whipped Jell-O.”
For more about Clinton Kitchen Restaurant, 239 Allen St., Clinton: 608-676-4461.
Milwaukee’s not a small town, but that makes the neighborhood feel of Solly’s Grille all the more special. Glenn and Mary Fieber’s business since 1936 has been bringing together a fine mix of ages, incomes and collar colors.
Two horseshoe-shaped counters for seating means it’s likely and easy to interact with strangers. That’s a good thing for this increasingly anonymous world.
My first visit was for breakfast, which included heavenly hash browns, thinly grated and delicately browned. “You fry these in butter?” I ask. “Is there any other way?” waitress Betti replies, with a grin.
Solly’s loves butter, as the guy next to me could attest. Not yet 10 a.m. on a Sunday, he does his best to polish off a tall strawberry shake and two double cheeseburgers.
People flock here at all hours for the shakes and burgers at Solly’s, whose food has earned attention from USA Today, the Food Network and – most recently – the Travel Channel (Andrew Zimmern visited this summer).
A week later, I was back to taste a basic burger, which arrives dripping with maybe a tablespoon of melted butter. Even the most devout butter lovers would take notice of this one.
“You got a ‘regular’ – some people ask for ‘easy’ or ‘medium’ butter” on the bun, explains manager Kris Waters, a Solly’s employee for 28 years.
That also explains why my order contained almost more fried onions than meat. “Next time, ask for ‘a few’ – or a ‘sliver,’ if you want the onion raw,” Kris advises.
So listen to the regulars, react accordingly and try to not leave before savoring a piece of caramel apple cinnamon pie. Patty Nichols, the chief dishwasher as well as pie maker, bakes it daily.
For more about Solly’s Grille, 4629 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee: www.foodspot.com/sollys, 414-332-8808.