Red Circle, Nashotah: state’s oldest in dining

Out with the old, as a new year begins? That’s fine for grudges and bad habits, but don’t disregard old friends as life resumes its all-consuming pace.

My Guy and I headed to Nashotah, population 1,266, on New Year’s Eve, and we were with three couples I’ve known since the 1970s. Our fine dining destination was the homey Red Circle Inn, touted as Wisconsin’s oldest restaurant.

It was an appropriate match for a group of dear friends who value the history among them.

The Red Circle opened as Nashotah Inn in 1848, which is as long as Wisconsin has been a state. Bavarian immigrant Francis Schraudenbach built this place of respite near the intersection of two burgeoning stagecoach roads in what today is Waukesha County.

About 40 years later, beer baron Frederick Pabst bought the property and changed its name; “red circle” referred to a colorful part of the Pabst brewing trademark. Bar furnishings remain from that era, although the inn burned in 1917.

Present owners are Norm Eckstaedt and Nico Derni, who say at least two important business conversations took place at a round table that remains in the main dining room. It reportedly is where the first Milwaukee Road streamliner design was sketched in the 1930s, and where baseball owners in the 1950s agreed to move the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee.

Such history lesson are fine, but is the food any good? You bet. The menu is big on steaks and seafood. One signature entrée that also was on the New Year’s Eve menu: Beef Wellington Perigourdine, a thick and juicy tenderloin baked in puff pastry (although the price was $6 higher than the regular menu).

Expect to pay $20-$30 for a hearty entrée, which includes soup or salad. Attention to detail and high-end ingredients make this more of a gourmet dining experience than traditional supper club fare.

For more:, 262-367-4883. Red Circle Inn is at N44 W33013 Watertown Plank Road, Nashotah; it is four miles north of I-94 on Hwy. C. The restaurant is only open for dinner.

One of Wisconsin’s quiet culinary icons is Marge Gogian, a gracious woman who has long been accustomed to greeting and feeding a crowd as the years end and begin. It was a pleasure to wish her a quick “Happy New Year” before embarking on my own celebration; a friend and I stopped in on her unexpectedly during summer.

Marge owns the one-of-a-kind Turk’s Inn, near Hayward. The colorful restaurant, whose hours depend upon time of year, has been in business since 1934. It is an elegant surprise amid the ruggedness of Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Rich hues of red, Persian textiles, unusual artifacts and reminders of family or celebrity customers make the restaurant an attraction as well as a fine ethnic dining experience in an unexpected location. A Byzantine-style bar fills the Harem Lounge. In and near the Kismet Dining Room are wonderful nooks for intimate dining.

The Kennedys – John, Robert and Ted – all have been here. It is the same with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman, the Spiegels of catalog shopping fame, U.S. and state politicians of conservative and liberal persuasions.

Marge’s parents, George and Isabelle Gogian, selected farmland next to the Namekagon River for this business venture and planted 50,000 pine trees on the property. They were both Armenian, but born in Turkey, and were brought together through an arranged marriage that lasted 53 years.

On the menu are steaks and seafood, but the unusual draw is the shish kabobs, pilaf, borek (cheese-filled phyllo pies), Turkish coffee and baklava. A signature dessert is the crème de menthe parfait.

“No one could work for them because they were so fussy,” Marge says of her parents, smiling. Much of the work continues from scratch. One example: The restaurant ages and cuts its own meat.

Regarding baklava, the flakey ethnic dessert: “We make our own syrup that includes rosewater and lemon juice. It’s not as sweet as the Greek version.”

Creamy bar specialties include George’s Polar Bear (Galliano, cream de cocoa, ice cream) and Harem’s Delight (Cointreau, cream de almond, ice cream).

Marge was a fashion stylist and dress designer in New York City before returning to Wisconsin to help with the restaurant after her father had a debilitating heart attack.

“I wanted a career and to travel, to not be tied down,” she confides, but as an only child she also considered it her responsibility to continue the family business.

For more: 715-634-2597. The Turk’s Inn is at 11320 N. Hwy. 63, about two miles north of Hayward. Hours of operation depend upon time of year.