Historical spiels on the buildings in which we dine.
You don’t have to head to a museum for a history lesson on the Fox Cities. Instead, plan to take a tour of some of the most interesting bygone buildings while dining out. Whether you’re stopping for a bite while running errands downtown or going out of the way for an epicurean escapade, voyage through the past while enjoying a delicious repast at these six restaurants!
After spending several decades as a shoe store, followed by stints as a dress shop, pharmacy and salon, the building that formerly hosted local favorite Don’s Restaurant & Bakery has been home to Menasha Grill since 2000.
Owner Charlie Cross was originally attracted to the building because the adjacent alleyway reminded him of the Old French Quarter in his native Louisiana. He was also interested in the lifestyle of living above his place of work.
The building was originally a double duplex, with two apartments upstairs and two businesses downstairs. While previous owners have made many changes over the years, including making the downstairs into one area, the outside of the building has remained much the same and the apartments are still intact.
The structure was built in the 1880s in “balloon style,” meaning the supporting wall timbers run the height of the building from the ground to the very top and the floor and ceiling joists are all interconnected by pegged joints.
The most visible reminder of the building’s age is a small but distinct area of the original wainscoting above the door that leads to the basement.
Cross says the historic look and value of the building always made him imagine having a café outside the restaurant, a project that is currently in the works.
Much like Menasha Grill, Cannova’s Pizzeria & Italian Cuisine, located just a short drive away in downtown Neenah, follows a long line of businesses in a historic setting.
According to Dave Dexter of the Neenah Historical Society, the first business to open in the High Victorian, Gothic-inspired commercial space built by Fred Tippens and Henry Sherry was William O. Nelson’s Nelson Jewelers in 1883.
McCarthy Jewelers followed in 1946. Since then, the building housed George’s Photo Center in 1961, Camera Exchange and The Camera Spot. S&R Tile and Carpet Spot took over the space in 1972, followed by Classcycle Inc. in 1979. Grandmother’s Garden moved in from 1986 to 1993, when Main Street Music opened. The musical tenants continued with Different Drummer Gift Shop in 1999, followed by Sweet Pea Gift Shop in 2001.
The variety persevered when Debbie and Kyle Rasmus set up Cannova’s, which was originally founded as a grocery store, pizzeria and tavern in 1921 in Freeport, Illinois. Debbie, who is part of the Cannova family, and Kyle opened the Neenah location in late 2005.
While the décor is warm and modern, there are still some visible remnants of the building’s long history on Wisconsin Avenue. Visitors who stop in for the Sicilian steak or homemade lasagna enjoy aspects of the original Victorian design from tin ceilings to hardwood floors.
Kyle says that even though operating in an older structure means having to make concessions with regards to space, the charm of the building makes up for it.
“The authentic turn-of-the-century feel helped us in creating ambiance and a good warm feeling,” he says. “People love stopping in and they don’t want to leave.”
Providing that historical feeling in Appleton, Cena restaurant resides in one of the city’s oldest buildings sandwiched in College Avenue’s chain of storefronts.
Constructed in the 1880s, the building was designed by Oshkosh native William Waters, the premier architect of the time. In addition to a block of buildings along the avenue, Waters is also known for designing Appleton’s Hearthstone Historic House, built between 1881 and 1882, and Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House in 1883.
Since its inception, the building has housed many companies central to the Appleton community. In its earliest years, the space served as home to a prominent construction company, Langstadt-Meyer Co. Following that stint, various candy shops, including Bowlby Candy Co., occupied the building from 1945 to 1963.
One of Appleton’s most reputable retailers of the time, Ellenbecker’s Furniture, moved into the space in 1963 and stayed for a decade. But in the last 20 years, the building has been home to a variety of restaurants, including Subway, Peggy’s Cafe & Catering, Sirocco’s Mediterranean Tapas and, today, Cena.
While much history can be found within the walls of a building, there is also much to be discovered about the history of the people inside.
A tie from past to present lies within Bob Rueckl, owner of Rueckl’s Photography Studio. Rueckl was the owner of Peggy’s Cafe, which occupied the space from 1997–2005.
“Transforming the building from a Subway into what we envisioned was more effort than we had guessed,” Rueckl explains. “It is narrower than any other downtown building which made it an extreme challenge to fit a kitchen, seating and a bar.”
Cena’s current bar manager, Brian Leslie, has been the constant of the building for many years. Beginning with his service at Peggy’s, Leslie continued his work for Sirocco’s and now Cena.
“A lot of work went into this building,” Leslie adds. “All of the woodwork is newly installed and only the exposed brick wall, tin ceiling and lead glass storefront windows remain as original.”
A number of owners passed through the space, but Rueckl reflects fondly on his time at 125 East College Avenue.
“It was a challenge that worked out to be a good restaurant and a busy place,” he says.
From downtown destinations to a traditional pub setting, Stone Cellar Brewpub and Restaurant is situated in the distinctive Between the Locks building, which has overlooked the Fox River for the last 150 years. It is the oldest continually running brewpub in the state of Wisconsin.
When father and son restauranteurs, Tom and Steve Lonsway, took over the business in 2004, they changed the name to Stone Cellar Brewpub and Restaurant (formerly Dos Banditos).
The Lonsways joined a long line of brewers serving the Fox Cities out of the Locks building. The brewery was established in 1858 by a German immigrant and canal worker Anton Fischer, making it the first brewery in Outagamie County.
In 1860, Fischer Brewery was sold to Carl Muench, who kept the brewery much as it was but added on the outdoor beer garden, which is still a popular spot for al fresco dining today.
After a fire in 1884, the structure was rebuilt and continued brewing. It changed hands again in 1918 when George Walter’s Walter Brewing Company bought it. Prohibition laws closed the establishment a year later but they were back in business when the 18th amendment was repealed by Wisconsin in 1929.
Incidentally the Walter Brewery Company had a second location at the time on Walnut Street, at the site that now houses the Appleton Police Department.
Under Walter’s direction, the brewery introduced a mild, light lager called Adler Brau (German for “eagle beer”). This brew soon became a popular local favorite until the 1970s when the Walter Brewery ceded to competition from national breweries and closed its doors.
The building was remodeled into the Between the Locks mall in the late 1970s but the brewery reopened in 1989 as Adler Brau Brewery & Restaurant.
The Lonsways were attracted to the traditional English pub-like atmosphere of the space, with the rough-hewn walls serving as inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
“One of the toughest things we had to do was come up with a name,” Steve Lonsway says. “A lot of breweries are in bright, brand new facilities but we don’t have that luxury, and we needed to let people know what to expect. Stone Cellar seemed like a perfect fit.”
Rebuilding the Past
Like the Lonsways, Dave Klister, owner of Plum Hill Café, was also interested in keeping a classic feel with his restaurant.
He and his late wife, Vera, affectionately known as “Beep,” purchased the historic Dodge Street building in 2004 in order to evolve Beep’s Back Door Oven––the bakery Vera had run for three years.
The culmination of their efforts is an artisan café popular for its plum-themed interior and charming character.
In 1883, the building served as a livery stable and boarding house. From there it transitioned into both a rooming house and private residence. The building was crumbling into disarray when Klister happened upon it. But despite its disheveled state, Klister saw promise in the space and began a long journey of reconstruction and renovation.
“The goal was to restore the building while being conscious of its architectural history and to blend the additions harmoniously,” explains Klister.
To do so, he removed, cleaned and replaced 12,000 bricks that had been created in an 1880s wood fire kiln.
The gallery room floor is the original from the 1883 building and the flooring on the second level was salvaged from a local school gym. Even when additions were constructed in 2007, Klister made certain that as much character as possible was retained from the original building.
Now, as Plum Hill grows, the restaurant still remains true to its roots.
“In the beginning, it would have been much easier to tear the building down and start from scratch, but we wanted to keep the history alive,” says Klister. “That still is, and always will, be our mission.”
Paper and Provisions
For diners hungry for more than historic ambiance, the Atlas Coffee Mill & Café is housed in the same building as several exhibits that cater to history buffs.
In 1877, the Kimberly-Clark Corporation purchased a sawmill along the Fox River from the Whorton brothers, two of Appleton’s original pioneers. This sawmill was the first building located on the site that now houses the Atlas Coffee Mill & Café.
The next year, Kimberly-Clark founders realized the budding promise of paper production and decided to tear down the original sawmill and construct a paper mill on their new land to begin the Atlas Paper Company. The company pioneered the use of ground and mechanic pulp, establishing the first in a long legacy of accomplishments achieved in that location.
In 1881, the Vulcan Mill was built adjoining Atlas in order to expand the company’s output. The following year, the Vulcan Mill joined the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company and the Hearthstone House as the first buildings in the world lit by waterpower.
Tragedy struck in 1888, when the original Atlas Mill burned down. The company’s paper pioneers, however, were not to be stopped and the mill was rebuilt just five months later.
The true rebirth of the Atlas Paper Company came in 1907, when it became the sole property of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. The Atlas Mill went on to serve the paper industry until Kimberly-Clark donated it to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in 1999.
Due to this gift, the Paper Industry Hall of Fame was given a home and, in 2005, it opened its doors. The next year, the Outagamie County Historical Society bestowed their Historic Preservation Award upon the Atlas Mill for maintaining the city’s history.
The Atlas Mill is still upholding its papermaking history today. Inside these walls are the Atlas Coffee Mill and Café, The Mill Boutique and Art Gallery, Paper Creations, The Paper Discovery Center and Paper Industry International Hall of Fame.
A news reporter in 1878 predicted the following about the Atlas Mill: “The foundations of this building are being laid with the intention that they will serve the interests of coming generations, and this object in view is a sign of real progress.”
This prediction has come true not only for Atlas, but for all of these buildings. With restaurants in such interesting historic spaces, dining options in the Fox Cities serve food for thought along with delicious meals.
—By Karilyn Robinson & Chelsea Colling