By Ric Reynolds
People have many long-held traditions, and that especially holds true during the holidays. Traditional home-cooked meals on the big days are the norm, but the season affords numerous opportunities for family get-togethers or annual gatherings with friends at favorite places.
The Fox Cities is blessed with so many choices, so it’s no easy task to pinpoint the places one can call, “must visit.” But the four restaurants profiled below — Apollon, Frank’s Pizza Palace, Solea Mexican Grill, and Van Abel’s of Hollandtown — each have their loyal customers who return year after year, and in many cases, generation after generation.
Appleton’s Apollon restaurant traces its roots back to the 1940s when it started out as Karras’ Restaurant. It’s therefore not surprising that many customers during the holidays are familiar faces fulfilling time-honored traditions of dining at the downtown landmark.
“During the holidays, especially around Christmas season, it’s a lot of families that come back,” explains Craig Persha, who acquired the restaurant in 2013 with partner Modesto Santander. Going through the old reservation books, Persha sees a lot of familiar names.
“We have one family that’s been coming back during the Christmas season for many years and they made their reservation for this year back in March,” Persha says. “People even request the same table, and we do our best to offer that — provided the family does not get too large.”
Persha joined Apollon in 2007 when it was owned by the late Stavros Kodis, who acquired it from the Karras family in 1995. Apollon does not feature traditional “holiday fare” which is one of the reasons Persha thinks customers return. The menu’s flavors are based in Greek and Mediterranean cuisine and include lamb dishes, filo pastries, feta-flavored salads and Greek-style steaks.
“Greek tradition features limited courses, and meals do tend to go on for a little bit,” Persha shares. “The focus is not a ‘get in, eat quick and get out because we have stuff to do’ mentality.”
Apollon can accommodate small gatherings and up to as many as 50 guests. Featuring a casual atmosphere and a traditional way of doing things, people know what they’re going to get when dining at Apollon.
“And, the goal is to have them leave with a smile on their face,” Persha adds.
Solea Mexican Grill
Eduardo Sanchez, owner of the three Solea Mexican Grill restaurants in the Fox Cities, certainly has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.
He began writing his version of the American Dream in 1995 when he arrived in the United States with $40 in his pocket from Veracruz, Mexico. A friend had suggested he could find work here, but he had to get out a map to figure out where Wisconsin was.
Fifteen years after coming to America, Sanchez has three restaurants and calls the holidays — dias festivo — the best time of the year when he can welcome back loyal customers visiting home.
“We really enjoy the season,” Sanchez says. “We try to be a favorite restaurant — that’s our goal — and we’ve gotten to know a lot of families over the years. It’s exciting to see their children grow up, some who even end up working for us. Time really flies.”
Taking care of customers so they come back again and again is a key to being successful in the restaurant business. “In 10 years, I’ve seen at least 50 restaurants open and close, but we’re here working it one day at a time and have a passion for what we do,” Sanchez notes.
Solea’s catering business, based in its Neenah location, is busiest during the holidays as well. “A lot of businesses claim to do catering, but we do it right,” he says.
Frank’s Pizza Palace
A perennial favorite atop many holiday must-visit lists is Appleton’s first pizzeria, Frank’s Pizza Palace. The holiday season is its busiest time of year, as people come home to the Fox Cities and make a point of getting their “Frank’s fix.”
In 1955, Frank Pierri traveled from his home in Chicago to Appleton to serve as best man for a friend’s wedding. After discovering there was no place to get a pizza here, he got the idea to establish the city’s first pizzeria. He and Pat Earle opened Frank and Pat’s in May that year.
Sixty years later, that rich legacy lives on with Frank’s daughter, Jeanne Pierri-Bice, who has owned and operated the restaurant since her father passed away 15 years ago. She says the key to their success is consistency: the recipes, the service and the huge Fauds six-deck rotating pizza oven remain the same since the day Frank’s opened.
Pierri-Bice’s grandfather ran a meat market in Chicago and invented the sausage used in Frank’s pizzas today, made with boned pork butts.
“The best compliment I’ve received was a longtime customer who said she’s been coming here since 1965, and it’s just as good today as it was then,” says Pierri-Bice.
Even the reconstruction of College Avenue from 2005-06 couldn’t keep customers away. People parked across the street and climbed over large piles of dirt to get to the restaurant. The 5,000-square-foot facility has 22 tables and an official seating capacity of more than 200 people.
Pierri-Bice sees her role as caretaker of a tradition. “To know that what you do is appreciated, when people tell me how many times they’ve eaten here over the years, that’s very special,” she says.
Van Abel’s of Hollandtown
In 1848, the year Wisconsin became the 30th state of the Union, Martin Van Abel set up a saloon and inn as a rest stop for cattle drives heading north to Green Bay. Today, Van Abel’s of Hollandtown endures as a revered institution for the ages, frequented by generations from throughout the area and beyond.
Chris Coenen, general manager, calls the holidays at Van Abel’s one of the busiest times of the year — not only for the people coming into Hollandtown for dinner, but also for the more than 100 catered events Van Abel’s performs during the season.
“Usually that Friday before Christmas, even the Friday after Thanksgiving, we have a lot of families that book reservations — and it’s the same family reservations almost every year,” he says. “We are that traditional gathering place. Because of our size we can handle all sized groups.”
Van Abel’s is one of those places that is just part of the local fabric.
“A lot of people travel to the ends of the U.S. and they inevitably come here during the holidays,” Coenen explained.
And of course, there’s the food. It’s the definitive comfort food often served all-you-can-eat family style, and the menu has not changed in forever, Coenen says.
While many holiday parties take place at Van Abel’s, they also cater quite a few special events throughout the area – from large businesses to smaller office gatherings.
To lighten the workload of families celebrating at home, cold carryouts — what Coenen calls “just heat it and eat it” — also are extremely popular during the holidays. Especially, dressing and the green beans with bacon sauce.