Whether we enjoy our Friday night fish fry at the tavern or Sunday breakfast at the neighborhood diner, Fox Citians love small and local luxuries – diners, dives and drive-ins.
My Kind of Place
If you experienced the great food, cheap prices and camaraderie that brewed up in corner taverns half a century ago, you have a home at the Club Tavern in downtown Menasha.
Standing outside on Racine Street, the Club Tavern doesn’t look like anything special. By comparison, the tavern is about the size of two semi-trailer trucks side by side.
Once inside, the back-bar hosts collectors’ decanters, American flags and Klement’s sausage dolls. History and humor infuse its blue-collar coziness. There’s a long bar, several tables, a jukebox and a huge chalkboard listing more than 21 tap beers and 75 specialty bottled brews.
Tim Reinhardt, a long-time Club customer who returns even after moving to La Crosse, says, “It’s a one-of-a-kind place with great food, great beer and a great juke box.”
Club Tavern regulars include men, women, mill workers, mayors and neighbors, and all new guests are welcomed with a nod.
Many consider Club Tavern’s fish fry the best in the area because the cole slaw, breaded perch and potato salad are homemade. While people are usually packed in like sardines on Friday nights, fish fries also are served Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The Tavern’s Wednesday-through-Friday “Anytime Menu” presents sandwiches like the Philly cheese steak or veggie burger and dinner offers perch, sea scallops and tuna filets.
Saturdays offers entreés such as Club-fried chicken and broasted pork chops. Most dinners are offered in single or double portions.
Steve Szymanski is the third generation owner.
“I tried not to change too much,” he says of his old-style bar. “Those people knew their stuff.”
Some improvements have been made. After taking over, Szymanski revamped the bar’s two tap stations by adding more micro-brewed beers.
Where Johnny’s Pa Knows Bill’s Ma’s Sister Who Married Bob’s Best Friend Jack…
At Appleton’s Schreiner’s Home Style Diner, it’s true that everybody knows your name.
“This is our ‘Cheers,’” says Susan Weiss, who has known the Schreiner family for 25 years and frequents the diner with her eldery neighbor. “I like the good, home-style cooking. Paul knows how to make eggs like nobody else.”
When Paul and Joyce Schreiner opened their restaurant in 1985, they patterned it after The Grill, an Appleton eatery where Paul had worked through 13 years as a cleaning boy, dishwasher and on up to manager.
Many Grill customers followed Paul, and enjoy Schreiner’s two U-shaped dining counters and eight tables under homey accents of shutters and valences.
“Now we’re known for our home cooking and good, honest food,” says Joyce.
Pancakes, soups and pies are made from scratch. The diner brews Royal Kona Coffee, and breakfast specials and skillets are served all day. Seafood and chicken “delights” and “diner dinners” round out the menu.
With the ground meat supplied by Jacob’s Meat Market, burgers are a big draw.
Near the entrance, a calendar of specials is posted with entrées like chicken and dumplings, beef tips and country-style pork ribs, baked cod and salmon loaf.
“Everybody here knows everybody, and we cater to them all,” Joyce says.
Summer in the City
In Wisconsin, the end of summer brings enough reasons to lament.
But in Kaukauna, the end-of-November seasonsal closing of Dick’s Drive-In also means unquenchable cravings.
But, sure as soft serve swirls, spring will bring long lines of folks awaiting creamy cones, ninety-one-cent burgers, Ranch-bacon sandwiches and other treats. The picnic tables in the back will be filled, some folks will dine in their cars and others order food to go. Yep—Dick’s is a true drive-in.
It’s a small, unpretentious place with a roof ringed with big yellow light bulbs and topped by a neon-outlined cone.
Established by Dick Sternhagen in 1955, Dick’s is now owned by Scott and Kevin Lambie, managed by thirteen-year veteran Eric Gauthier, and staffed by Kaukauna High School student-workers.
“We have tons of regulars,” Gauthier says. “We see some people two or three times a week, sometimes twice a day. Folks who used to come in with their grandparents are now bringing in their grandchildren.”
He adds that in down economic times, people still like their comfort food.
Brycen Allen, a Kaukauna High School student, agrees.
“The cheeseburgers are great, but the root beer’s the best,” he says.
Third Street Eats
Two years ago, after serving 12 years as a waitress, Michelle Kampo and her husband bought Third Street Diner in Menasha. They have continued the diner’s traditions of serving generous portions of home-style food.
After the purchase, nearly all the employees stayed on, as did the regulars. And not only did the eatery survive last summer’s roadwork, but business is now stronger than ever.
The diner is as classic as its dining counter. The employees say it’s like family, and the regulars are big part of that happy clan.
“We’ve always made it a point to get to know our customers,” says Kampo.
Many come in and their waitress brings a meal exactly the way they want, and usually for less than ten bucks.
“Most of the people who come here like to give the waitresses a hard time, and they give it right back,” a former employee says. “It’s like family.”
Where cents matter, competition is keen, and kitchen labor and fresh ingredients are costly, few family-style restaurants serve menu items made “from scratch.”
Is it worth it?
“Definitely,” Michelle answers. “You can’t go many places where you can enjoy food that’s not from a some mix, or dumped from a can or a frozen box.” But here’s one.
By stopping for a twist cone at Dick’s Drive-Thru in Kaukauna or swinging in to visit a favorite waitress at the Third Street Diner in Menasha, we are supporting small businesses while getting good eats for fair prices. Now, as always, our diners, corner taps and drive-ins offer tradition, family warmth and low-cost comfort.
—By Lynn Kuhns