It’s time for a three-meal journey across north-central Wisconsin to find where the locals eat.
We start with breakfast at the Polonia Cafe in Portage County.
“What makes us special is our home cooking,” said the cafe’s manager and cook, Tanya Hoppa. Her parents own the restaurant.
“A lot of people come here because it’s like what they could cook for themselves at home, but then we make it easy and they don’t have to do it,” said Hoppa.
Shawn Wolfe of Stevens Point is one of those people.
“I first started coming here when my son who’s now six was an infant,” he said. “Main reason was just because it was local, and I was a single father and didn’t really want to cook at home.”
Carole Gagas of Polonia has been visiting the restaurant for more than a decade.
“They treat us like family here,” she said “It’s close to home, and it’s great food.”
What’s her dish of choice?
“My favorite thing has got to be their new cinnamon roll pancake,” said Gagas. “It’s very good.”
“We give a lot of food,” added Hoppa. “That’s what we’re known for, too.”
I quickly found that out after ordering the country skillet.
“We have onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and then sausage,” said Hoppa, describing the dish. “And then there’s two eggs, any style, and then country gravy over the top.”
It also came with fresh homemade bread.
“That’s what makes all the difference in the world!” said Hoppa. “We make that in house, and bake it, and then obviously we slice it, and you want it to be thick because that’s what homemade is all about!”
And clearly, that’s what the Polonia Cafe is all about.
“I know you’re never going to leave here hungry,” said Wolfe.
I certainly didn’t. I was full the rest of the day.
Moving on to lunch. Red Eye in Wausau has only been around six years. But it’s popular, especially at lunchtime.
“We have such a strong, regular community that comes in here weekly, almost daily,” said Shelby Haas, a server and bartender at Red Eye.
It wasn’t difficult to find several regular Red Eye customers.
“I would say that we would choose the Red Eye because their food is always fresh, the service is good,” said Lecia Marks-Franson of Wausau. “It’s a nice atmosphere.”
Speaking of the atmosphere, it’s fairly unique. Walking in to the restaurant, you’ll notice bicycles everywhere—hanging from the ceiling and on the walls.
“Kevin, the head brew master here, he is very much into cycling,” said Haas. She said the bikes reflect that.
“I think it’s very artistic,” added Marks-Franson.
Lunch at Red Eye includes wraps, soups, salads, and the Red Eye Burger. I gave that a whirl. It comes with lettuce, tomato, and sauce, on a gigantic bun. It’s definitely not for the faint of stomach!
“You can’t get that anywhere else in Wausau, and the flavors really come through,” said Haas. “I almost wish I’ve never had our burger so I can try it again. It’s almost jaded every single burger I’ve ever had. It is the best burger.”
The kettle chips that come with the burger are tasty, too—nice and crunchy.
“Lots of options to choose from,” said Marks-Franson. “And there’s so much, you can take it home.”
Except for me—I finished all my food.
Finally, it’s time for dinner. But not just any dinner. Experience a classic Wisconsin tradition at the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander, built in the early 1930s.
“It was built by Al and Genevieve Nelson, so that’s why it’s called the Al-Gen, and then nobody ever changed the name,” said Rob Swearingen, the restaurant’s co-owner.
“My wife and I were both born in Rhinelander, both raised in Rhinelander, both graduated from Rhinelander High School, and we never left,” he said. “We bought the restaurant in 1993.”
The restaurant prides itself on traditional Northwoods fare.
“You’re not going to find a lot of fancy sauces coming out of this restaurant,” said Swearingen.
On a typical Friday night, customers come in by the dozens to enjoy the Al-Gen’s fish fry.
“I started coming here with my parents when I was maybe five,” said Heather Kurilla of Rhinelander. “It’s just a nice atmosphere. There’s always something to look at.”
She and her husband brought their young children to enjoy the food.
“The girls really like the food and they’re kind of picky eaters, and they eat really well here,” she said.
“Our Friday night fish fry is absolutely one of the most popular things in, not just here, but the entire Northwoods,” said Swearingen.
It’s easy to see why. In addition to the fish, the meal comes with french fries, potato pancakes, cole slaw, tuna salad, potato salad, and bread.
I’ve always loved potato pancakes, and they came with a nice addition—cinnamon applesauce. Everything else was also delicious.
“If they don’t get filled up here, it’s their own fault,” said Swearingen.
What makes this restaurant thrive? Swearingen has an easy answer.
“It’s the locals that support the restaurant year round,” he said. “As much as we appreciate the tourism business in the Northwoods—it’s great when summer comes along and you get the influx of tourists—but you have to stand by your locals because those ones that come out week in and week out and support the restaurant.”
And that is where the locals eat.
Remember, I’m always taking restaurant suggestions on my Facebook page.