This is not a review of Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty in Minocqua, WI. Which is to say that it is a review of said establishment, just not in the conventional sense — we’ll dispense with the food quickly and say that it ranges from mediocre to good, and circle back once we’ve addressed the really interesting aspect of the place: its logistics.
Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty may as well be called Paul Bunyan’s Frickin’ Obvious Tourist Trap, because the flashy signage, value-conscious portions, and in-your-face gift shop commercial hustle land it squarely in that category. But it’s noteworthy for a couple of reasons:
One, the well-calibrated mercenary systems by which it moves people and food at a blinding pace, and two, the real affection its guests feel for it.
On the first point: Paul Bunyan’s faces two problems that every good vacation-land tourist trap comes up against. One, crushing crowds of generally disoriented, sometimes grumpy vacationers and their ill-mannered broods. Two, young, untested summer help who since time immemorial would generally rather be getting high in the park than achieving service excellence, not that the two goals need be totally mutually exclusive.
How to fix it: Why, that’s it. Fix. Fixe. Do a lowbrow, northwoods prix fixe meal and call it a Camp Breakfast. Brilliant! Your $10.50 gets you a gustatory gamut of pancakes, potatoes, and the like, dropped on the table the same way for every guest. So: no ordering. Families don’t have to work out who’s getting what, because everything on the menu always shows up. No one carping about small portions on this or that, because the portions are large and unlimited. No cold food, since everything’s always going out constantly. No surly high school-aged waiters or waitresses screwing up your order, because there’s no order to screw up. Add to this system two firm lanes at the restaurant’s entrance — the welcome-here’s-our-bakery-counter-pay-your-check-up-front lane and the get-out-but-feel-free-to-wander-into-the-gift-shop-lane — and you’ve got a throbbing circulatory system of money.
As for that real affection: Talk to someone who has long vacationed up in the Minocqua / Rhinelander / Lac du Flambeau part of Wisconsin’s northwoods (or the Dells, where they have a second location), and Paul Bunyan’s more likely than not will evoke a warm smile of recognition. It’s where Mom and Dad took all the kids, year after year, for big vacation pancake breakfasts. It’s part of the lore, and has been for 50+ years.
Hearing people talk about the place before actually visiting it, it hit me: Though I had never been there before, I’d been there before. My Paul Bunyan’s was called Al Johnson’s; it was in Door County instead of the northwoods; it was Swedish-themed rather than lumber-campesque; it had goats on the roof instead of giant plastic statues; it was all about lingonberries and pewter, rather than maple(ish) syrup and camp mugs as water glasses. But, same deal. Gift shop. Massive crowds. Love it as a kid, hate it as a worldly teen, love it as a nostalgic parent. Gotta go back.
About that food: Your $10.50 a person gets you an awful lot of grub, including biscuits and gravy, a freshly made doughnut, a pancake, a half slice of French toast, kielbasa, breakfast sausage, and a slice of ham, plus homestyle potatoes, coffee, orange juice, and a bucket of eggs. Since the place is “all you care to eat,” new buckets or plates can be procured, but honestly, if the first round isn’t enough you’re either a linebacker or should seriously consider looking into Weight Watchers. The heft of the grub lives up to its lumberjack decor.
Most of it is merely sustaining — the ham, sausage, eggs, and pancakes are high-end food service quality, ably executed but without any visible love. The potatoes are a bit better: nicely browned, broken down into pleasantly textured little bits that take ketchup or hot sauce beautifully.
That’s where the sugar-dusted buttermilk doughnut steps in — it’s got a whole lotta love, somehow — it comes out warm, and tender, and sincere, tasting so much like the real thing that it apparently actually is the real thing. It’s the first food that hits the table, and it sounds a grace note that makes all the other adequate carbs and greasy meat you shove into your breakfast hole seem as though they make perfect sense.
And the kielbasa ain’t bad. It’s got a nice smoky flavor that can’t really be faulted. Dinner at Corner Table or Butcher & the Boar it ain’t, but first thing in the morning, it’s as much sausage as most of us can reasonably handle.
Whether this is the sort of thing you enjoy or have contempt for, give it credit: Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty knows what it’s doing.
Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty
Lumberjack-themed Tourist Trap in Minocqua, WI
8653 Hwy 51 N
Minocqua, WI 54548
HOURS: Breakfast served daily 7am-11:30am
Lunch / dinner served daily noon–7:30pm
Open late April through October 4
ENTREE COST: $10.50