While north-central Wisconsin isn’t a dining mecca, neither is it a soulless pit of chain dining and fast food — visitors to this scenic stretch of the Badger State will be pleased to find that good old-fashioned American diner and bar food made with wholesome ingredients and real care still thrive. There’s not much online information about eating in this part of the state, so during a recent trip to the area, we blundered about and stumbled into some pleasing gems in the process.
The Mint Cafe (422 N 3rd St., Wausau, WI) is one of Wausau’s defining restaurants — you can’t get too much more classic than this old (circa 1888) standard made new again by a change in ownership in ’90s. We stopped by for breakfast, a meal that The Mint delivers straight with no twist: pancakes, sausages, bacon, breakfast sandwiches, and other staples came out of the kitchen promptly and properly prepared. The coffee is good, and the pot is left on your table, great for facilitating a morning caffeine intake. The whole place bustles with life — if you like being a fly on the wall at a community hub, it’s a great first stop of the day.
Wausau’s Downtown Grocery (607 3rd St., Wausau, WI) is a relatively new joint venture of architect Kevin Korpela (below) and farmer Blaine Tornow. The warm and charming shop offers a hand-picked selection of local organic produce, good Wisconsin beer, excellent cheese options (including a number of top-flight cheeses by Sartori, of Antigo), house brand frozen pizzas, and a number of other products that put local producers first.
The grocery’s rural / urban co-op-like aesthetic is well-suited to Wausau’s location among farmers and dairy producers, and well worth a stop for visitors swinging through town.
Speaking of Antigo: Both Peroutka’s Meat Processing (206 Wi-64, Antigo, WI) and Ken’s Meat Market (N2220 Hwy. 45 S, Antigo, WI) are worth a visit if you find yourself in this northern outpost. Peroutka’s sausauge (particularly landjaeger) is high quality and house-made, the jerky at both locations is stellar, and the bacon at Ken’s is up there with Wittenberg’s famous Nueske’s.
The Sportsmen’s Pub (4810 8th St. S, Wisconsin Rapids, WI) lies on the outskirts of town and doesn’t look particularly promising from the road; we ended up there after being directed by the proprietor of another bar that had stopped serving food at 9pm. (Sportsmen’s, he explained, serves until 11).
As it turns out, they do fantastic hamburgers without a lot of fanfare. The burgers are flavorful, appropriately seasoned and cooked correctly to order, and served on lightly buttery-tasting, delicate, crispy buns. The rest of the menu’s fare is pretty strictly sports bar-esque (miscellaneous poppers, not particularly promising looking pizza), but the atmosphere is warm and friendly and the quality of the burgers alone make it worth a stop if you’re in the area and ready to eat.
The newly established Cafe 27 (945 Clark St., Stevens Point, WI) takes its name from a 27-hour journey through Paris taken by the founders in a quest for gastronomic inspiration. The resulting restaurant — already much beloved by locals, particularly faculty working at UW-Stevens Point — would seem perfectly at home in downtown Minneapolis or Chicago, offering a variety of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options along with other meat-focused fare. Seasonal ingredients and a menu that changes multiple times as the lunch hour wears on add to the charm of the place. Be aware — Cafe 27’s popularity means the lunch rush is no joke. Seated amid a crowd of diners, we waited 20+ minutes for our food.