By Pat Dillon
One of the great joys of traveling Wisconsin roads in autumn is the promise of finding a café or restaurant loaded with locally grown ingredients. From Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, field to fork restaurants abound. Here are just a few to explore along with Wisconsin’s most colorful scenic roadways.
Sheboygan is one of Wisconsin’s coastal towns. The smells, sights and sounds of autumn are drawn from the Lake Michigan shoreline, the dunes at Kohler-Andre State Park, the Inter-urban bike trail. The Field To Fork Café and Grocery in downtown Sheboygan is all about insiders, with its seasonal menu featuring local grass-fed beef and humanely-raised pork. Plus many other ingredients are supplied by Wisconsin farmers or cheesemakers. It roasts fair-trade coffee, bakes daily on-site, serves home-made sausage and soups and stocks its central grocery store with Wisconsin products (but not exclusively).
The little town of Paoli, set along the Sugar River, is known for art and quaint cafés overlooking the river. On the other side of the river, three women devoted to seasonal food and local farmers (one is a local farmer) serve a rotating menu dependent upon what’s available that day at the Paoli Bread and Brat Haus. This restaurant features sausage and pork from partner-owned Goose Chaser Farm’s (in Blanchardville) heritage breed hogs. It’s a very limited menu (like three items limited), but guaranteed fresh and a little adventurous. For vegetarians: could be a pickled Limburger cheese sandwich. For carnivores: maybe a pork meatloaf sandwich. They sell daily-baked potato bread and a pull-apart with gobs of Wisconsin cheese in the center. You can also get Goose Chaser Farm brats and a few other local products like pickled beans and brussel sprouts from Noel’s Jams and Jellies in Albany.
The Wisconsin River is saturated with fall color and Taliesin in Spring Green captures it all – the river, the fall color washed over 300-plus acres of rolling hillside seen from the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Riverview Terrace Café. The café is located in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center and is open from April through October. Take a tour of Wright’s home or the School of Architecture, or just drive along the Wisconsin River and land there for lunch. The menu is loaded with organic and local ingredients, like grass-fed beef from Black Earth Meats and Otter Creek Farms, Hooks Cheeses, and produce from Taliesin’s own organic fields.
There may be no better kept secret in Wisconsin than the Great River Road National Scenic Byway that runs along the Mississippi River Valley from Genoa to Prescott. Even more remotely traveled are the scenic back roads into the valley’s blue-green bluffs that vibrate with reds, oranges and yellows throughout autumn. Tucked into the valley on County KK outside Nelson is the Stone Barn, one of the “greenest” wood-fired pizza pits in all of Wisconsin. Surrounded by over a thousand acres of countryside, sit in an open-air stone barn enjoying ultra-thin-crusted gourmet pizzas topped with artisanal cheeses, organically home-grown herbs and vegetables, and made-on-site sausages from locally raised pork and lamb. Wash it down with a New Glarus Spotted Cow or glass of wine, then roam a historic oat grainery turned antique barn. It’s open from spring through fall but call for exact dates on each end.
Travel Hwy 35 north to The Root Note in downtown La Crosse. They bring jazz to the Upper Mississippi River Valley every Tuesday night along with their sweet and savory crepes made from local and organic sources, like Castle Rock Farms in Osseo. Fridays are Market Crepe Day when the menu offers a farmers’ market-foraged special crepe, such as sage and squash. Coffee, served using pour-over methods, is organic and fair trade from Kickapoo Coffee in Viroqua.
The Cable Nature Lodge, a Travel Green Wisconsin certified business, takes sustainability very seriously. This energy efficient and low chemical use inn supports Wisconsin farmers and the environment by serving its guests and customers locally and sustainably grown food in its Rookery Pub, a fine dining eatery located in the lower level of the lodge. It’s certainly among the top Northwoods restaurants for creativity and thoughtful dining, using ingredients from Bull Frog Fish Farm, the Six River’s Co-op, North Star Farm grass-fed beef and Wisconsin artisanal cheeses.