By Brian E. Clark
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
The Badger State has a rich and varied culinary tradition. So it’s not terribly surprising that more than a few of Wisconsin’s restaurants have ended up on television programs or even in movies.
“We have some of the best chefs in the country in Wisconsin, some of whom even have international reputations,” boasts Ed Lump, head of the state’s restaurant association.
“And our dining options range from great roadside diners, to custard shops to five-star restaurants,” he said. “We have a lot of options for television producers and movie people to choose from.”
At Rudy’s Drive In in La Crosse, customers often ask for buffalo burger or the walnut veggie burger, thanks to several shows host Sandra Lee did for the Food Channel on her “Semi-Homemade” show.
“We’ve also been on Discover Wisconsin and the ‘Live to Eat’ program with Jeremy Chipps,” said Owner Gary Rudy, whose grandfather started the eatery back in 1933. He said Lee chose Rudy’s because of good memories she had of the drive-in from when she was a student at UW-La Crosse.
And “Discover Wisconsin” host Stephanie Klett (now head of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism) focused on Rudy’s Tuesday cruise nights, roller-skating carhops and its traditional drive-in food such as cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, cheese curds and Flavor Burst ice cream.
“But people are also looking for something different, so the buffalo burgers and walnut burgers fit right in,” Rudy said. “Sandra made things that were a little more flamboyant, as is her style, and I’d have to say that gave us wider exposure.
Wisconsin’s restaurants haven’t been limited to just the small screen. Take Little Bohemia Lodge up in Manitowish Waters, which was the site of the bungled shootout between John Dillinger and the FBI back in 1934. When the 2009 Johnny Depp film about Dillinger’s life, “Public Enemy” was filmed, the movie-makers used relatively untouched Little Bohemia for the cinematic showdown.
Travelers, even those who might not know Dillinger lore, head for Little Bohemia to see where Depp blasted away at pursuing G-men and view gangster artifacts left behind such as real bullet holes in the lodge wall.
Appetites whetted, many try something from a Little Bohemia menu that leans heavily on the infamous mobster’s legend with dishes such as Eggs Dillinger for breakfast, Sweet Lady in Red (the nickname of Dillinger’s girlfriend) turkey sandwich for lunch and the Baby Face steak sandwich for dinner.
Up in Door County’s Fish Creek, the White Gull Inn gained national acclaim in May of 2010 when it won Good Morning America’s “Best Breakfast Challenge” for its delicious Cherry Stuffed French Toast.
The White Gull Inn was included in the program after “Good Morning America Weekend” anchors asked viewers to send in 300-word essays about their favorite restaurant breakfasts, said proprietor Andy Coulson. An essay about the Inn’s “signature” breakfast item by a Milwaukee woman caught the producers’ attention.
“We weren’t even aware of the contest,” he recalled. “But that lady’s review of our inn and our breakfast was apparently quite eloquent. We made it to the ‘final four’ and then were selected the winner in an online vote. Why, we got votes from all over the world from people who had some Door County connection.”
Down in Oshkosh, airplane enthusiasts who come in from all over the globe for the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s Airventure show occasionally stop in at Ardy & Ed’s Drive In on Main Street because they saw the diner on a segment of “Roker on Road,” with TV weatherman Al Roker.
“We also were on the 2004 Food Network show “Top 5 Food Innovations” about the history of fast food,” recalled owner Steve Davis.
“I think the show producers found us on the Internet and then sought us out,” he said. For “Roker on the Road,” they featured Ardy & Ed’s Turtle Sundae, root beer, as well as the made-from-scratch coleslaw.
In Milwaukee, producers’ of Andrew Zimmern’s Travel Channel “Bizarre Foods” show found what they were looking for last year at Wladyslaw “George” and Aleksandra Burzynski’s Polonez restaurant.
And it wasn’t the Hunter’s Stew or pierogies, those tasty, dumpling-like creations that are traditionally stuffed with potato and cheese filling, sauerkraut, ground meat or fruit. Nope, it was the czernina, or (get ready for this) duck blood soup.
“We only use a couple of drops of duck blood,” said Aleksandra, who hails from Gdynia, on Poland’s Baltic seacoast. “But that was enough to get their attention. When Andrew tried it, he said it was like Christmas.
It’s not only diners, mob hangouts and ethnic restaurants that have garnered spots on TV programs.
Sandy and Angela D’Amato, who run downtown Milwaukee’s fine-dining Sanford
Restaurant have been on a variety of shows, including “Dining Around,” “America’s Rising Star Chefs,”“Always in Good Taste” and “Great Chefs, Great Cities.”
In fact, Sandy was one of a dozen chefs who were asked to cook for a PBS program celebrating the 80th birthday of the late, great chef Julia Child.
“When travelers plan a trip, dining is part of the experience,” Lump said. “So it makes sense they would want to try something they saw on the big or little screen. That exposure certainly enhances dining establishments’ reputations and helps spark interest.
Here’s a list of eateries provided by the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the TV programs on which they’ve appeared: