By Mary Bergin | Photos courtesy of Geneva Lake Museum, unless otherwise noted in caption.
Restaurants may come and go, but fond memories of a special few will linger decades after signage comes down and table linens are folded for the final time. Menus, photos and newspaper ads transform into artifacts, evidence of uniquely treasured times.
Lake Geneva’s culinary history boasted countless prime examples of memorable dining experiences that once satisfied patrons’ cravings for the refined, the unusual and the delectable. Let’s indulge in memories of a few of them.
THE VIP ROOM, LAKE GENEVA (1968-1981)
No place in the area booked more “A list” entertainers from 1968 to 1981 than the VIP Room at the Playboy Club-Hotel (today’s Grand Geneva Resort and Spa). Tony Bennett, Cher, Ann-Margret and many others took the stage at the iconic restaurant, generally performing two shows a night to catch the early and the late seating.
Celebrities not only performed, they also dined in the VIP Room … but so did others who could pay, behave and abide by the dress code, which included jackets and ties for men, dresses for women. Jerry Pawlak, longtime maître d’, says it was an unwritten rule to not pester performers — or a scantily clad Playboy Bunny.
The fare — luxury and cutting-edge for the times — would seem like a bargain today. Pawlak’s keepsake menus list such upscale items as stuffed artichoke hearts, back-fin crabmeat cocktails and green turtle soup glazed with cream and sherry. Among the main courses: venison steak, stuffed veal, poached turbot.
At the highest end was the “Imperial Steak Tartare” for $10, an entrée of finely chopped raw tenderloin covered with beluga caviar and served with chilled vodka. “You could order everything on the menu — all apps, soups, entrees, desserts — for $89,” Pawlak muses. “Today that’s a cheap bottle of wine.”
Pawlak remembers that one time when Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner arrived to dine, the chef insisted that no menus be offered to the party of six. “I’ll make whatever he desires,” Pawlak recalls being told. Hef’s choice? Fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
Inside the VIP Room there existed a staff hierarchy: from the busboy who set and cleared the tables, to the back waiter who gave the food orders to chefs, to the front waiter who stayed in the dining room, to the captain who finished preparing certain dishes tableside and finally to the maître d’, who wore a tuxedo while keeping the staff on task and customers satisfied. Pawlak began working at the VIP Room in 1968 as a bartender, before transitioning to captain when an employee was fired for failing to properly prepare the cherries jubilee, eventually working his way to the top spot. “Best job I ever had,” he says.
THE CROW’S NEST, FONTANA (1975-1987)
When the VIP Room closed, Pawlak worked as the manager of The Crow’s Nest in Fontana, another popular dining option in the area, open from 1975 to 1987. It was lauded for its “warm, bright atmosphere” and its lake views, as well as excellent food and service. When Pawlak came on board in the 1980s, he was quick to hire former Playboy Bunnies, because, he says, “I knew how well they were trained.”
The Crow’s Nest had a memorable seafood menu, according to Pawlak. “They had two tanks, one for swimming trout and one for live lobster,” he recalls. The patron would select the fish or crustacean they preferred, and back to the kitchen it would go, only to return as a fresh-as-you-can-get entrée. In the Geneva Lake area, “the concept was unusual at that time,” Pawlak says. Today the 60-seat Crow’s Nest — once located at the intersection of Reid and Third streets in Fontana — is the site of condominiums.
SILVANO’S ITALIAN RISTORANTE, LAKE GENEVA (1971-1993)
What began as Rondo Manor — a rural supper club located on Highway H in Lake Geneva from 1961 to 1969, featuring a piano bar and entertainment six nights a week — languished as one link of a steakhouse chain for two years, until new ownership ushered in a cuisine change: sophisticated Italian fare. Ron Schreiner became acquainted with the business at age 12, when he was hired to fill in for a no-show dishwasher. He quickly learned to enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie of restaurant work, and soon was promoted to salad prep, second chef and then chef.
In 1971, Schreiner bought the business with Silvano Stefani, and became full owner when Stefani moved to Texas in 1979. “He was the first in the area whose Italian cooking went beyond pizza and pasta,” Schreiner says. That meant serving a five-cheese and five-layer lasagna, Chicken Vesuvio (pan-fried in white wine with potatoes), veal Italiano and other classic Italian entrees. Schreiner says they kept a bit of Rondo Manor’s supper club menu and offered a Friday night fish fry, with potato pancakes made from scratch, the batter prepared 20 gallons at a time. Other holdover menu items from Rondo Manor included relish tray recipes for pickled beets and kidney bean salad, a popular pepper steak entrée and the Sunday special, chicken and dumplings.
The restaurant, located on 11 acres of property at the edge of Lake Geneva amid a grove of pine trees, was designed with lots of windows in the bar and two dining rooms. That meant good viewing of wildlife — including deer, raccoon and fox — especially as dusk arrived. “The whole place went silent when wildlife showed up,” Schreiner remembers. Inside, the room was decorated with a moose head trophy with red lights in its nose. The owner would flick a switch and make those lights blink: “Little kids loved it,” Schreiner says. “I’d always say the rest of the moose was outside.”
Schreiner’s wife Linda, a medical technologist, pitched in at Silvano’s on her days off. The couple sold the business in 1993, “after so many years of 70-hour work weeks,” Schreiner explains. Today, the building has been razed and the lot at the intersection of county highways H and NN in Lake Geneva sits empty.
CHARLEY O’S, WILLIAMS BAY (1969-2008)
Many people today know Charley Obligato as maître d’ at Lake Geneva’s Anthony’s Steakhouse and Williams Bay’s Café Calamari, but his deepest thumbprint on hospitality in the Geneva Lake area remains his namesake Williams Bay restaurant, Charley O’s. That legacy was rooted in 1969, when Obligato purchased The Chalet, a mom-and-pop operation in Williams Bay, which he renovated and reimagined to create a refined restaurant open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
The 110-seat restaurant — at Geneva Street and Highway 67 — remained a popular dining option in the area for 39 years. “Chicago customers would come for business lunches,” he remembers, because they preferred the rich, clubby interior, including booths with Naugahyde seating and inlaid wood tabletops. Obligato could even offer to place a phone on the table for these business lunches, because the booths featured phone jacks, an unusual amenity at the time. But it wasn’t just businessmen who loved Charley O’s — the restaurant was a popular spot for locals and tourists as well.
“It was fine dining for the times,” Obligato says. The menu was printed on a parchment-paper scroll and boasted elegant dinner options, including rack of lamb lobster thermidor, shish kebobs, veal marsala … all for less than $8 per dinner. The price included soup, salad and entrée. Charley O’s famous French Onion soup, served in metal crockware and topped with a thick layer of melted cheese, was a menu staple from the very beginning.
The restaurant was so popular that Charley O’s locations opened in Lake Geneva and Wauwatosa as well. A friend added his modernized version in Elkhorn. However, by 2015, all of the outposts had closed. Obligato says stricter drunken driving laws were a factor: diners imbibed less, which affected revenue. (The primary location closed in 2008). Today, Privato Pizza Bistro & Lounge occupies the former Charley O’s site in Williams Bay.
Lumberman’s Lodge, Lake Geneva (1963-1973)
For diners looking for a more affordable but equally memorable meal option, Lake Geneva’s Lumberman’s Lodge offered family-style dining in a unique environment. The long, wooden building on Highway 12 with its casual interior was meant to evoke a camp kitchen for loggers in the North Woods. (Co-owner Wayne Komula had worked as a logger before going into the hospitality industry.) Komula may have borrowed the idea from other Wisconsin tourist towns: Paul Bunyan “cook shanties” in the Wisconsin Dells and Minocqua offered the same all-you-can-eat, experiential dining concept.
Beef, chicken and other meats were served by the platter at this family-style restaurant that opened in Lake Geneva on Highway H in 1963. Customers paid for their meal at the door, then sat at long picnic tables awaiting the delivery of big trays of food and beverages. The cost? A mere $2.50 ($1.25 for diners under 10 years old) for an all-you-can-eat feast.
The serving style kept the staff running. Lake Geneva native Pamela S. Meyers worked one summer as a waitress at Lumberman’s Lodge. “I quickly learned that 5-foot-2 girls needed a lot of muscle to do the job,” she remembers. Meyers says the main entrée changed daily. Sides included bread made from scratch, baked beans and potato salad. Homemade pies also were included.
“We usually had several tables to serve at one time, and it involved a lot of running back and forth if customers wanted more food,” she says. Because diners had paid on the way in the door, they often neglected to leave a gratuity, Meyers says. “I remember one time a family left me a $5 tip, and I thought I was rich.”
Today, the Lake Geneva House of Music occupies the building where generations of diners ate bottomless platters of comfort food at the Lumberman’s Lodge.
GLEN NELSON’S, LAKE GENEVA (1955-1980)
From 1955 to 1980, diners looking for an elegant fine dining option in downtown Lake Geneva sought out a restaurant with a red canopy and neon sign outside: Glen Nelson’s. The site had served as a fine-dining restaurant dating back to 1923, but not until 1955 did Nelson himself buy out his business partner and change the name, ushering in a new era of elegant meals.
The atmosphere inside Glen Nelson’s was peaceful: cushioned booths, candlelit tables, local art on the walls, instrumental music in the background. Lunch special included meatloaf, chicken stew, and southern fried chicken with baking powder-biscuits and honey, which drew widespread raves. Dinner options tended to be more formal – stuffed flounder, veal cordon bleu, steaks and crepes — and meals started with “shoe salad” (lettuce, green pepper, tomato, sardines and hard-boiled egg slices). Onion soup and two-toned cheesecake, Nelson’s wife’s recipes, were in high demand, and Nelson himself crafted a signature Swedish martini, made with Aquavit, as a nod to his heritage.
Waitstaff stayed on board for decades. Nelson’s daughter, Joan Meginniss, says that head waitress Alice Gray stuck with the restaurant from beginning to end. “Alice was famous,” she says. “She knew all the regulars and treated each customer as family.”
Meginniss remembers Glen Nelson’s as “one-of-a-kind” in downtown Lake Geneva in those days. For the average person, she adds, restaurant dining was reserved for special occasions, but the mix of patrons in Lake Geneva meant big business for Glen Nelson’s. “Businessmen would lunch there and meet in the back booths for social time,” she explains. And when the tourist season started, the crowd swelled. “In summer, there would be long lines waiting to get in.”
The Nelsons lived above the restaurant, and each of their children worked there when they were old enough, and sometimes even when they weren’t. “My oldest daughter, at age 4, sneaked down and seated the first customers of the day, handing them menus,” Meginniss laughs. “Dad was not amused.”
Meginniss says her daughter was disappointed when the restaurant was sold in 1980. “She was a waitress there all through high school and college,” she explains. “She got her law degree but still wishes she could have owned Glen Nelson’s.” Today, where Glen Nelson’s used to be you will find Le Cookery, a kitchen and home goods shop on Lake Geneva’s Main Street.
Note: Many of the photos in this piece were provided by the Geneva Lake Museum. We are ever grateful for the work of the many staff and volunteers who maintain such an exceptional archive of Lake Geneva history.