Fish boil and cherry pie at White Gull Inn
Gately Williams

From Milwaukee to Sister Bay, Wisconsin, visit the seafood dives serving the best lake whitefish.

By Steve Millburg

Pulled from the icy waters of Lake Michigan, the delicately flavored and slightly sweet lake whitefish is one of the defining dishes of Great Lakes summers. And while that has one thinking of fried perch and walleye, there's also something a bit wilder happening on Wisconsin's charmingly low-key shores.

The narrow Door Peninsula on the northwestern coast of Lake Michigan is home of the fish boil, a Scandinavian culinary tradition that arrived with settlers a century ago and has become as famous here as cherry pie. Involving cauldrons and open flames, a traditional fish boil culminates in a bit of Viking high drama: a pour of kerosene on the fire creates a true fire ball, a lot of heat, and the perfect high-boil finish for the whole fillets of whitefish, potatoes, and occasionally onions that have been simmering away. It's a show, in other words, and a tasty one.

This means that any good Lake Michigan road trip has to include at least one fish boil—not to mention the opportunity to eat whitefish in as many forms as possible. The only challenge on a quest like this is to make plenty of time for Wisconsin's other culinary gifts, namely craft beer, fresh produce, cheese, and, of course, Door County's famous cherry pie.

The fried walleye basket at Barnacle Bud's
Gately Williams

Milwaukee

A big-city start allows for beer, that thing that made Milwaukee famous; Lakefront Brewery makes it fun. The gonzo tour guides at this riverside brewpub lead sing-alongs of the Laverne & Shirley TV theme. A polka band enlivens the Friday night fish fry, a tradition in most taverns throughout the state. Pair the beer-battered cod with Fuel Café organic coffee stout or the wonderfully floral IPA; lakefrontbrewery.com. With its own dock on the Kinnickinnic River, Barnacle Bud's has nice fried perch and walleye on Wednesdays and a breezy Key West waterfront vibe; barnaclebuds.com.

STAY
In Milwaukee's Yankee Hill neighborhood, County Clare Irish Inn is a short walk to the lakefront and museums, and is home to a cozy pub. Rates start at $130; countyclare-inn.com.

Related: The Ultimate Fish Fry

Green Bay

En route to the Door Peninsula, drop in at Maricque's Bar, a friendly tavern that serves its weekly fish-fry perch with two accompaniments: an onion slice on buttered rye bread, and Maricque's Ale from Green Bay's Stillmank Brewing Co.; 920/432-9871.

Baileys Harbor

Smack in the center of the peninsula, PC Junction offers a solid fried-perch sandwich, but the real thrill comes from the food delivery system: a toy train. If you want a trackside seat (who wouldn't?) plan a visit at off-peak times; pcjunctiondoorcounty.com.

White Gull Inn
Gately Williams

Fish Creek

Cross the peninsula to Fish Creek, a boater's hangout with a fun, walkable downtown and the White Gull Inn, one of the most famous fish boil spots in the region. (They're scheduled four times a week during high season.) The restaurant serves its whitefish with baby red potatoes, cole slaw, and fresh bread (both made in house) in its charmingly rustic dining room, with Door County cherry pie for dessert; whitegullinn.com.

Ephraim

Boil master Jeremy "Torch" Klaubauf keeps the fire going at Old Post Office Restaurant, one of the few fish boil restaurants directly on the water. It's also lovely for breakfast—for a real Door County experience, try the tart-sweet cherry pancakes; oldpostoffice-doorcounty.com.

Fish boil and cherry pie at White Gull Inn
Gately Williams

Sister Bay

In this charming village, everybody—locals and tourists alike—hangs out at the family-owned Sister Bay Bowl. The restaurant, wood-paneled bar, and old-fashioned six-lane bowling alley all serve renowned fried perch; sisterbaybowl.com.

STAY
Escape to Double S Lodge, a luxuriously rustic log cabin hideaway with hearty, upscale breakfasts; cheese and charcuterie happy hours that feature local beer and wine; and campfires every other night with whiskey and s'mores. TVs are blissfully absent. Rates start at $275; doubleslodge.com.

Best Time to Go

Door County's summer crowds thin in late August. Or go in September for lower rates, pleasantly cool weather, and the first blush of fall foliage, which peaks in mid-October.