APPLETON, Wis. — Don’t expect apples to be jumping out at you in Appleton. I found one on a recent trip, and it was a doozy. But others like it might be gone by the time you get here. We’ll circle back to my singular apple, but first consider that this city, hugging the Fox River, was named for someone named Appleton — not because it was once a town full of apples.
The village that was founded in the mid-1800s is a city of about 75,000 residents today, so also don’t expect a small-town-Wisconsin experience if you head to the area for one last look at autumn leaves or a weekend getaway. It is Wisconsin, though, so you’re going to encounter that special brand of Badger-State friendliness that spans from downtown Milwaukee to the far reaches of the Northwoods. And because it’s Wisconsin, there will be cheese everywhere. And beer. And yes, some close-enough apple orchards if you’re into that. But there’s more than that to Appleton’s dining and drinking scene.
Rye Restaurant & Lounge has got to be the best restaurant in town. Connected to the CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa, Rye has a rustic-riche vibe, with food that is at once simple and sophisticated. Like oysters, raw or grilled — impeccably presented either way, on ice with three sauces or on a bed of charred wood chips.
The braised short rib crostini appetizer is a dish I’m still thinking about weeks later. Same with the seared scallops with pickled local asparagus and red onion, toasted pepitas and warm vanilla bread puree. I got the feeling early in the meal that probably anything that came out of the kitchen was going to be great, and it all was. Same with the service — refined, but also Wisconsin-warm. Good wines by the glass made the whole lingering affair even better — the most enjoyable meal I’ve had in a very long time. In Appleton.
I didn’t eat at Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant, one of the other fancier spots in town, so I can’t vouch for the food. But I can surely endorse the bar area, where the huge windows offer striking views of the rushing Fox River. Wine aficionados will love the display of large-format bottles, too. See how many you can identify.
For beer, head to … well, anywhere — it’s Wisconsin! — but be sure not to miss Stone Arch Brewpub. The pub and dining room are tucked into the uber-cozy lower level of a stone building that dates back to 1858. Built as a brewery near the river, the place is also home to a great little map store and a comedy club. Is the building haunted? Sure. What kind of 1858 stone building by the river would it be if it weren’t haunted? There might even be two ghosts. Stone Arch makes some really nice beer, including a German pilsner, English mild ale and pumpkin spice ale. I would have loved to settle in for a night of beer and some upscale pub fare at Stone Arch, but there were just too many food spots to explore.
The seasonal pumpkin beer and ghost story put me in a Halloween mood, but at Cleo’s Brown Beam Tavern, it’s Christmas every day. You say you love homey taverns and garish Christmas decorations? Get thee to Cleo’s. Drink in the Christmas spirit and then head across the street to the pan-Asian restaurant Bowl 91. It serves Thai noodles and curries, ramen, bulgogi kimchi fries, pork belly buns with sweet chili hoisin and tasty lemongrass chicken tacos. Wash it all down with some crisp Chang beer and head back to Cleo’s.
In the stark light of morning, for a charming breakfast or brunch in a rather uncharming part of town, head to the Fox River Mall. Among the retail sprawl, you’ll find SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery, sort of a contemporary take on a retro diner — quirky and cheerful with a breakfast bar and a bakery case. SAP serves five kinds of eggs benedict, lemon ricotta pancakes, a nice reuben, a crispy chicken sandwich with honey Sriracha glaze and a bunch of other brunchy stuff — plus the aforementioned bakery case where you might find their version of s’mores.
Just steps away from SAP are three more foodie destinations: retail shops for Fava Tea Co. and Penzeys Spices; and SAP’s sister restaurant, Carmella’s, an Italian Bistro. SAP is brighter and more casual than Carmella’s, but assuming the food quality and service is comparable, Carmella’s is probably a fine option for dinner or lunch.
OK, now the cheese. Appleton is home to Simon’s Specialty Cheese, an emporium of local cheese and beer (duh) but also lots of other Wisconsin products, including the largest selection of cheesehead hats I’ve ever seen. Philadelphia Eagles fan Erik DiFeterici was at Simon’s after watching his team play the Packers in Green Bay, and he left with cheesehead wedges for himself and his daughter. I passed on the cheeseheads (though I did admire the fez), and left the store with three blocks of actual cheese (Muenster and aged brick from Simon’s, and cranberry white cheddar from Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe), a bag of Mike’s Popcorn Triple Mix from Kaukauna, a dark chocolate cow pie (Baraboo Candy Co.’s answer to the turtle), a bag of Door County dried cherries from Appleton-based Cherryland’s Best, and three candy bars from the Appleton institution Vande Walle’s Candies.
Vande Walle’s also has a retail store of its own, again back at the Fox River Mall, and I thought it would be a missed opportunity not to pay a visit, especially since the business is family-owned. Nothing like a good old-fashioned candy store, if you ask me.
After a few samples of some kind of toffee goodness, I left Vande Walle’s with a chocolate chip cookie (turns out, it’s also a bakery) that was 6-1/2 inches across and topped with so many chips an ant could have walked across it without laying a foot on the cookie itself. I also took home a coconut-kissed seven-layer bar that was perfectly dense and sweet — not cloying like some seven-layers can be. I had to pull myself out of the store before I got carried away with the rest of the baked goods. And the individual chocolates behind the glass. And the pre-packed boxed sets.
Even the Vande Walle’s candy bars I picked up at the cheese shop — caramel nut, mint truffle and peanut butter meltaway — tasted like they were made by a boutique chocolatier and not in a giant corporate factory. Chicago area folks, the mint truffle reminded me of a Frango mint. So instead of eating a quarter-box of Frangos, you could eat just one sensible Vande Walle’s candy bar. Something to think about next time you’re in Appleton.
Oh yeah, the apple. Because I was in Vande Walle’s at the beginning of fall, I also scored a caramel apple, and it was right up there with the best caramel apples I’ve ever had. As we all know, the caramel makes or breaks the caramel apple. If you make it to Vande Walle’s in time, get one for yourself and wonder, as I did, if Appleton should maybe be renamed Caramelton. No offense to Mr. Appleton, of course, but that is some fine caramel. Decent local apple, too.