Story by Mike Shaw | Photos by Heidi Hodges
Ride the brakes to the bottom of Sister Bay’s Highway 57 hill, and you can find another example.
The sign on the two-story, square-block structure reads “Sister Bay Bowl: A Classic American Supper Club.” But to locals and out-of-town regulars alike, it’s simply “The Bowl,” a shorthand as humble in its simplicity as the vanilla-white exterior and basic architecture.
“No one has ever defined what (a supper club) is,” said co-manager Paula Anschutz . “But my Grandma would say you start with a clean, crisp, freshly cut lettuce salad. Your meat-and-potatoes (dishes) simply plated. Just quality food. And definitely the (brandy) Old Fashioned.”
The grandmother reference was to Rita Willems, The Bowl’s matriarch who, with her late husband Earl, grew a small-town building into a big-time, but unassuming, landmark.
The Willemses were the second of four generations to run the place and the first to serve food, with that tradition starting in 1964.
But before that, the building—named the Sister Bay Hotel—included a dance hall/bar in the rear; a 13-room, three-bath lodging area upstairs, payable by the day or week; a meeting room for the Lions Club and other locals in what is now the front (south) dining area; and family living quarters in the present-day rear sit-down section.
Paula and her mother, Penny (Willems) Anschutz, are in charge now, though Penny’s sister and two brothers realize that semi-retirement from the family business is about as retired as they’ll get.
Even Rita remains active at 87 when she’s not wintering in Florida. A photo on Paula’s phone shows her Grandmother taking care of an unfinished detail before the snowbird months begin—teaching son Gary Willems how to make prime rib hash, a dish unique to The Bowl that must be “just so.”
“We’ll all probably remain involved in some way until we’re old and gray,” said Sharon Daubner, the second Willems daughter who was the longtime bar/dining room manager. “But this restaurant is calling to Paula.”
In the beginning
“It was a little scary having all these strange people living in the same building with you,” said Daubner, whose family eventually moved from The Bowl building into a neighboring house. “We literally grew up in the business.”
It was a big part of Paula’s childhood, too. Paula fondly recalls, as a little girl, dropping by after school to bat tennis balls off the back wall, playing checkers with beer-bottle tops as markers and do her homework sitting on cases of brew.
What goes around, comes around. Paula, 29, has a life story eerily similar to her grandfather Earl, who left behind his two-year-old chiropractic practice to buy what was then the Sister Bay Hotel from his father, Louie.
Paula, like Earl, studied for a medical-type career in physical therapy. But the gravitational pull of nearly three-fourths of a century of family tradition brought her back.
“I worked for the business for years and worked here so I could go to college,” Paula said. “I want my family to be able to retire here and I want it to stay in the family, so it needs to make this transition.
“There are new young owners up and down ‘the strip’ in Sister Bay, lots of new, young locals coming in.”
It’s a fortuitous time to take over, as the authentic Wisconsin supper club appears to be on the rebound. The State Department of Tourism put them squarely in the spotlight with a series of radio and TV ads this summer paying homage to relish trays, deer-head mounts, signature cocktails, silver-goateed bartenders and the tinkling ivories of a piano bar.
It’s the type of eatery that has specialties like any other restaurant but not a boxed-in niche. It can be a master of all tastes, whether the palate desires soup, chicken, seafood, steak, prime rib and on down the menu to the all-American pizzas, burgers and chili.
“I remember running around here as a kid and people stopping in after work to share stories and play cards,” Paula said. “(The patrons) tell me they remember my grandma dressed to the nines as the hostess, hair and lipstick just perfect.”
Now it’s her job to reconcile newfangled trends with the wildly successful old ways, while retaining the warm glow of nostalgia that is one of The Bowl’s secrets.
And, Paula notes, sometimes the latest developments are just coming full-circle from the past.
“We have had to change to some homemade stuff, homemade ingredients (responding to customer wants),” she said. “But Grandma, when she was young, her family were cheesemakers and they ate out of the garden because they didn’t have a lot of money.
“Then in the ’50s came boxed foods, and that was like a luxury (they could now afford). But now we’re going back to gardening and wanting freshly made, locally made (products). If you want to lighten up with something like an Asian salad (it’s on the menu), it doesn’t have to be fried food but more of the grilled or broiled.”
The Bowl’s original chicken broasters and steak machines haven’t changed in 52 years and, in fact, their models are no longer on the market. But the cooks have always stuck with what works, like the steak grillers that are like an enclosed pizza oven for the meat strip, giving it an all-around heating and a crispy finish to the edges.
More than a great meal
As excellent as the food is, The Bowl is more than food. It’s an event. It’s a community gathering spot. And it’s a way of connecting the past to the present.
For instance, the Dickie Daubner Smear Tournament, named for Sharon’s husband, debuted last winter. A form of sheepshead, the game used to be “big-time” at The Bowl and the tourney is a reflection of that history, Paula said.
Nor does Paula have any plans to tinker with the six-lane bowling alley—the only one north of Sturgeon Bay—at the building’s back.
Although a concession to modernity was made with automatic pinsetters, the scoring is still done by hand on paper sheets. It tests the casual bowler, raised on electronic tally screens, to remember the sport’s scorekeeping rules.
Despite an overall decline in bowling popularity, The Bowl’s three weekly, in-season leagues remain full. Hearty supper fare with a mostly unobstructed view of the lanes and to the background music of crashing pins? You’d be challenged to find something more distinctly Badger State.
“It’s not a big part of our business, but I want to keep it because it’s Americana at its best,” Paula said. “A lot of the young kids who visit for the summer or stay up (in Northern Door) to work have their own league. It’s retro.”
Brimming with history
The heritage Paula strives to preserve began 74 years ago when her great-grandfather, Louie Willems, left a teaching job (risk-taking runs in the family) and started purchasing property and establishing business interests in Northern Door. Among other ventures, he built The Rock Supper Club just north of Fish Creek, now the iconic stone restaurant housing Alexander’s of Door County.
Willems leased the Sister Bay Hotel operation to two other families for eight years until Earl and Rita bought it in 1950. At the time, three-month-old Sharon and older brother Gary were Earl and Rita’s only children. Penny and youngest brother Steve came along later.
In 1957, the couple made the first major renovation—and ushered in the famous name—by tearing down the dance hall and putting in the bowling alley. Seven years later, the family moved to its offsite living quarters and Rita and Earl started serving food.
The word gets around
Sister Bay Bowl has had no problem overcoming the stigma leery diners might carry about chowing down on meals at a bowling alley.
Food reviews or mentions, universally praising the down-home cuisine, have appeared in The Milwaukee Journal, Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Chicago Sun Times...and even The Wall Street Journal.
In 2008, Sun Times food writer Pat Bruno, in a review of a Windy City establishment, noted that his “paradigm for broasted chicken is the Sister Bay Bowl.”
While all of the writers are complimentary of the quaintness and quality food, Charles LeRoux of the Tribune described a near-obsession in 1998. “After work on a Friday evening, we have driven like Ichabod Crane chased by the headless horseman, Milwaukee a blur, Manitowoc, too, no pit stops, to race directly to the Sister Bay Bowl and collapse at a table. ‘We’ll have the perch,’ we gasp.”
But this kind of attention merely spread The Bowl’s reputation, it didn’t build it.
“Dad didn’t advertise at all,” Daubner said. “The portions were ample and we stressed the friendliness, so it was all just word-of-mouth. It was just like they were going to a friend’s house—‘We’re going over to Earl’s.’