Story by Mike Shaw | Photos by Heidi Hodges
When longtime owner Greg Ebel bought the bar in 1978, he intended to name it Greystone Chapel as homage to a song on Johnny Cash’s 1957 Folsom Prison Blues album. But he had second thoughts when he went down to City Hall to apply for his liquor license.
“It looked like a greystone chapel to me,” Ebel said of the building’s stacked-rock exterior. “But the lady in the clerk’s office said, ‘Ohhh, you shouldn’t use ‘chapel’ (to describe) a tavern. How about castle instead?’ Sounded good to me.”
The unidentified civil servant thus put the nametag on what is indeed a prominent fortress of Sturgeon Bay’s West Side waterfront, within sight of the iconic steel bridge.
Every standout eatery stamps itself with a brand. In the Greystone’s case, it’s the place to be for learning secret fishing spots, cheering NASCAR drivers, gawking at rows of animal mounts, sharing tall tales from the outdoors and—stock-car and hunting fan or not—enjoying scrumptious homemade dishes that give a good name to “bar food.”
Take, for instance, the prime rib sandwich. It is an oft-recommended dining choice passed onto local visitors. It’s something of a legend in these parts.
“The prime rib (reputation) just kind of flowed in (naturally),” Ebel said. “We get great reviews on Yelp and Travelocity and (websites) like that, but we never entered a contest or anything.”
Similarly, word of mouth turned the bar into a magnet for outdoors lovers.
“We can tell people where to go fishing because we’re active in that ourselves,” Ebel said. “And pretty much every (head) up there on the wall is an ‘Ebel.’
“We had a bait shop in here when I first bought it, too. That brought the sportsmen in.”
When it comes to the Ebel’s food philosphy, “Homemade is the secret, 40 years of home-cooking everything,” said son Wade Ebel, 28, who along with his older brother Luke, 31, is being groomed to guide the Greystone into the future. Mother Sue Ebel handles most of the kitchen work.
“We have homemade tartar sauce, homemade (cole)slaw, the bacon’s cooked right here; any side or slaw is made here,” Wade Ebel said.
“It wasn’t the worst thing in the world (growing up in a bar); I enjoyed it,” he said. “I started in the kitchen really young. If they couldn’t find a babysitter, I would be standing on a pickle box helping mom bread cheese curds or shredding cabbage for coleslaw.”
True to the bar’s character, the food selections include wildlife dishes like venison, elk, buffalo and turkey burgers.
No, the Ebels don’t shoot the game themselves; the mounts might be their handiwork, but the backwoods taste-tempters come from longtime supplier Reinhart Foodservice of Oak Creek.
The Greystone also relies on quality local suppliers such as Renard’s Cheese. Bartender Andy Johnson, a commercial fishing mate and former fish store owner, brings in fresh perch and salmon patties created from his catches in area waters.
Contrary to the greasy-spoon rap that bar menus get, only lean, 85 percent Angus beef goes into the burgers. Greg Ebel said it’s too much of a risk for excess juice to be dripping and spitting onto the gas grills, especially for a business like his that suffered a traumatic fire (more on that later).
Wade and Luke Ebel share their father’s passion for fishing and hunting. It ensures that the Greystone’s taxidermy collection on the walls will keep, uh, mounting.
The stuffed-animal zoo includes a boar from a Michigan game farm, elk and bear from Colorado and the “only sturgeon in Sturgeon Bay,” a pair of mounted specimens speared on Lake Winnebago (the spindly, 7-foot, 200-pound lake species thrived in local waters in ancient times, but has all but disappeared).
“All the time we get asked where to find the sturgeon,” Greg Ebel said with a chuckle—and they’re not talking about the bar’s resident sea monsters. The eager angler wants to find one in the depths, not in a display.
“Other taverns only have replicas (of sturgeon),” Wade added. “Kids like coming here with their families because it’s like a museum with all the animals on the walls.
Kids and family enjoy more than the wall mounts. “We give them toys from the dollar store with the kid’s meals,” said Wade. “It’s a homey feel. Some say ‘country,’ but it’s more like home than anything else.”
The Greystone building at what is now the hectic, stoplight intersection of North Madison Avenue and Maple Street has been a bar under nine different names since 1898, when it opened as Grouler’s Saloon. Then, like now, it was at the center of traveler hubbub, a stagecoach stop where guests often overnighted in the upstairs sleeping rooms.
By 1978, the seventh owner, the late Bob Van Duyse, was ready to sell his Bob’s Corner Bar. The real estate agent happened to be the late Gordon Schumacher, who also happened to be Ebel’s boss at the former Scandia Supper Club, near the present-day Mill Supper Club at the north highway split.
“I bartended and did carpentry there and had bartended previously at the Nightingale,” Ebel said. “So Gordy comes in one day and says, ‘I got a tavern for sale. How much money do you have?’ I told him, ‘Whatever wages you pay me tonight.’”
Ebel bought the bar on land contract, paying both Van Duyse and Schumacher, who had borrowed money for the down payment. He incurred one further debt: $150 from Van Duyse so he could make change his first night.
The Greystone was not a food place yet, other than fill-the-stomach, kill-the-buzz munchies like pickled eggs and turkey gizzards, basic sandwiches and frozen pizzas cooked in a portable oven. A bait shop occupied the northeast end of the first floor, near where the men’s restrooms are now, and the second-floor rooms still rented for $9.95 a night.
“Bob had rentals by the week, but I cut that out because that week would turn into permanent,” Ebel said. But he continued the nightly rentals. “I thought it was a good way to fight drunk driving.”
The live bait sales ushered in a long-gone tradition that, as a hung-over reveler might say, seemed like a good idea at the time.
“After ballgames, the softball players would come in and shake dice, and the loser would have to drink a beer with a minnow in it,” Ebel said. “I tried it once and almost puked. I could feel it swimming in my stomach.”
Ebel and wife, Sue, were thriving just fine until a major layoff at Bay Shipbuilding in 1985 hit them hard as well. So, he took up a Chicago customer’s offer to purchase the Greystone—a move they would come to regret.
The new owner made a positive contribution by introducing a food menu, Ebel said, but in every other way alienated the regulars and thus faced foreclosure after just two years. The bar returned to Ebel’s ownership in need of some reclamation.
“He had sold the bait shop and scared all my business away,” Ebel said. “I had had 19 (rec team) sponsorships, and those were all people who came in after games or bowling to drink and was good advertising with their uniforms. Not a one was left.
“He had rules like no blue jeans, no loud music; he wanted an elite crowd, but this had always been a corner bar.”
The Ebels did keep the food service and now hand out novella-sized menus with 24 appetizer choices and combos alone.
“We just picked up where the other guy left off, kept improving the menu, going to Tavern League conventions for ideas,” Ebel said.
Another setback struck in March 1993, when a fire gutted the upstairs boarding house. The exact cause was never found—“probably electrical,” Ebel said—but he used the insurance settlement to expand the women’s restroom and offices and, most notably, build a spacious dining-room expansion on the south side.
The Greystone reopened in the spring of 1994, serendipitously just in time for a fishing extravaganza; the then-fourth edition of the growing Sturgeon Bay Open Bass Tournament at the nearby Sawyer Park Boat Launch.
The fire also marked the end of the room rentals because Ebel could do without the “fighting and BS and (tenants) breaking stuff.” And it marked the beginning of the tavern’s signature burger, the third-pound Greystone Special topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese and onion.
“When we were closed because of the fire, that was the first sandwich my wife made for me,” Ebel said. “And we thought, boy, if we ever get back into it, we’re going to (sell) that sandwich.”
“We started as a bar-restaurant, and now it’s more of a restaurant-tavern,” Wade Ebel said. “We had live music for 25 years, but we ended that because the food end of it just kept getting bigger.”
Food orders soared to a new level in 2010 when Wisconsin’s tavern/restaurant smoking ban went into effect—a measure Greg Ebel had miscalculated as doomsday.
“I fought that law thinking we’d be down the drain,” he said. “But people were used to it by then from other businesses (with smoking bans).”
“There were ashtrays on every table back in the day, but families with kids, especially, didn’t like the smoking (with meals),” Wade said. “It really hasn’t affected the upfront (bar) business, because we have plenty of room out back in the parking lot for them to smoke. And it’s private property, so they can bring their cocktails with them.”
Greg Ebel, 66, poured and slid his last drink on Nov. 17, 2012, but still helps his sons with bookwork, cleaning and maintenance.
“I had tended bar by then for 40 years,” he said. “People ask if I miss it. No, I was wore out. I tell them.