Story by Mike Shaw | Photos by Heidi Hodges
To people at the Carrington Pub & Grill in Egg Harbor, if you borrow the name of a boat for your eatery, the least you can do is give that vessel a solemn tribute. The ship’s submerged wreckage rests in peace up the Green Bay coastline a few miles and is a popular destination for divers.
Which is why a little remnant of Great Lakes seafaring—and its perils—is mounted in a Plexiglas case above the lobby fireplace. For guests without detailed knowledge of local history, there’s the answer to the trivia question of how the cozy, casual pub got its British baron-sounding name.
But a museum exhibit, of course, is just a novelty and not the reason lunch and dinner diners make the drive to the Carrington, the Landmark Resort’s resident restaurant situated on the forested ledge that makes up the central Peninsula’s Western shore. It opened in 2006, a laidback replacement for the more formal Landmark Restaurant that once occupied the premises and which by both name and food prices seemed to discourage the average townie from venturing in.
In 2016, the Carrington captured not one, not two, not three but quadruple crowns in Door County Magazine’s annual “Best Of...” reader poll. It topped the lists of best overall restaurant, best fish fry, best lunch menu and best sandwich.
But new food and beverage director Eric Smith, who heads into his first peak season this summer, isn’t content to cruise upon those honors. In fact, after arriving in September 2016, Smith oversaw an almost total overhaul of the menu to emphasize close-to-home suppliers.
“We’re trying to bring in more of the fresh food, talking to local farmers and local (vendors),” Smith said. “We’re trying to go away from the bag-and-box ingredients.”
Smith declined to identify a few of those partners because in some cases, such as finding a butcher and baker, he was still auditioning them at the time of the interview.
But he did note what the menu confirms—Renard’s Cheese of Brussels was his choice for providing the appetizer basket of white-and-yellow cheese curds. Another regional favorite, Nueske’s Meats of Wittenberg, supplies the smoked ham for the Country Club Sandwich, which also piles thick-cut turkey atop French bread and is enhanced with alfalfa sprouts, Roma tomato, herbs and five-year cheddar.
Sticking with the “buy local” theme, Smith also broadened the fish menu to include more native species. Guests choosing among five selections for the Friday fish fry can go with a half-pound perch platter or sort of a Great Lakes variety pack of walleye, perch and bluegill.
It’s a bit of a departure from when Smith, as a chef, cut his teeth in the ski resorts of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons or a hotel within Yellowstone National Park.
“A lot of bison and trout (there),” he joked.
Another Great Lakes catch, pan-fried walleye, graces the daily meat-and-seafood entree choices along with Alaskan sockeye salmon. Among the six entrees, the walleye is earmarked as a signature special along with a pork chop glazed with Door County cherry barbecue sauce.
A Fox Valley native, Smith also previously ran food/beverage operations at The Riverwalk Hotel in Neenah and an Appleton Holiday Inn. He and head chef Jason Pump came aboard around the same time to form a new management team, after the last chef moved on for a position with a promotion.
Smith agreed that gourmet cooking is a tough and volatile business with plenty of turnover. Most managers are not from the tormenting Hell’s Kitchen school, but a kinder, gentler approach alone doesn’t buy any stability and continuity in a staff.
“I think a lot of chefs cut their chops in the resorts and then go on to managing their own smaller restaurants,” Smith said. “A lot of them just burn out and go on to other jobs. Not everyone likes to work every weekend and holiday.
“I just work together with my staff to keep them happy, while still making sure the job gets done. But there’s no guarantee (of keeping someone), that’s for sure.”
One appeal for workers as well as vacationers is the panorama they see daily from the Carrington’s picture windows. If gawkers grow tired of eyeballing the 40 acres of wooded bluffs from which the Landmark was carved, they can shift their gaze lower to the lush fairways and greens of the Alpine Resort Golf Course and then westward to the shimmering waters of Green Bay.
The main seating area of the pub can hold 60 guests. Any overflow can go to the adjacent State Room (80 seats) or the downstairs Egg Harbor Room (200). Those offer plenty of elbow room for weddings and banquets as well.
“Sometimes we’ll have double weddings (upstairs and downstairs), back-to-back on a Friday and Saturday,” Smith said. And if a large event is taking place off the premises, the Carrington also caters.
The revamped menu features seven types of appetizers, a soup-of-the-day, two salads, five burgers and sandwiches (including a build-your-own option), six entrees and five desserts, plus the aforementioned Friday fish choices.
Flatbread pizza has become a staple, with four varieties including Spanish artichoke chicken and cherry barbecue pork.
The kids menu—at some places a mail-it-in afterthought of hot dogs and chips—is unusually deep and creative at the Carrington. Its grilled cheese and mac-and-cheese are fairly standard fare for the younger set, but the pub also dangles temptations like a cheese quesadilla, chicken fritters and a mini-fish fry.
The Carrington obviously prospers from being one of the amenities of the Landmark Resort, Door County’s largest with 294 suites in its four guesthouses. It makes for a gigantic, captive customer base when the resort is near full, one that the Carrington caters to with room service if the visitor desires.
But Smith also realizes that the tourist trade alone is not going to get the restaurant through the leaner late autumn to early spring months. Dinner-only is served in the winter and the other slower periods (4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday), until hours expand to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. around Memorial Day.
To draw in the local crowd as well, the Carrington hosts karaoke each Saturday during the summer and alternating Saturdays the rest of the year. For about two decades, the Landmark Comedy Club, housed in the pub, has hosted nationally touring standup comics monthly from November through May, pairing the laughs with special room rates and an optional buffet.
“The comedians are from all over the country, having performed in Las Vegas and Los Angeles (clubs),” Smith said. “And it’s not lowbrow humor; it’s PG-13.”
An added attraction: Those with local IDs get $1 discounts off beer year-round and 15 percent off food orders during the slower winter season.
Local rock band Dirty deuce performed on St. Patrick’s Day and was well received. A free, no-cover corn roast with live music all day and night is in the works for August. All this fun is a far sight better than what happened to the original Carrington.
Captain Michael Connell lost the ship on Oct. 30, 1870, hours after it ran aground off the Hat Island reef, due west from present-day Juddville.
The 120-foot, two-masted, wooden ship was headed from Green Bay to Chicago with a load of shingles and pig iron. This was about two decades before the Sturgeon Bay canal was built so, to reach Lake Michigan, sailors had to first head north to the Death’s Door straits before turning south.
The crew escaped in a small lifeboat. But high winds and rough seas viciously peeled the trapped boat apart and she slid, rolled and finally got sucked under. The remains are now sprawled over 42,000 square feet of underwater acreage. Most definitely, carousing at the Carrington sounds a lot more appealing than riding on the Carrington.