Al Johnson’s Restaurant & Butik
The House that Pancakes and Meatballs Built
The sign above the front door of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, Wisc., reads “Valkommen,” and the smiling hosts and servers clad in Scandinavian dress make all who enter feel welcome indeed. The charming log building with hand-carved posts that houses this world-famous eatery was actually built in Norway, taken apart and reconstructed in Wisconsin. Guests needn’t be of Scandinavian descent to appreciate the Old World atmosphere and authentic Nordic cuisine.
Since 1949, Al Johnson’s has stood the test of time. It represents the heart and soul of a small town that swells with tourists from all over the world from May through October, then settles down to a less hectic existence the rest of the year. Al Johnson started his business as the chief cook and bottle washer, and teller of tales. He married his Swedish sweetheart Ingert in 1960, and the two of them created a Scandinavian utopia in Door County. It was Ingert who spearheaded the interior design, and it was she who realized that a gift shop selling Scandinavian products would provide the perfect place for folks to browse while waiting for their table. The Butik markets Swedish pancake mix and syrup, jarred organic wild lingonberries, clogs, linens, housewares and toy goats. Why goats, you ask? Please refer to sidebar.
“Our best menu sellers are Swedish Pancakes and Swedish Meatballs,” said Lars Johnson, son of the founders, who (with brother Rolf and sister Annika) proudly carries on the family foodservice legacy. “The meatball recipe was my grandmother’s. We serve about 225,000 meatballs a year.” Breakfast is a big deal here, and Swedish Pancakes are the stars of the show. They are light, thin and rectangular, served with syrup, creamy Wisconsin butter and organic Swedish lingonberries, which have a flavor similar to cranberries and currants. Breakfast service begins at 6 a.m. and is offered all day, with lunch and dinner available from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The menu is peppered with traditional Scandinavian favorites – Limpa bread; Pickled Herring; Pytt I Panna, which is Swedish roast beef hash, served with a fried egg and homemade pickled beets; and the Swedish Meatball Sandwich, served with pickled red cabbage. Hot open-faced sandwiches satisfy hungry travelers, and come with mashed potatoes and gravy. Walleye, Perch and Whitefish pay homage to the abundance of fish pulled from nearby Lake Michigan. Regional dishes, such as a variation of the French-Canadian Poutine, and people pleasers including the “Big Al” Double Cheeseburger and Atlantic Cod Fish and Chips share billing with the Scandinavian dishes. For dessert, comfort foods such as Rice Pudding with Strawberry Sauce and Warm Cherry Pecan Bread Pudding will satisfy those hankering for something sweet.