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The Door County Fish Boil

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In the northeast, there are lobster boils, and the Deep South has crawfish boils, but Door County has the unique tradition of the whitefish boil. It’s so special Bravo’s Top Chef: Wisconsin Season 21 featured this culinary masterpiece on the cooking competition show. The simple plate of whitefish, onions, and potatoes connects diners to those who came more than a century before at weddings, graduations, and community gatherings — or when visitors come to experience the part culinary tradition, part performance, and part spectacle. 

The Tradition of the Fish Boil

The Door County fish boil has fascinated visitors for more than 50 years, but its roots go back to the first white settlers of the Door Peninsula. Though Indigenous tribes practiced their own version of the fish boil, the modern version prepared in Door County has its roots in the late 1800s. That’s when a large migration of Scandinavian immigrants brought their traditions to the area. With a seemingly endless supply of whitefish in Lake Michigan, the fish boil was an efficient and economical way to feed large crews of lumbermen who were busy clearing the native forests.

For decades to come, the tradition was passed down through churches and family gatherings, but it didn’t become a tourism staple until 1961, when Lawrence and Annette Wickman began the modern version at The Viking Grill in Ellison Bay, (a restaurant that served the community for eight decades before closing its doors in 2022), and the White Gull Inn did the same with its own recipe in Fish Creek.

Today, that tradition continues at several local restaurants. These carriers of the torch still use fresh, locally caught Lake Michigan whitefish and continue to provide a spectacle of storytelling and showmanship, capped with the famous boil over that sends flames high into the air and elicits oohs and ahhs from crowds of hungry travelers.

A man tames a giant fire engulfing a basket of cooking fish.

How is it done?

A big part of the fish boil experience is understanding the basics of what your boil master is adding to the pot. Locally caught whitefish is boiled on an open fire in an outdoor community-style kitchen, usually in a large metal kettle.

The first step is to add salt to the water and bring it to a boil. Next, come the potatoes. Once the potatoes are cooked, onions are added (this step varies from boil to boil). Last but not least, Lake Michigan whitefish is added. Once the fish are nearly cooked, the boil master will signal that the boil over is about to start, which is the fiery spectacle that occurs when kerosene is thrown onto the fire.

After being strained, the mild whitefish, potatoes, and onion are served with melted butter, lemon wedges, coleslaw or salad, bread, and a slice of fresh-baked Door County cherry pie.

A boilmaster shows off a bucket of fresh-caught fish.

Where can you experience one?

You can experience an authentic fish boil at dining establishments across Door County. We’ve rounded up six establishments you should visit to attend an iconic fish boil. While each restaurant offers a unique experience, reservations are highly recommended or required, so call before you go. 

A plate full of boiled fish, potatoes, vegetables, drawn butter, and bread.

Waterfront Mary’s Bar & Grill, Sturgeon Bay

From November to April, Waterfront Mary’s Bar & Grill at Beach Harbor Resort offers a fish boil show with Boil Master Mike. Make a reservation and arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled boil time to view the entire boil over. The waterfront locations include both indoor and outdoor seating, and the fish boil has cod, potatoes, carrots, and onions served with rye bread and Door County cherry pie and ice cream. 

Log Den, Egg Harbor

South of Egg Harbor at the 45th parallel, there's a driveway that meanders into a wood-covered retreat lovingly handcrafted by the Lautenbach family. Inside the awe-inspiring 10,000-square-foot Log Den restaurant and lounge, hand-scribed logs and massive carvings of bears, eagles, buffalo, and fish abound. Outside, a fish boil is held on the lush grounds to the delight of hungry diners. 

White Gull Inn, Fish Creek

The historic White Gull Inn is a bed and breakfast and restaurant open to the public and located in the bayside village of Fish Creek. It has been offering lodging with character and award-winning dining since 1896. The famous traditional Door County fish boil is a specialty here. It features Lake Michigan whitefish caught by local fishermen and cooked outside over an open fire. These traditional Door County fish boils are served on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from May through October and on Friday evenings the rest of the year.  

White Gull Inn Fish Boil.

Pelletier’s Restaurant, Fish Creek

The original Door County fish boil is served every night from May through October, with boil overs every hour from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Pelletier’s Restaurant. Every meal is prepared from scratch, and fish boil dinners include Lake Michigan whitefish steaks, boiled baby red potatoes, homemade cole slaw, honey white and Bavarian dark rye bread, and a slice of Door County cherry pie. Arrive a half hour before boil over to see the show.

Fish boil at Pelletier's in Fish Creek.

Island Fever Rum Bar & Grill, Jacksonport

You can be transported to the islands right here in Door County and still enjoy a traditional 

fish boil at Island Fever Rum Bar & Grill. After Memorial Day, a weekly fish boil is held on Saturday, with boil over at 6:45 p.m. Reservations are required to attend the weekly fish boil. Stop by anytime to savor American and Mexican cuisine, including a festive mix of seafood and hand-cut steaks served with an island flair.

Old Post Office Restaurant, Ephraim 

Traditional Door County fish boils are served in a restored building that housed Ephraim's post office in the early 1900s at the aptly named Old Post Office Restaurant. Michigan whitefish caught locally by Rick Johnson is prepared outside over a roaring, open fire and served boneless with small potatoes and onions nightly Monday through Saturday and holiday Sundays. Arrive a half hour early to hear the history of the fish boil and watch the preparations for the complete fish boil dining experience.

For even more insights plus recommendations of other things to do in Door County, check out the Ask A Local feature with Old Post Office Restaurant Fish Boil Master Jeremy “Torch” Klaubauf

Our Door County: A Tradition of Fish

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