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Lakefront view is Pier 290's best feature

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By Joan Neeno, Special to The Gazette
August 21, 2014

WILLIAMS BAY—Pier 290 in Williams Bay clearly was designed for the families who “summer” in the area. It has Chicago-quality decor and Chicago prices. Too bad it doesn't have Chicago quality or service.

Pier 290 could be one of the nicest places to dine on the water in Wisconsin. It's absolutely gorgeous—on par with Harbor House in Milwaukee or Wild Rice in Bayfield for the view and the decor.

The restaurant is part of the Gage Marina complex, which was renovated using salvaged materials from area structures and boats. It is stunning: the shingled exteriors, the fresh design that balances nostalgia and modern, the spacious deck. Even the restrooms look great.

Our first visit started well. We ordered cocktails that were quite tasty and priced about average ($7-$10). The deck was full, so we sat indoors. That was fine. We could watch the sailboats and the lake change colors with the sunset.

Our server was, well, a bit perfunctory. She did do a spiel about everything being local and homemade and then left us with our cocktails … for a long time. When she returned, we ordered the Maryland blue crab cakes ($14) and the crispy fontina cheese fritters ($7).

After a stretch, a teenage boy delivered our appetizers. They were remarkably unappealing. The two crab cakes were slightly larger than silver dollars, stacked on top of each other on a white plate with a scattering of chopped parsley, a lemon slice and three dabs of sauce—sort of “McCrabcake” style. They tasted faintly of crab but were mostly flavorless.

The cheese fritters, dipped in a buckwheat batter, were strange. The batter was sort of blue-green, and the cheese inside was bland. It was more like a cheese curd than a fritter. We sat looking at dirty dishes for a long time before the entrees arrived.

I ordered the 10-ounce bavette steak with fries ($26), often called steak frites. The bavette is a lesser cut but can be delicious when marinated and sliced thin. In fairness, our server did ask if I knew what a bavette steak was. I did, but I had assumed it would be sliced thin. It wasn't. It came out about an inch thick, tough and tasteless. The hand-cut fries, however, were tasty.

My husband, Richard, ordered the slow-smoked and grilled double pork chop ($27). It was a huge, beautiful piece of meat. It was light on seasoning and sauce but cooked well. If it was smoked, however, Richard couldn't taste it. The roasted red potatoes, Brussels leaves and onions were unevenly done—some beautifully caramelized and others undercooked.

Once again, our server didn't deliver the food, so I snagged her for a glass of red wine at the first opportunity. It arrived when the meal was almost over. Then we sat and waited. Eventually she brought the dessert menu, which looked good. But then we waited again. We were so tired of sitting around that we decided the check was a better option.

After a less-than-enjoyable night, we gave Pier 290 another try on a Sunday afternoon.

We seated ourselves on a couple of empty stools at the bar, which is what the hostesses told us to do. When the bartender asked the people next to us if the stools we were sitting on were unoccupied, talking about us like we weren't right in front of her, that was a little uncomfortable. That was about as good as it got.

The teenager who cleared away the dirty glasses did just that and nothing more, so Richard grabbed a wet bar towel and wiped down the dirty surface. That got the bartender's attention, so we ordered our drinks and got the menus. The drinks arrived promptly, and then we sat. She had an amazing ability to keep her back turned to us.

Richard ordered the corned beef sandwich ($12) because the kitchen makes its own. I ordered the Carolina pulled-pork sandwich ($12), figuring it would be a pretty simple dish to get right.

Lunch was worse than dinner. The corned beef was tough, stringy and flavorless. Carolina barbecue has a vinegar base. My sandwich, however, was all sour. The pork was tender, moist and soaked in vinegar.

The fries, which were good at dinner, were awful at lunch. They were overcooked and then left in a warmer, so they were cold and tough by the time we got them. The people next to us had three young kids who left their fries untouched. That's saying something.

We sat for quite a while with dirty dishes in front of us, feeling increasingly angry and demeaned as the bartender actively ignored us. Finally she turned, and we both said, “Check!” She turned away, never acknowledged us and kept washing glasses and waiting on others.

Eventually, we started pooling cash and trying to figure out how much we owed so we could leave. After we had placed what we guessed was the right amount on the bar and got up to leave, she silently dropped the check in front of Richard and turned away without a word. It was breathtakingly rude.

Pier 290 occupies a prime location, so maybe it can coast on its view. It might be beautiful, but it sure left a bad taste in my mouth.



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