A Family Supper Club Tradition
105 years of hospitality on Whitefish Bay
On my parents’ first dates, they bonded over their shared love of Jack Pandl’s Inn in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin.
My mother, a Whitefish Bay native, grew up on Pandl’s fish fries and burgers, and my father, from Chicago, always stopped with his family en route to rest and relaxation in northern Wisconsin. They represented the two most reliable types of customers at Pandl’s: locals, who you might see jumping the hedges for a quick nightcap, and Chicagoans enjoying their first bites of freedom on the way to the Northwoods.
When John and Anna Pandl, immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, bought the property in 1915, it was opposite the Pabst Brewery’s Grand Resort, a tourist destination with a beer garden and bandstand accessible by steamboat from downtown Milwaukee. The Grand Resort closed the same year, but the Pandls kept serving chicken dinners and frog legs as Whitefish Bay transitioned from resort town to tony suburb, transferring the restaurant from John to John to John.
With its green gables and log-cabin façade, Pandl’s stands out on Whitefish Bay’s residential Lake Drive. In the summertime, diners crowd the outside patio. In winter, when the restaurant is adorned with rainbow lights and boughs of snow, the scene looks like something from Currier and Ives.
Inside, the dining room, carpeted, curtained, and wood-paneled, offers a refreshing contrast to today’s minimalist restaurant décor. Beer steins and antlers decorate the walls. Guests eat from vintage magnolia-decorated dinnerware under art-glass lamps and choose from German-inflected supper club standards: salads with housemade blue cheese or hot bacon dressings, wiener schnitzel, fried fish on Fridays, puffy German pancakes on Sundays.
In winter, when the restaurant is adorned with rainbow lights and boughs of snow, the scene looks like something from Currier and Ives.
On his first visit, my husband ordered something standard, like a chicken wrap, added to the menu to please more contemporary appetites. He left unimpressed. Next time, I told him, do this instead: Order the martini, a petite vestige of the last century. Enjoy it with your basket of individually-wrapped breadsticks. Follow that with a whitefish fillet, dusted with paprika and broiled to a beautiful ochre. For your sides, choose red cabbage and parsley boiled potatoes. Fridays, start with the clam chowder and then go for the fried perch, coated with a light batter that shows just enough of the fish’s delicate patterning. Always ask for extra tartar sauce. If you want something meatier, do like my dad always did and have the calf’s liver with fried onions. Finish with the schaum torte, served with ice cream and strawberries.
Four generations of my family have chosen Pandl’s for special occasions. My maternal grandfather’s family, like the Pandls, came to Milwaukee from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When my grandma and grandpa moved to Whitefish Bay in the 1950s, Pandl’s became my grandma’s choice for everything from lunch with the bridge club to a treat for my mom’s high school carpool. In 1968, George Pandl, son of the original John Pandl, opened George Pandl’s a few miles up the road, which closed in 2009. My great-aunt Virginia broke family ranks with her preference for the offshoot’s buffet-style brunches. The rest of the family preferred the old-world charms of the original Pandl’s.
I remember lunching there as a blonde-braided preschooler with my mom and my grandma, delighted by the kids’ menu, which came to the table in a Golden Book. I would eat a club sandwich and fries while the adults drank brandy old-fashioneds, sweet. Today, I take my son, who goes for a Dum Dum from the server’s treasure chest, a sundae, and a walk home to his grandma’s house through Big Bay Park where, if we look closely, we can see the ruins of the Pabst Resort.