When Chad Cantwell and Ali Marchel purchased the Wilmot Stage Stop three years ago, it was a pivotal moment for the legendary steakhouse, which had been under the auspices of the Hackett family for the previous seven generations.
But Cantwell, who also runs the nearby deeply-rooted Twin Lakes Country Club, said he knew what a gem the 173-year-old establishment was. He had no intentions of making any drastic changes to the menu, with its signature steaks, lobster tails, homemade salad dressings, and specialty baked potatoes.
“This transition has been very smooth,” Cantwell says. “We tried to keep everything the same. As the old saying goes, ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’ If it this restaurant has been here since 1848, they must’ve been doing something right.”
The current menu, which has staples in the single digits, has largely remained intact for 60 years.
“The menu has pretty much remained unchanged since 1961,” Cantwell says. “It’s a very simple menu. We serve nine things; what we do, we do very, very well, and we do them fast. I might be biased, but I think we have some of the best steak in the world.”
At a time when so much in life seems unpredictable, Cantwell said he and Marchel strive to offer an atmosphere of nostalgia and a degree of predictability.
“We have a timeless menu — and a timeless restaurant,” he says. “We pride ourselves on our consistency. People know what they’re going to get when they walk through the door. The food quality has never been better.”
While the heart and soul of Wilmot Stage Stop’s venerable menu is still on prominent display, Cantwell said a few slight tweaks have been introduced in more recent years.
This past winter, for example, a specialty lobster dish was added to the menu, alongside the popular Canadian coldwater lobster tails that have long been featured.
“We’ve been offering a special, specifically for lobster lovers,” Cantwell says. “It’s a 12-ounce South African lobster tail that comes with a salad and a cup of our Cream of Lobster Bisque soup.”
Another menu tweak comes at dessert time and is a play on the recent sampling trend employed by craft brewers.
“We’ve added what we call a flight of dessert drinks to the menu,” Cantwell says. “You can get a sampler of the pink squirrel, a grasshopper, the Brandy Alexander, and the house special, which is The Stagecoach. It’s a peppermint ice cream mixed with Captain Morgan. It’s been very popular.”
While the menu has long been a main attraction at the Wilmot Stage Stop, so too has the overall ambiance.
Patrons can tour a museum on the second and third floors of the building, taking a step back in time to view artifacts from the establishment’s earliest days. Back then it was known as the Wilmot Hotel and offered guests lodging, three meals a day, and accommodations for horses by way of stables.
The Wilmot Stage Stop’s lineage also coincides with the year Wisconsin entered statehood. It holds the distinction of being Wisconsin’s oldest tap and dining room — the result of laying roots just as people were migrating into the region and growth was on the horizon.
“It was a stage stop along the way on the wagon trail from Dubuque, Iowa, to Kenosha,” Cantwell says of the strategic location for the business.
In its more recent incarnation, the Wilmot Stage Stop serves as a popular meeting spot for generations. In fact, Cantwell and Marchel themselves have called the area home since their earliest years.
“Ali grew up in Wilmot, and we both went to high school in Wilmot,” Cantwell says. “My dad took me to the Stage Stop for my 10th birthday, and I had my first lobster tail there. We were very close friends with the previous owners.”
The decision to purchase the restaurant, Cantwell says, was not a difficult one because of the deep history and enduring popularity.
“We were at the right place at the right time,” he says of the serendipitous moment. “This really is a great little spot in Wilmot. People have been coming back. We’re honored and we’re very humbled to be a part of it.”
Since taking the reins of the Wilmot Stage Stop more than three year ago, patrons have been telling Cantwell and Marchel what the establishment means to them.
Cantwell describes the Stage Stop as a “special occasion place”, explaining that, “people have been known to drive an hour or an hour-and-a-half away to come here.”
Beneath the tried-and-true menu and historic relics, Cantwell says he finds a deeper meaning in keeping the doors open to the Wilmot Stage Stop after all these years.
Of the patrons making return visits, Cantwell says, “I hope they experience traditions and memories of good times with birthdays or any other special occasion — whatever brought them here.”
“I just want to continue the traditions and remind them of their favorite memories, sitting around the table with the favorite people that they love,” he explains. “We build stronger families and stronger communities by bringing people together at the dinner table.”
30646 113th Street
Wilmot, Wisconsin 53192
Thursday 4-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4-10 p.m., Sunday 4-9 p.m.;
Open for Special Events Monday-Wednesday
By Dave Fidlin