Feb 6, 2019

Smelt and the Scenic Bar, Sheboygan, Wis.

Have you ever driven past a business’s sign so often that eventually you couldn’t help but stop and try what they were selling?  It happened to me in Sheboygan, Wis.  The place was the Scenic Bar, an otherwise unassuming little tavern among several others in the neighborhood known as the Indiana Corridor. 

The thing that hooked me in was the smelt. 

Seriously, it was one of their rotating daily dinner specials for as long as I was working in Sheboygan.  How could I resist? (I might have tried the pork hock, too, but I was never in town over a weekend).

Honestly, if I hadn’t noticed the Scenic Bar’s specials board, I might have never stopped at all.  It’s one of a handful of small but friendly neighborhood bars/restaurants I’d pass along Indiana Avenue on my way to downtown.  But I knew they had a solid reputation for one of the city’s best fish fry Fridays.  And since Fridays were out of the question due to my travel schedule, the smelt would have to do.  

Located at the corner of Indiana and 17th, the Scenic Bar is actually one of the larger taverns in the neighborhood (I later learned they have a separate dining room adjacent to the bar room), but the sign for the establishment is pretty small by comparison, and to me barely visible at night.  If you’re not a local, you might accidentally pass it up.  I get the feeling they kind of like it that way.  I do, too. 

Stepping into the Scenic Bar only reinforced the feeling of a classic supper club/dive bar combination.  I took an instant liking to the place.  

I took a seat at the end of the bar closest to the doorway.  As I scanned the bar, it wasn’t hard to figure out I was one of the youngest people in the room … another good sign when looking for a good dive bar, especially one that serves food. 

I ordered a Spotted Cow on tap, which was served in an ice-coated mug.  It seemed to be a popular choice.  I then asked the couple nearest to me about the smelt.  They highly recommended it, reinforcing my belief that my reason for coming to the Scenic Bar was entirely justified. 

I got the “regular-sized” half pound order, which was served with German potato salad and cole slaw – both sides appeared to be homemade from both appearance and taste.  The cole slaw had a nice bite and crunch to go with its vinegar-based marinade.  The potato salad was mildly sweet and sour and flavored throughout with bits of bacon. 

As for the smelt, they were lightly breaded, skin-on, head-off.  The breading was just enough to offer a little crunch but not too much to divert from the taste of the fish.  And if you’re a smelt virgin like I was, you’re probably asking what they taste like.  I likened them to sardines in appearance, but less oiliness by comparison.  The texture is still meaty but slightly more flaky; the flavor is considerably milder.  Still, they held together well for dipping in tartar sauce or whatever condiment of choice you might use. 

It’s no wonder the smelt was a popular special at the Scenic Bar.  They seemed to go through a lot of it, and I imagine it’s always fairly fresh, given Sheboygan’s position on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

I left feeling the Scenic Bar definitely earns its place among the great dive bars in Sheboygan.  For a true local experience, head to the Scenic Bar to mingle with the locals, savor a few Wisconsin beers in an icy mug, and save room for the highly affordable nightly dinner special.  Especially if it’s smelt night. 

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