Dec 8, 2019

A commoner dines at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

Allow me to take you back in time for a tall tale of one unforgettable family road trip deep in America’s northwoods and a legendary meal with a legendary lumberjack. 

In other words, let me tell you about the time Punky, the Kiddo and I went to Wisconsin Dells and ate at one of the town’s best-known tourist trap restaurants – Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty. 

If you’re driving to the Dells (and you probably are, although Amtrak stops there regularly), you’ll find Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty just off Exit 87 on Interstate 90/94 near the corner of State Highway 13 and Wisconsin Dells Parkway, one of the busiest thoroughfares in a town seemingly made for family summer vacations. 

As much as Wisconsin Dells thrives on being the self-proclaimed “waterpark capital of the world,” the town has relied on its Northwoods reputation much longer to draw tourists seeking a break from the big city.  Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty is a prime example.  For more than 60 years, this location and another in Minocqua further up north, have been serving family-style “lumberjack” meals to locals and visitors alike.

To enter the restaurant, you first have to weave your way through the gift shop, of course.  At this point, you could be forgiven if you make more than one comparison to the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants while you’re here.

When you’re ready to eat, they’ll steer you into a large dining room with abundant seating inside.  Getting seated quickly may concern you at first if you arrive and notice a large parking lot overflowing with cars from across the country, but the place handles large crowds quite well.  As you can see, they captured the giant log cabin look perfectly, complete with authentic Paul Bunyan-sized beams across the ceiling. 

Sometimes I get an occasional odd look when I take pictures in the middle of lunch ... 
And in keeping with the appearance that you’re dining in an 1890’s logging camp, the staff are all dressed the part.   

It’s safe to say Paul Bunyan himself would feel right at home … as would his best friend Babe the Blue Ox. 

Turning to the meal, it’s important to understand what kind of dining experience you’re paying for.  It’s not a buffet, but you’re also not ordering from a menu.  Instead, you’re served a set meal of day “camp style.” 

Every lunch and dinner include fried chicken along with another main course which varies depending on the day of the week.  We dined on a Sunday, so roast beef was the other the selection.  The sides are pretty standard – mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetable of the day (peas and carrots for us!), coleslaw and freshly baked bread.  And, it’s all you can eat.  You serve your party from the family-sized portions delivered to your table, and they’ll bring out more of whatever you run out of whenever you ask.   

Personally, I though the fried chicken was top notch – not the best I’ve ever had but certainly above average.  Crisp batter, not overdone, moist and tender meat, basically what you’d want and expect. 

The sides were also excellent.  While I think I was in the minority on praising the peas and carrots, Punky and the Kiddo were quite impressed with the mashed potatoes and the bread.  

The roast beef was alright, flavorful and soft to the touch of the fork but nothing exceptional.  Franky, the chicken was better.  I will say the gravy served with the roast beef was the perfect topping for the potatoes.     

As long as you see Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty for what it is – a tourist destination and not fine dining – you should leave pretty happy.  Hours are seasonal, as with so many tourist-driven businesses in the Dells, so don’t expect it to be open after Labor Day or before Memorial Day.  And before you leave, make sure you get your family picture taken with Paul himself.  And consider staying for a live lumberjack show next door.    

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