Jan 10, 2023

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one weekend on the way to Wisconsin Dells.  There, by a stroke of luck (and a desire to find a good lunch spot), Punky and I found ourselves on the town’s historic downtown square, and there it was in all its glory ...

... Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern.  Yes, a cheese store and a tavern, in one place.  Surely, you won’t find a better Wisconsin experience than that.  We knew we had to check it out.  

But first, I should say how we found ourselves in Monroe in the first place since it is a little off the beaten path.  We were looking for a more scenic route than the interstate to take north to Madison, Wis. from north-central Illinois.  Situated just 15 minutes north of the Illinois border on state routes 69, Monroe was the first town we encountered, and it garnered instant interest from us. 

Monroe is, after all, billed as the Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA.  It even has a National Historic Cheesemaking Center (which doubles as the Green County Welcome Center).   With these credentials, it just makes sense that Monroe is also home to Wisconsin’s oldest cheese store, and that store is Baumgartner’s.

As one would hope, their impressive selection of cheeses for sale is probably the first thing you’ll see when you enter.  If it can be produced in Wisconsin, you’ll probably find it here – from your classic standbys like gouda, Swiss, three ages of cheddar to those that call for a more acquired taste like English stilton and limburger.    

Of course, you don’t have to take your cheese to go.  That’s where the tavern part of Baumgartner’s come into play.  All you have to do is step through this portal recognizing all the counties in Switzerland and, like the sign says, you too can get the best cheese sandwiches in the world.

Baumgartner’s bar area appropriately has that long and narrow tavern feel.  Booth seating is found on the left side, and the long bar on the right.  It is a full bar as you’d expect in Wisconsin, and they offer a good variety of macro and local beers on tap.  New Glarus, Wis., and its namesake brewery are just up the road from Monroe, so Spotted Cow lovers can rejoice.   

The “Almost World Famous Menu” at Baumgartner’s is pretty straightforward and always easy to access.  It’s behind the bar, it’s on the wall at every booth and it’s even on the napkin holders.  In keeping with the Old World tavern vibe, cheese sandwiches, hot deli sandwiches, soups and reportedly the second best chili you can find are all available. 

Soup lover that I am, I couldn’t resist coming up with a soup and sandwich combo for myself. The only problem was that Baumgartner’s had already run out of most of its soups – an obvious good sign for their quality but a little unlucky for me.  I settled for my third choice, Mediterranean vegetable, and even that was a home run.  The broth was wonderfully savory and the veggies had broken down to the point where they melted in your mouth.    

I spared Punky the aftermath of a limburger sandwich and instead opted for the next best thing and one of my old-school favorites – the classic braunschweiger on rye, with mustard and raw onions of course.  And yes, it was delicious.  A perfect poor man’s pate. 

Punky must have either felt extremely hungry or was unaware of the portion size because she valiantly tried to tackle the Sloppy Dog plate.  It’s kind of like a super-sized chili dog but instead of containing the chili in the bun they just poured an entire bowlful over it.  Add the requisite cheese and onions, and you have a delightfully decadent mess.  And, just in case, they serve it with an extra wedge of cheese and a pickle spear on the side. 

I was happy to help Punky with what she couldn’t finish and, in the process, was happy to learn that Baumgartner’s chili did indeed live up to the hype.  It may not be my "second best" chili, but it will not disappoint.      

We left Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern with a certain sense of satisfaction knowing there’s probably no better way to taste a slice, or drink a pint, of Wisconsin culture.  If you’re travelling through the Dairy State and have time for a small detour, I highly recommend visiting Monroe and Baumgartner’s and see for yourself … unless, of course, you’re lactose intolerant. 

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A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...