For the end of 2022, Russ and I meandered over to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to stay at the Rittenhouse Inn. If you’ve ever been to Bayfield, you’ve seen the place: a huge maroon-red mansion on the left side of the main street as you head toward Lake Superior in this northern town.
This was Russ’s first stay at the inn and my fourth, but it had been years since I’d been there. For my birthday last spring, Russ gave me the choice of two local trips, and this was the one I chose. So, we combined two occasions into one: my birthday and New Year’s Eve.
Built in 1890, the Rittenhouse is a Queen Anne Victorian home. It’s one of three properties in Bayfield owned by Mary and Jerry Phillips. But it was the first one they purchased, back in 1973. Check out their website (link in the first sentence of this post) to learn more.
We checked in on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and had just enough time to change into clothing befitting a six-course dinner at the Inn’s Landmark Restaurant, which is on the first floor of the inn. Our room was on the third floor in Suite #10. This was originally the home’s ballroom. I got a glimpse of it during a tour on one of my first stays at the inn and was impressed by its spaciousness, double-sided fireplace, and view of the lake. I vowed to stay there one day.
Descending the floors on the stunning cherry staircase in my emerald-green velvet dress, I felt like I belonged to the place. Russ looked dapper in his khakis and pressed blue and white shirt. We were seated by the hostess in one of three rooms used for dining. There’s a green room, a red room, and a blue. We were shown to the red room, which features ornate wallpaper, lavish holiday decorations, and a fireplace. Actually, all the dining rooms feature that, just in different colors!
The special New Year’s dinner featured an appetizer (I had mussels in cream sauce), soup (I had oyster soup – sense a theme here?), salad (kale and pomegranate in the shape of a wreath), a palate cleanser of cranberry sorbet, main course (champagne chicken), and dessert (crème brulee with whipped cream and blueberries). It also included a champagne cocktail with a sugar cube in the bottom of the glass and an orange peel curlicue.
The meal was exquisite. Although the portions were reasonable, I’m not used to that much food anymore and have since sworn off all multi-course dinners! But it made for a memorable and tasty evening.
Afterward, we retired to our room and played a rousing game of Mexican Train Dominoes (I won, as usual). We brought our own bottle of champagne and Chombard liqueur (raspberry). We mixed them together and rang in the New Year.
Some things have changed about the inn since my last stay. For instance, they no longer use real wood in their fireplaces. Instead, they offer those fake logs you can buy at the grocery store, which are easy to light. This was disappointing – I wanted the crackle of a real fire – but it was better than an electric fireplace.
They also no longer recite the menu orally. This was a thing on my first visit in the 1990s. The waiters, who all seemed trained in voice or drama, would recite the menu options from memory, adding luscious words and embellishments – so many that it felt like you had eaten a meal by the time they completed voicing the options. That left a lasting impression on me and I discovered the instigator of that past practice was still working at the inn. We met him the next morning at breakfast (which is included in the cost of your room). His name is Lance and he’s worked at the inn since 1974, just a year after it opened.
When I bemoaned the lack of an oral menu, he admitted that the recitation was one of his schemes. I didn’t get to ask him what stopped the practice, but I suppose it was hard to keep up over time, especially if new hires didn’t have talents in those areas.
Not much was stirring in Bayfield on New Year’s Day. Russ and I walked down the main street (Rittenhouse Ave.) and only found one store open, besides the grocery store and coffee shop. But that one store was enough, because I found a birthday present for a friend of mine who was born on January 2. What an awful time to have a birthday! Everyone is “presented” out by then from Christmas. But this year, I revived my present-finding skills quickly, and acquired something I think my friend would like.
The inn’s restaurant was not going to be serving dinner that evening, and we were staying another night, so we asked around and found out which other places in town would be open. We had two options to choose from: a bar and a bistro. We chose the bistro.
But before dinner, we exercised off some of our six-course dinner and scrumptious breakfast calories by cross-country skiing at Mt. Ashawabay Ski Area just outside of town. Besides downhill runs, the ski area offers 40K of ski trails. Because I’m recovering from a broken ankle, we stuck to the easy trails. They were perfect, although the tracks were a bit icy and I could have used a warmer (sticker) wax. But we made of the best of it for 1-1/2 hrs, and I did not reinjure my ankle.
We skipped lunch, so were hungry once we returned to Bayfield. We ate at the bistro and spent our evening curled up by the (fake log) fireplace, reading. Heavenly! The next morning, we had another lovely Rittenhouse Inn breakfast and then headed home to Duluth.
I felt fortunate to have finally stayed in Suite #10 and to spend such a peaceful New Year’s in elegant surroundings. The Rittenhouse or one of its other properties are definitely the pinnacle of places to stay in Bayfield, should you ever have the chance.