In a land where stores and restaurants scream "Tourist Trap" with little to no shame, we ate in probably the biggest tourist trap restaurant in Door County, Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay (see map).
Al Johnson's has been in existence since around 1940 with Johnson being kind of the "jack-of-all-trades" in the restaurant - owner, cook, bottle washer, bartender. Here's a picture of Al Johnson. He's the bald-headed guy on the left. In 1960, Al met his future wife, Ingrid, who helped turn the restaurant into what it is today. She introduced a number of Scandinavian dishes to the menu, she helped change the decor so it had more of a Scandinavian ambiance to the place, and they added a large gift shop full of knick-knacks from Door County and from Sweden, Norway and Finland.
But the biggest attraction at Al Johnson's is not the food, but the family of goats grazing on the roof. That's right - there's a bunch of goats on the sod roof of Al Johnson's, just hanging out, eating grass and posing for pictures from the countless number of tourists who come to Al Johnson's daily.
The first goat was put on the roof in 1973 by a friend of Al Johnson's who was playing a practical joke on him. Johnson had put sod on the roof in the style of Scandinavian farm houses that were built into sides of hills and would allow for animals to graze on the roofs of the homes. The friend fell off the ladder breaking his collar bone, but the goat stayed.
The goats come out in the morning on nice days and stay until about 5 p.m., grazing and laying in the sun. OK, yeah, it is an odd sight to see goats on the roof. But this also tells me that if they have to rely upon goats on the roof to get people to come to the restaurant, then the food must not be all that outstanding.
It was 1:30 when we checked in with the hostess at Al Johnson's. She said it would be a 20 minute wait for the two of us. Normally, I would have said, "Screw it." But we were told by others who had gone to Door County that we had to eat at least once at Al Johnson's. It was more the experience of being at Al Johnson's and not necessarily the food.
Once we sat down in the dining area, we got our menus and looked over what they had to offer. The menu consists of traditional Swedish food, sandwiches, full dinners and breakfast that is served all day. In fact, we saw more than one table near us where the diners were having Swedish pancakes for lunch.
Earlier this summer, Cindy and I went to Bishop Hill, IL, a small Swedish settlement that is a sort of tourist destination. We'd been there a couple times before and hadn't been there for quite some time. I don't think there's much to the place (that's why I've never written about it), but Cindy has some affinity for the place. We went to a restaurant in Bishop Hill to have lunch and I ordered their Swedish meatballs. When the lunch came out, I was served a bowl of noodles with five little meatballs, each about the size of a large marble. And they had the gall to charge me $11.75 for the meal. It was so pitiful that we actually laughed about for days and weeks on end.
Of course, Al Johnson's had Swedish meatballs on the menu, and I ordered that for lunch. They had a soup and sandwich special during the lunch hour for $7.95 and Cindy ordered a bowl of the tomato bisque soup and a half of turkey sandwich. I was certainly expecting to have a better experience with the Swedish meatballs at Al Johnson's than I did at Bishop Hill.
When the waitress brought my lunch out, I just sort of stared at the plate. Cindy looked down and started to laugh. Sitting on noodles were five small meatballs. Oh, they were larger than the ones at the restaurant in Bishop Hill, but for $12.25 for the entree, I was expecting either more meatballs or more size to the five I was served. I just shook my head and dug in while Cindy snickered from across the table. I came to conclusion that Swedes must be really chintzy. (Wait! I have Swedish heritage in my family tree!)
Cindy loved her soup and thought was sandwich was fine. The taste of the Swedish meatballs was good, but the portion served was nowhere near the worth of the price. There's many other better places to eat in Door County.
OK, we'd been had by a tourist joint in Door County. We figured we'd get boned a couple times while we were there. We went to Al Johnson's, saw the goats, had the food, browsed through the shop and got the hell out of there. That's one less place we'll have to go to when we go back.