& Other Important Things
Old friends and good food: The Old Rittenhouse Inn,
by Patricia Tikkanen
In February I emailed friends and sometimes travel companions Jacqueline and Duane Hargis from Munising a proposal that we meet for a weekend in early April to celebrate Jackie and my birthdays. Perhaps feeling as restless and pent up as we were (and that was only February) the answer was a resounding “Yes” that could almost be heard across Lake Superior’s icy waters all the way to the Keweenaw. Dates set and reservations made, we looked forward to a pleasant early spring trip west to Bayfield (Wisconsin.)
Our destination was the Old Rittenhouse Inn––one of many return visits for us and the first for these world travelers who somehow had missed this delightful setting not so far from home. Of course, as northern readers know, there was yet to be an early spring, and our drive the first weekend in April included snow, sleet, rain and fog. But we made it and walked into a space defined as much by memories as by walls and windows. Memories of the Philadelphia family who built the house as a summer home in 1890; the Phillips family who restored and expanded it into an inn over the last forty years; the past owners of the wonderful Victorian antiques and vintage furnishings; and of course the thousands of guests who have stayed there including us and many of our friends. “Welcome to the Old Rittenhouse.”
Don and I first visited the Old Rittenhouse on Labor Day weekend of 1980––one of our first trips as a couple. Friends in Marquette had just told us about the inn after taking a tour of the old Victorian mansion and they raved about the decorations and antique furnishings throughout what was then a five-room bed and breakfast that also served gourmet dinners. With great luck Don got us a reservation. I was so impressed. That first trip we had the smallest room (with a bath down the hall in those days) and quickly fell in love with every part of the home, the town, the whole country inn experience which was new to us then.
Now, of course you can take a virtual tour by going to the Rittenhouse.com website and while it cannot duplicate the experience of being there, it really is a great introduction to the inn. We got to know Mary and Jerry Phillips, the innkeepers, and Don and Mary, the chef, also fell in love as they discovered a shared delight in and philosophy of what makes for great food. Menus were spoken––performed is the best word––by Jerry in those days and given in such a way that everything sounded “the best” and choosing was never easy.
The tradition of the verbal menu was phased out for a few years but is back and presented with mouthwatering drama on this trip at dinner by Lance Birkholz, Mary and Jerry’s first employee who returned to the Old Rittenhouse a few years ago and says he “is never leaving again,” and at breakfast by Julie Phillips, Jerry’s sister and now the manager of the restaurant called The Landmark. You can see a video clip of Julie providing the spoken menu on the website.
In 1973 Mary and Jerry, then of Madison, visited Bayfield and decided to buy the old gracious Victorian home that had been built in 1890. They operated it as a B&B in the summer of 1974 and 1975. Both had careers in music in Madison—Mary teaching piano and Jerry as a choral director. In 1976 they added the dinners and opened for a longer season (eventually year round). The house had been built as a summer home and sits on a hillside in Bayfield’s shaded residential area above the downtown and with stunning views of Lake Superior and Madeleine Island—the largest of the Apostle Islands. The popularity of B&Bs had been growing in the United States for a decade or so before this, but the Old Rittenhouse was the first of its type in Wisconsin.
What made it and continues to make it so unique? First, the furnishings. On this last trip I asked Jerry how he and Mary began their collection of mostly Victorian furniture and accessories. He said even before he and Mary were married they shared a love for old stuff and attended auctions around Madison to buy things for their first home. And even though the inn has expanded over the years to twelve rooms at the Old Rittenhouse and seven rooms in the Le Chateau Boutin, purchased in 1985 and another of Bayfield’s summer homes, built in 1907, and the Rittenhouse Cottage… Jerry knows the furnishings as well (perhaps better) than I know the contents of our small farmhouse.
On this trip we were staying in one of the “new” rooms added in 1985 which have fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, and beautiful stained glass windows in an addition that appears in all ways constructed as if it were part of the original 1890 home. Don asked Jerry about the gorgeous rose-colored chandelier in our room and he told us it had come to the inn from the antique shop they had in Hayward (Wisconsin) for some years.
“That’s the Mother of Pearl Satin glass parlor lamp. It’s from the 1890s and was an oil lamp converted to electricity by me. These are very rare in this color... ”
This attention to detail and real appreciation of the wonderful “stuff” and the homes they occupy is a big part, I believe, of what makes the Rittenhouse experience feel like you have been lucky enough to be invited into someone’s wonderful home. And, as Jackie said after her first day as a guest, “There are so many unique furnishings and accessories I would like to spend a week just looking at things!”
While the atmosphere is supreme, the experience would not be complete without the incredible and creative food. Breakfast is served every day, but during the winter and spring, dinners are available only on the weekends. This will change as summer comes. There are three small dining rooms stretching from front to back of the house and each with fireplaces original to the home. The Green Room in the front is our favorite for breakfast with the best views of the lake; the middle room is the Red Room, and both are wallpapered in the appropriate color while the back room has always been painted blue. Some of our best meals have been in the Blue Room, as it is there that Mary and Jerry usually join us for one of our dinners.
One of special significance to us was in 1999 when we took retired bishop Mark Schmidt to the Rittenhouse at the invitation of Jerry and Mary. Bishop Schmidt, now sadly departed, had been the parish priest for the Phillips family when Jerry was growing up in southern Wisconsin, and when Mary and Jerry realized we were all connected in Marquette, they invited us for a weekend.
But enough of the memories and back to the food. Mary is no longer chef but her philosophy is still very much felt in the menu. The chef now is Matt Chingo, who just took over in May of 2012 after two years as sous chef. To say he meets the expectations of Mary and Don is to say it all. Always, the kitchen makes use of any of the local food products in season and does so in creative ways.
For example, for one of the dinners on this trip, I got all three courses featuring local fish—the Lake Superior chowder, the smoked trout salad, and the trout piccata. (Actually, I got the last dish twice—one night with trout and the other with whitefish.) The chowder uses both whitefish and trout in a broth with cream, potatoes, carrots, and chives. The salad (and one of Mary’s personal favorites) uses a wonderful smoked trout and chilled wild rice from the region on a bed of greens and with a garnish of cheddar cheese in a vinaigrette dressing. The trout, which Don said was the best he had ever tasted, was grilled and on a bed of Israel couscous with carrot, asparagus, some sundried tomatoes and chopped Kalamata olives and the wonderful delicate lemon butter. Don’t be concerned if you are not as much of a fan of fish as I am. Other entrees enjoyed that evening by others in the party included steak Bercy, champagne chicken, and a pork porterhouse (and there was also the option of the famous Rittenhouse apple-glazed pork chop). Breakfasts are also a lesson in creative culinary with a Continental option (included with the room) or more elaborate offerings.
While Mary and Jerry have been fortunate to have their son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Wendy Phillips, step into the main inn-keeping roles, with the same attention to detail and absolute perfect taste, Jerry keeps his hand in with the baking of the breakfast breads and creating always new combinations of jams and jellies that grace the breakfast table.
After that first trip in 1980, we came back many times, sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of us.
Jerry and Mary may have become innkeepers, but music remains a passion and Wassail Dinner Concerts in December are still offered with Jerry as director and one of the lead entertainers and Mary for years as the pianist. (Since she was also the chef it was part of the fun for us to watch her dash in from the kitchen just in time to sit down at the piano and then, back to the kitchen for the next to get the next course out. We used to also love the Valentine’s Day dinner concerts, which are no longer offered.) Bayfield was the final destination, but sometimes it was the first stop on longer trips. We spent the first night of our honeymoon trip there in June of 1982, a trip that would ultimately take us to Churchill (Manitoba).
Don credits Mary as the first person to suggest to him he should marry me as they sat, early in the morning drinking coffee on the porch swing, on that very first trip. A woman of great perception, she suggested to him that he would never find a better life partner and better snatch me up quick. And so he did.