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Restaurant Tours: fine dining in fish-fry country

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That first summer the Jenkinses took over the Wild River Cafe you could almost set your watch by the farmer who stopped by on hot, dusty days for two Diet Pepsis. "He'd take the cans and lay down a dollar bill," says John Jenkins. "We charge 75 cents a can here for soda, but he'd just say, "It costs 50 cents in the machines next door so that's what I'm gonna pay."'

Jenkins didn't mind, really. As chef and co-owner, he wants the place to be welcoming to locals.

The restaurant occupies a simple white frame building amid cornfields, forests, and a tarmacked backyard that is the Tri-County Airport, serving the touristy Wisconsin area between Lone Rock and Spring Green. There is no room for pretensions. The Jenkinses purposely dressed the room down: dark green vinyl on the tables, mismatched stainless silverware, lights turned up at night so customers can read the small blackboard menu.

The thing is, Jenkins and his wife, Cindi, who are known on a local radio program as the "laid-back gourmets," don't do the stuff you find at the typical rural Wisconsin restaurant. There are no Friday-night fish fries, nothing barbecued or smothered in gravy. Both John and Cindi have cooked on assembly lines, and in their own restaurant they wanted to be, well, creative. The half dozen or so dinner choices might include blackened salmon in a peppery raspberry sauce, or extra garlicky shrimp scampi, topped with a generously herbed fresh tomato sauce.

"I have people walking in here who ask, "Can't you make something plain?"' says John. "I tell them I can make boeuf bourguignon. They say they don't want that, so I ask, "How about beef chunks over noodles?' They say that's fine. So I give them boeuf bourguignon."

By and large, says John, tourists have kept them in business since they took over the tiny airport's restaurant nearly two years ago. Many come from Madison (about 50 miles due east), Milwaukee, and Chicago. Some customers have weekend homes in the area; others drive in just for the chicken san ramos (sauteed in sun-dried tomatoes) or pork a l'orange, and maybe to check out nearby attractions like the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and American Players Theatre.

There are also the fly-ins, of course. Like the two armed state troopers who taxied up the runway one sunny afternoon last fall on a break from clocking speeders. After lunching on homemade quiche and locally grown greens tossed in honey-lime dressing, they took off past the windows.

The Wild River Cafe's previous owners, who aren't chefs, wanted to serve affordable gourmet. But they couldn't find anyone to run the place according to their vision, so in the spring of 1993 they considered closing it. Then they met John and Cindi Jenkins, who had just moved from Orlando, Florida, with two children and without the income they'd expected.

Their plan had been to escape the big city rat race, according to John. They'd come up separately through the restaurant ranks, rising from dishwashers to head chefs, with plenty of experience waiting tables in between. When they left Florida they'd been working banquets and theme restaurants. John also sang and played guitar with what he terms "aging rock 'n' rollers." He gave up his musical career a few years ago after Cindi's son, Bobby, got into trouble at school.

"I went to talk to the principal," he recalls. "I had hair down to my shoulder blades and was wearing bandannas and earrings. A few minutes into the conversation, I realized I was the problem."

He went full-time as a banquet chef after that, and not much later the family headed north.

They'd never set foot in Wisconsin, but John had close friends in Richland Center, about an hour from Madison, who urged them to move there. He lined up a restaurant job by telephone, but when they arrived his "employer" had changed her mind.

"We didn't have the money to leave, so we decided this was where we were supposed to stay," says John. Cindi got a job at the local shelter for abused women. John found work at a local diner "microwaving the meatloaf." In the spring they catered a wedding for friends and met people who knew the owners of the airport. The owners' friends recognized a match when they saw one.

The Jenkinses became partners in the Wild River Cafe in July 1993. The following summer they bought the cafe and celebrated their first anniversary with a big blues, beer, and barbecue bash. A thousand people turned out, and John says he's expecting 1,500 for the second anniversary party on July 16. He's already ordered alligator ribs from Florida to go with the Wisconsin pork and beef. Rumor has it he might tune up his guitar for the occasion.

The Wild River Cafe is open Wednesday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dinner entrees range from about $11.95 to $15.95 and include garlic bread, salad or soup, and fresh vegetables. There is a limited selection of domestic wines, including Prairie Fume from the Wollersheim Winery near Sauk City.

The restaurant is located at the intersection of highway JJ and County Line Road, about five miles northwest of Spring Green. From Spring Green take highway 14 about four miles west until you see the small sign for the Tri-County Airport. This is County Line Road. Turn right and proceed about one mile to the restaurant. Don't park in back; that's the runway. Call 608-583-2188 for weekend reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Cynthia Howe.

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