Of Cheese, Bread, and Mansions

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If you’ve ever studied history or viewed a BBC made-for-tv film, you very well know that back in the 1800’s, numerous wealthy unemployed heirs and heiresses built massive vacation homes on beautiful lakes to entertain pretentious guests and to honour the memory of their dead lovers. Then, years later, the indulgent and business-oriented American tourism industry workers or restaurateurs or entrepeneurs purchased these estates and converted them into restaurants, B&B’s, or novelty interactive theatre experiences.

You may assume that I am approaching this private estate-to-restaurant concept in a pejorative context, but you mistake my dry, cynical sense of humour for pessimism. Conversely, I greatly appreciate the restoration and maintainance of these estates and the fact that this has allowed the general public, myself included, to enjoy the experience in a contemporary context that spoiled, rich kids with fancy outfits were able to enjoy in the 1800’s, without the necessity to put on a false venier for my false-veniered guests. Instead, we are all allowed the pleasure to dress up in period clothing and simply have fun.

One such previously private lake-side estate is the Baker House in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It is rumoured that Steven Spielberg has a house on this beautiful oasis in the middle of farmland southern Wisconsin, and it is clear to me that the sole purpose of the existence of the town of Lake Geneva is to bring pleasure and relaxation to its inhabitants and visitors. And that it does, indeed. I’ve worked in the town of Lake Geneva for two summers now, and as the 2012 summer work season comes to a satisfying close I finally had the opportunity to visit the Baker House with my wife Kaitlyn.

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The Baker House has been beautifully maintained and converted into a restaurant and B&B. I’ve passed the house hundreds of times and was always intimidated. I presupposed that this restaurant’s occupants were groups of middle-aged rich white ladies and gentlemen in black-tie attire, sipping expensive glasses of wine and gazing down at me from behind their protuberant noses. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the opposite of this assumption was true.

We entered the restaurant and were seated fifteen minutes earlier than our scheduled reservation. We were greeted by the sights and sounds of the 1800’s: young and trendy waitstaff disguised in period dresses and suits with long coattails and matching formal gloves and tophats. The sound of a live pianist jamming out to the Billboard Top 40 list from 1884. Rooms that had not been converted to a typical restaurant interior, but instead left almost exactly as they might have been when occupied by the Baker Family before the surrounding trees were chopped down and replaced with ugly hotels on either side of the building and a busy road in front. I felt as if I were a guest of the Baker’s for a fabulous dinner party. The only thing I was missing was a tophat.

We were served by a very friendly southern lady named Peach, decked out in a frilly black-and-white dress, complete with the flowery hat and veil. The restaurant’s menu is very unconventional for Lake Geneva and features an almost tapas-esque selection of dishes. We chose the gruyere and white wine fondue with delicious breads and fresh apples in conjunction with the Bruschetta Italiano (pictured above). We were also cajoled by our waitress into sampling a Sprecher’s cherry cola.

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The fondue was delicious. Gruyere is a wonderful cheese. The slightly sweet, salty and nutty flavours were beautifully complimented by the tangy and minutely sharper accents of the wine. The flavours of the fondue wonderfully accompanied the soft, fresh breads, but emerged as a Holy Trinity when completed by the crisp and sweet green apples.

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As our meal ended, the jovial sounds of dining and piano music were interrupted by the racous clambour of ringing bells. Kaitlyn, myself, and the other guests were escorted to the lawn to partake in the Baker House tradition of the sunset toast. Complimentary champagne and strawberry lemonade were served, and the current owners provided a brief history of the building and offered a toast to the sunset.

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The toast to the sunset is performed every night during the summer and for me emphasised the unique, personal, and intimate experience of the Baker House. It reiterated the notion that I was indeed a guest of the now long dead (and supposedly living on in ghostly forms within the house) Baker family and for the first time at a restaurant I felt at home, I felt like I belonged, and I felt like I was a rich heir with nothing better to do than entertain my well-dressed, equally wealthy guests. The Baker House features a fun, unique, nearly escapist experience that emphasises the purpose of the meal in the context of community and pleasure and paints an accurate picture of the true purpose of tourism, relaxation, and the overall reason that towns like Lake Geneva exist.

All images displayed in this post were artfully captured by my wife and food photographer Kaitlyn Newberry. Please take a moment to visit her food photography blog at here.

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