Edible Cleveland enlisted a couple of locals to give us an insider’s perspective on the burgeoning local food scene on the Lake Erie Islands. Beth Kretschmar spent her teen summers working on Put-in-Bay and fills us in in part one below. Stephen Celeste lives on Kelleys Island year-round after spending most of summers of his life on the island and shares island stories in part two.
There’s some really great food on Put-In-Bay. No, seriously. Gone are the days when a deep-fried walleye sandwich and a side of fries were all one could find on a menu around the island—although you can still get that if you like. These days, you can add frog legs, perch tacos, and crêpes to the lineup.
What people know as Put-In-Bay is actually South Bass Island. Put-In-Bay—the village—has a main strip downtown where people come to play, as I did during six summers in my early 20s. I remember rounding the corner on Bayview Avenue on my way to work, catching a glimpse of the charming harbor, and thinking how lucky am I to be here.
But back then, food options were pretty basic. A pizza from Frosty’s, an ice cream cone from Dairy Queen, or anything you could find to soak up the booze around 2am. Nowadays, there are dozens more food businesses, with one or two new establishments popping up every summer. Be sure not to miss the lobster bisque at The Boardwalk and Topsy Turveys Island Bar and Grill, known for its Cuban-style breakfast.
“Everybody’s really stepping up their game,” says Scott Jackson, owner of the Goat Soup and Whiskey Tavern, “It’s been a national trend to use more fresh ingredients and now the island is finally coming around.”
The Goat is coming up on its 10th season, but Scott was no stranger to Put-in-Bay before that. He began working summers in 1988, flipping burgers at what used to be the Crescent Tavern. After attending graduate school in Denver, he helped open the Put-In-Bay Brewing Company, as well as a sister Goat Soup and Whiskey Tavern in Keystone, Colorado.
“I’m a lake person and when the opportunity to open up in my favorite building on the island came along, I had to take it,” Scott says. “I love Colorado, but the islanders are my family and Put-In-Bay is my home.”
Scott’s goal at the Goat is to have everything made in-house, and he’s pretty close. The eatery boasts four gardens, with three behind the restaurant and another at East Point. Tomatoes and basil account for the majority of the garden’s crops. Smaller cherry tomatoes are used in the salads, while the large ones pair with fresh basil, house-made mozzarella, and a balsamic reduction in the caprese salad. The garden also produces herbs, including mint, which is used to make the Goat’s famed mint basil mojito.
If you visit the Goat, don’t miss the original perch taco served with their famous Pali Wali sauce. Another notable is a Parmesan- crusted walleye called Frieda à la Fran. (It’s named after two local islanders who originated the dish). And because soup is in their name, be sure to try their rotating selection of seasonal, from-scratch soups, such as Green Chile with Chicken.
What’s the biggest challenge besides having to ship many restaurant essentials over from the mainland? “Our kitchen is ridiculously small and we can’t move around without bumping into each other.” Scott says. I can attest to that, I bartended there for four summers back when it was Dailey’s Tavern.
Another place helping to diversify island dining is the Old Forge Café and Crêperie. Marc Wright, who co-owns with Mike and Gina Gobel, thinks that just as the island can be busy and fast, typically so was the food.
“We wanted to focus on the people who come to the island to relax and enjoy some good food and wine,” Marc says.
The owners were able to get immediate feedback when they operated a crêpe cart outside during the Old Forge’s original high season. “It was great being able to experiment,” Marc says. “There has never been anything like crêpes on the island.”
The restaurant is going into its third summer housed in the island’s original blacksmith shop. Marc and his team paid homage by taking bricks from the hearth to remake the chimney, the old anvil now resides at the host stand, and the original floorboards decorate the walls. “We’re so proud of why it’s The Old Forge,” Marc says.
Marc feels that being a restaurateur on PIB is unique in part because you’re “constantly getting a new wave of people who are experiencing the menu and island for the first time, which motivates you and you remember your passion for it.”
What’s good to eat at the Old Forge Café and Crêperie? The CBG with roasted chicken, apple-wood-smoked bacon, goat cheese, and basil pesto with garlic cream sauce is not to be missed, as is the savory Mama K with ham, Swiss, PIB Brewery mustard, and local honey. Also try the sweet Little Miss Sunshine with lemon curd, honey mascarpone, and raspberry coulis, and for a bonus for a sweet tooth, try any of their sweet crêpes à la mode.