Restaurant Review: Red Circle Inn Has Been Reinvented

A new owner has Red Circle Inn, the state’s oldest restaurant, stepping into contemporary, occasionally bougie dining – with mixed results. 

I palm a book of matches from the bowl at the host’s station, shoving it into my pocket. Logoed matchbooks used to be omnipresent at restaurants back when smoking was still allowed in dining rooms. Red Circle Inn in Nashotah is the first place I’ve seen them in forever – a little touch suggesting that details matter. 

Red Circle, which started as a stagecoach stop in 1848, took its current name when beer baron Frederick Pabst bought it in 1889. After various owners since then, it landed in the hands of Geronimo Hospitality Group last fall. The Beloit-based company shuttered Red Circle for about six months, freshening up the decor while retaining the historic look, which includes old photos, a restored fireplace in the dining room and the original Pabst bar.

Red Circle Inn; Photo by Jenny Bohr

The updated space exudes a certain charm, but things are different, too. The roasted duck, veal dishes and dessert souffles Red Circle was known for are gone. Steaks are an emphasis here, and while dishes like the relish platter for two sound retro-appealing, I find myself at times wishing for the old Red Circle. 

On my first visit, that platter ($19) is overkill, with its deviled eggs breaded and deep-fried, and cheddar beer dip glopped onto triangles of rye bread. It looks and tastes assembled ahead of time and chilled. Another app, the soft, delicate Wisconsin meatballs with concord grape glaze ($18) are marred by a gluey bed of celery root buttered “mashers.” 


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Entrée-wise, the winner is a tender, roasted 12-ounce bone-in pork chop ($32), enhanced by the tart, peppery house steak sauce. I want to love the pan-fried skate wing schnitzel, but it’s more breading than fish, and the gribiche (a chopped egg sauce) served with it is more like a remoulade. I could niggle with our potato options; the beef fat hash brown blocks are decadent but need salt, and the buttered mashers are so soft and unformed that they pool across the plate. The bookend to that meal is a seasonal berry-rhubarb tart ($9) the server promises will be served warm and comes ice-cold (from the fridge?) and dry.

Skip ahead to the next visit and instead of the cramped two-top in the dining room we had the first time, I’ve got a bigger bar-height table with comfortable swivel chairs and a club soda delivered to me on a brass-like tray. Fancy! The bougie fried oyster slider ($8 each) with maple-glazed pork belly and chile tomato mayo on a toasted bun is delicious. But the crabcakes ($22) are the wet, more-filler-than-crab variety.

Beef stroganoff at Red Circle Inn; Photo by Jenny Bohr
Crab cakes at Red Circle Inn; Photo by Jenny Bohr

I enjoy the 6-ounce tenderloin ($43), with its crusty coating and smooth béarnaise. Like no beef stroganoff I’ve eaten, Red Circle’s elevated version ($28) combines hunks of short rib with pappardelle, caramelized onions and maitake and porcini mushrooms with herb crème fraiche. It leans tangy, with unctuous bites of meat and al dente noodles. 

I appreciate the new owner’s efforts to bring life back to such a venerable spot, paying attention to little details like those packs of matches. But the food has to get the same scrutiny. In 175 years, Red Circle has served a lot of great meals. I hope, with fine tuning, they will serve many more. 

Beef tenderloin at Red Circle Inn; Photo by Jenny Bohr


Red Circle Inn

N44 W33013 Watertown Plank Rd., Nashotah, 262-367-4883

Hours: Mon-Thurs 4:30-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat 4:30-10 p.m.
Prices: $25-$54
Service:  Enthusiastic, attentive, respectful
Reservations: Recommended 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s July issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.