Get in the car and go. now. Forget making a mix-tape or stopping the mail. If you love to eat, I want you to experience as many of the region’s iconic, worth-the-trip dining destinations as possible. Because if you’ve never visited the inspiration behind our Foodie Pilgrimages feature, it’s already, sadly, too late.
For nearly 80 years, the late Turk’s Inn was the last thing you’d expect to find in Hayward, Wisconsin, home of the world’s only Musky Festival and an economy based on dive bars and bait. Driving Highway 63, just north of town, a curtain of pine trees would part to reveal a squat white house with an low-slung red canopy, curved like a pair of Ottoman slippers.
I made it to Turk’s once, serendipitously, taking the long way home from Bayfield when I spotted it and pulled a U-ey. Inside, I discovered a scene once described as if “garage sales from Turkey and Green Bay had dumped their leftovers in a 1960s Las Vegas steakhouse.” Every available surface was covered with pictures and plates, tchotchkes and beer steins, taxidermy and plants, photos of JFK, Mickey Rooney, and other celebrity diners. Chandeliers and flying carpets hung from the ceiling, and tassels dangled over the fez-shaped bar.
I would have been less surprised to bump into Paul Bunyan on the Tokyo subway.
My husband and I sipped sidecars and learned that an Armenian from Istanbul who went by George “The Turk” had founded the restaurant in the 1930s. When he died, his only daughter, Marge, gave up a fashion career in New York City and returned to run the place. The menu was Middle Eastern—kebabs on pilaf, baklava—with one supper-club-country concession: massive, house-aged steaks. Meals were spendier than expected for a place with patrons wearing UW Badgers sweatshirts, chairs repaired with duct tape, and bottles of wine on the tables with prices scrawled on their labels. (You drink it, you buy it.) But our food was delicious, and the ambiance truly unforgettable.
All that remains of Turk’s are fond memories and a few mixed Yelp reviews. Those who treated it as any other restaurant dinged the place for its slow service: Were the steaks being cooked by an 80-year-old? (Likely, yes.) Time appeared to have stopped the day Turk’s opened its doors, so how could you complain about their not accepting credit cards? The only thing at Turk’s that diminished with age was its proprietress. When Marge passed on last year, having made it nearly to 90 and still working as much as she could up until the end, all her assets were auctioned—from Turk’s neon highway sign to its liquor inventory—with the proceeds put toward scholarships.
I’m sorry not to count Turk’s among our Pilgrimages, but I hope you find another favorite spot—a quaint pie shop, a smoked-fish shack, the Chicago eatery named among the best in the world—equally worth the trip.