Intimacy creates memories at Poplar Inn

By NICHOLAS DETTMANN - Daily News

Dec. 22, 2017

Scott Kintopf of West Bend, left, and Ryan Weyker of Jackson talk during a company party Dec. 14 at the Poplar Inn in West Bend.
John Ehlke/Daily News

Memories are made at The Poplar Inn, 518 Poplar St., West Bend.

A lot of memories for that matter, which was one of the reasons it was selected as one of the 10 recommended restaurants in Washington County by Daily News readers in an informal poll.

“(It’s) where we go for special occasions,” said one respondent.

The restaurant’s blend of nostalgia and elegance, along with emphasis on the experience and food, has been a staple for many, many years, further advanced by co-owners Mike and Dee Koebel.

It is a two-level establishment with room for 32 patrons on the ground floor. Upstairs is room for 32 more patrons, plus another 15 to sit at the bar, and 60 on the patio, with weather cooperates. There is also a private room with sliding door.

Much of the mystique comes from its rustic look with the wood flooring throughout, plus the wood bar top with gold foot railing.

The quarters are tight, but that adds to the intimacy.

“Excellent food, service and ambiance,” said Susie Goneau of West Bend.

From the outside shows what looks like is a house more than a restaurant. Well, there is a reason for that.

According to the History Center of Washington County, the building — across the street from the Old Courthouse Museum — dates back to the mid-1850s. In the 1860s, it was used as an inn during the Civil War. Then, it was used as a private residence for several decades, up until about the 1950s, according to an article printed in The Court Reporter, provided by the History Center of Washington County.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a transformation began as the building was used by Abstract and Title Co., then Norwood Paper — an arts and crafts company.

By the 1980s, the shift toward a restaurant had begun.

The Koebels took over the ownership in 2007.

“The Poplar Inn is where memories are made,” Mike said. “An awful lot of memories in people’s lives are cultivated in their hearts when they come to this restaurant.”

Lights reflect off a glass of wine sitting
on the bar.

John Ehlke/Daily News

It is not out of the norm to see key life events unfold at The Poplar Inn — blind dates, first dates, anniversaries, birthdays, engagements, weddings, etc.

“Poplar Inn is a great special occasion restaurant,” said Laura Gustafson of West Bend.

While they’ve owned it for 10 years after it was the Brown Dog Restaurant before them, Mike and Dee have heard seemingly hundreds of stories of why people choose to come to The Poplar Inn. Those stories include a first date and, some years later, that couple requests to sit at the same table they did for that date, just to jar a cozy memory.

“They always enjoy coming here enjoying that special occasion,” Mike said.

The memories don’t end there.

“We get people that call and tell us when they come in and they tell us what table they want because that’s where my husband told me about his new job,” Dee said.

Mike added, “Or they got engaged.”

So how did that become a trademark at The Poplar Inn?

“I think people feel nostalgic about (the building),” Dee said. “It’s a memory maker. Our serving staff is all very professional. They’re all dressed in black, they are very personable with people and they make every guest feel really special.

“I think that goes along with the event they’re celebrating.”

Mike added he believes the building’s history is “a magnet” for people.

The serving staff is also experienced. Between five of the servers on staff is more than 100 years of experience in the industry.

Mike and Dee have memories at The Poplar Inn, too, having been through first communions or confirmations, for example, with one of their six children. When they came to the restaurant, there wasn’t a goal to one day own it, but there was always a curiosity. If it came up, the Koebels thought it’d be neat to own it. But they never pushed for it. They didn’t need to.

One day, while Mike worked in a building next door with a property management company, the owners of the building known today as The Poplar Inn, knocked on the door and gauged Mike’s interest.

“Before we knew it, we were buying the whole thing,” Mike said.

Mike and Dee had no restaurant experience at that moment, but two of their children did, including their son, Tony, who owns The Norbert.

“They were right there with us,” Mike said. “They said, ‘Dad, this would be a great opportunity.’” Because of its elegance and consistent connection to life-changing memories, there is a belief The Poplar Inn has a dress code. They still get calls asking if there is one. There isn’t one, but most still adhere to one.

“It was very formal when we took over, people felt they had to dress a certain way,” Dee said. “We wanted to bring it down a few notches to make it more comfortable.”

While they have done that, there is still a formal feeling about The Poplar Inn, which adds to the whole experience.

Of course, a restaurant won’t last long if something is off. The Poplar Inn appears it isn’t slacking in any category.

“The Poplar Inn is a treat every time I go,” said Ben Funk of Hartford. “And they tend to do steaks better than most steakhouses I’ve been to. I will sometimes buy gift certificates for my parents to go there for a special evening. Highly recommended.”

Mike is the butcher, which he said is an important reason for why the steaks are as popular as they are.

One of the popular dishes is the 6-ounce filet mignon. Another popular choice on the menu is called Happy Family, which includes lobster, scallops and shrimp sautéed with Asian vegetables, sweet thai-chili sriracha and coconut rice.

“I think our biggest joy in running this restaurant is to see people enjoy themselves when they’re here, enjoying the food, enjoy the experience, walk out of here because they made a memorable moment here,” Mike said.


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