Owner says health issues forces tough decision but he will keep inn, bar open
It’s the end of an era for a Port Washington landmark as Joe Zankl, owner of the popular Port Hotel, announced this week that he will be closing the popular eatery in the near future.
“As much as I’d like to continue, and as much as I love the people I work with, this is something I have to do,” Zankl said Tuesday.
Zankl said he has not determined the exact closing date, saying he wants to give people who hold gift certificates to the restaurant a chance to use them and loyal customers a chance to say farewell.
“We’ll play it by ear,” he said.
Zankl emphasized that he is closing only the restaurant, but will continue operating the hotel and bar.
The restaurant space will continue to be used for banquets and special events like the Monday Rotary Club meetings, Zankl said, as well as special days such as Mother’s Day, Easter and the monthly chef’s dinners.
“It’s much simpler to manage a single party than run a restaurant,” he said.
The reason for the closing is his health, Zankl said, tracing his health concerns back to a traffic accident in August 2012.
He was stopped at the intersection of highways KK and H when, he said, a drunken driver struck his vehicle in the rear.
He hasn’t been the same since, Zankl said. It’s affected his mood, his memory and his ability to handle the restaurant.
“It has been four of the longest years of my life,” he said.
He has difficulty remembering simple things some days, Zankl said, and has lost his ability to make long-term plans.
“I’ve learned in the last couple of years to let my staff do what they need to do. They really stepped up to the plate,” he said. “Without them, I couldn’t have run the restaurant for this long.”
Zankl also credited his fiance Kate Kaufman with helping keep the restaurant going, but he said she has had health issues of her own recently.
“This has been an enormously hard decision to come to,” Zankl said. “But it’s the smart thing to do. I need to do something that’s a little simpler, with a little less stress.”
It was difficult telling his employees, Zankl said, but they were understanding.
“They all looked at me and said, ‘You need to do what’s best for you now,”’ he said.
Zankl said he didn’t want to hire a restaurant operator.
“I can’t just let anybody feed my hotel customers,” he said.
But, if things don’t work out, he may have to do that.
Zankl’s been the owner of the Port Hotel since 1997, when he bought the restaurant from Dave and Debbie Wickesberg.
But he was certainly familiar with the restaurant before that. Zankl got his start in the restaurant business when he worked as a dishwasher at the Port Hotel in 1978.
He’s made some changes to the restaurant, but perhaps the biggest change he made was returning the building to its roots as an inn in 2005.
The Port Hotel was originally the American House, built as a hotel and tavern in 1835.
In 1891, John and Anna Thill bought the hotel. Their son John tore down the building and built a new, 40-room hotel on the site in 1902.
In 1912, Peter and Katie Mayer purchased the building and renamed it the Mayer Hotel. They operated the inn for almost 50 years, selling the business to John and Marcie Hornslein in 1960. Room rates in the early 1960s ranged from $3 to $7 for a single room or $10 for a double room, with a weekly room rate of $20.
The hotel ultimately closed in 1973. It was purchased by Cedarburg attorneys Lowell and Donald Levy, who leased the building to the Wickesbergs, who opened the popular eatery that same year.
“We have quite a legacy here,” Zankl said. “We’ve done a lot of cool things, and we don’t want to destroy that.
“This is just the start of a new chapter here.”