Family makes tough call to close longtime restaurant

Opened in 1981 by a man who spent most of his life in kitchens, Nisleit’s Country Inn served customer from the Port area and travelers for nearly four decades

STANDING OUTSIDE THE restaurant they called home were members of the Nisleit family, (from left) daughter Katie Nisleit, parents Steve and Linda and daughter Laura Schwanz. Steve Nisleit, who opened the restaurant in April 1981, worked primarily in the kitchen while other family members took on other duties in the eatery, which closed last month. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press Staff

For almost four decades, Steve Nisleit owned and operated Nisleit’s Country Inn in the Town of Port Washington.

He spent much of his time in the kitchen, cooking the prime rib, baked French onion soup, chicken cordon bleu and broasted chicken that crowds of people came to enjoy.

“I loved the kitchen,” Nisleit said. 

But that came to an end on March 8, when Nisleit and his family closed the doors of the restaurant for the last time.

It’s a decision Nisleit said he’d been contemplating for a long time.

“It kept getting postponed,” his daughter Laura Schwanz said. “It had been in the works for months. It’s not an easy decision. My dad’s been doing this his whole life.

“Finally, it was like, ‘It’s happening.’” 

Although the restaurant business is a difficult one, demanding significant time and dedication, it’s a business Nisleit said he was born into.

As a child, he worked at his grandparents’ restaurant, Codling’s Eat — now Midway Eat — on Highway 57 in Random Lake.         He washed dishes, mopped floors, shoveled snow and worked his way up to manning the grill, discovering his calling before his grandparents sold the eatery when he was 15.

After high school, Nisleit said, he was going to be a car mechanic but instead found his way into another kitchen, this at Club Riversite, where he worked for Gene Buchel. 

He was washing dishes one night when Buchel needed someone to “flip the hash browns,” Nisleit said, so he volunteered.

That was all he needed to realize that restaurants and cooking were his passion, he said. He got a degree in restaurant and hotel cookery from Milwaukee Area Technical College in 1973, then went to work as a chef at West Bend Country Club for five years.

After a stint in Iowa as an executive chef, he came back to the area, working at the Bavarian Inn, Buchel’s Colonial House — run by Gene Buchel’s brother Walter — and Pine Hills Country Club in Sheboygan.

By then, Nisleit was looking for a restaurant to call his own. In 1979, he, his brother Bob and parents Carlton and Rosie bought Irish Isles, an old bar that would become the Country Inn.

“It was basically a dump,” Nisleit said. 

It took a year-and-a-half to remodel the bar, adding a small dining room and updating the building, he said.

“Me and my brother did a lot of the work,” he said.

He opened Nisleit’s Country Inn in April 1981. In 2001, when he added onto the building, he bought out his family.

“I bought this because it was on I-43,” he said. “It was the only restaurant on the freeway. A lot of people would stop in because we were halfway to Door County. We were really busy.”

Not only did the restaurant draw from the Port Washington area, travelers on I-43 stopped as well.

Nisleit’s was a supper club, serving steaks, fish fries and other such fare until one night when a group of motorcyclists stopped in and were appalled that the dinner menu didn’t include sandwiches.

“They wanted cheeseburgers,” Nisleit said, and the restaurant then morphed into a more casual, family-style place featuring home cooking.

Family was at the center of the operation. After Nisleit married his wife Linda, she became the hostess. Their children — daughters Katie Nisleit, Laura Schwanz and Tamara Slife and son Michael McGaw — and some of their grandchildren worked a variety of jobs around the restaurant.

And because the couple lived upstairs from the restaurant for most of their life — they lived in a Saukville condo for four years, but decided to move back to the apartment above the restaurant after Nisleit heard his girls praying that he would be home more — it was at the center of their home life as well.

“Linda would help them with homework upstairs, but she would ship them downstairs to do the math,” Nisleit said, laughing, adding he would cook between math problems. “I would run up the stairs and they would say their nighttime prayers.”

Their daughters said the restaurant was pivotal in their life. 

“In fifth grade, my entire class got on the bus and came here for a field trip,” Schwanz said. “People always wanted to come here and have sleepovers and dance parties. We’d have the restaurant to ourselves and run around and play.”

Her children have equally fond memories of the restaurant, Schwanz said, noting her 7-year-old daughter Leighton recently answered a class assignment by saying she wanted to have “horses, cows and grandpa’s restaurant when she’s 100 years old.”

Nisleit’s was also the center of a local Thanksgiving tradition. For more than 25 years, the restaurant opened its doors to “feed the less fortunate and people who had no place to go,” Linda said. “I just thought we were blessed, and we needed to share that.” 

It was a place where people would feed their bodies and souls, finding companionship and fellowship, she said. Eventually, some of the restaurant’s regular customers would attend as well, offering donations to the Food Pantry in return for their meal.

“A lot of the time, they would turn in $100 bills,” Linda said. “It was a blessing for the Food Pantry.”

“It was a fun tradition,” Schwanz said. “My mom would pick people up, deliver meals.”

The Country Inn wasn’t Nisleit’s only restaurant. For a couple of years in the early 1990s, Nisleit also owned and operated the Jailhouse on Highway M and Pleasant Valley Road near Jackson, but it got to be too much, he said.

Through the years, their customers got to be like family, the Nisleits said.

“They didn’t have time to have outside-of-here friends,” Schwanz said, adding her mother was known for the hugs she shared with everyone.

“I prayed with people. People would tell me their problems,” Linda said. “If I knew there was a birthday, I’d play Happy Birthday on the violin.”                Their employees were also like family, they said.

But the time came to close the restaurant.

“Its been a lot of work. We wanted to have more time with our family and grandkids,” Linda said. “We wanted to do it while we had our health.”

So they closed the restaurant, although they still are working. Linda cleans houses and cares for their grandchildren, and her husband drives a school bus for Johnson Bus Service.

“It’s a change of life, but it’s good,” Nisleit said. “For 37 years, I walked down 17 steps to go to work. Now, I’m out there seeing the world.”

They still live upstairs, and are cleaning out the restaurant. Nisleit’s brother Bob bought the building about six years ago, and he’s shown it to a couple of people already.

“I’m sure it’ll be another restaurant,” Nisleit said.    

But for now, the couple are enjoying life.

“I’m blessed,” Nisleit said. “I owned a restaurant, had a great family and did what I wanted my whole life.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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