So close to everywhere and far from ordinary, Paoli Schoolhouse Shops & Café is likely to inspire diners to leave the hustle and bustle of Madison to enjoy serene country dining next to the Sugar River. Over the short 10-minute drive, the scenery changes to green grass, fields, and farms, hinting at the bona fide fresh and local ingredients of the venue that lies ahead.
The schoolhouse itself was built in 1854 and had been used by the Belleville School District until 1972. Bill Hastings purchased the building in 1990, and in 1998, converted it to shops and two apartments. Debbie Schwartz rented space there to operate her shop, The Cottage Gardens, and in 2003, she bought the old schoolhouse.
Often tourists came to Debbie’s shop and asked the simple question, “So where can I find a place to eat?” She contemplated the question. After years of directing people elsewhere, Debbie determined that in addition to shopping local, she would also offer a place to eat local.
After renovating the entire building and taking out the apartments and adjoining wall to the shop, the Paoli Schoolhouse Shops & Café launched in 2008 with an expanded shop and a small space for lunch sandwiches. Due to its blossoming popularity, the café soon took over the retail expansion until it spilled out the back door onto the patio along the banks of the river.
And the ingredients at Paoli Schoolhouse don’t get much more local than food grown in the café’s own gardens. The restaurant also obtains ingredients from Clean Fresh Foods, just a half mile up the road, and beer from The Hop Garden in Paoli is used in some recipes. They also source and grow relationships with local farmers, cheesemakers, and food businesses. The result—seasonally inspired food made from scratch and presented with flair.
Important as the food is, today’s restaurant-goers desire something more complete when dining out. The Paoli Schoolhouse meets this demand by ensuring every element reflects the values of Debbie and the restaurant’s general manager, Lee Rosenhagen. Decorated tastefully for the season, the outside landing sets the tone for the tranquil and beautiful décor that lies just on the other side of the door. Inside, the relaxed and inviting atmosphere, delicious upscale food, and great service combine to create a comfortable, memorable experience.
“Staff is mindful that we are not simply selling food—we are providing an experience that is out of the ordinary,” shares Lee. “We want to put a smile on their faces and in their hearts. It’s the little touches, like fresh flower centerpieces and refolding their napkin if they leave the table, that make a difference.”
The food is served in a timely and polite manner by an extra attentive staff, who consider comfort when creating a pleasurable dining experience at the café. Diners are seated on plush black velvet chairs and at tables spaced to allow intimate and private conversations.
Alongside fresh, local ingredients, the menu includes fresh fish flown in from around the world. Chef Luis Garcia incorporates creative and innovative menu touches as well as recipes from different cultures, which is important because, when it comes to restaurant menus, foodies have declared that size doesn’t matter—interesting variety does.
Luis and the culinary staff, many of whom have been at the café since it opened, regularly prepare blackened salmon and crab cakes, seafood and three cheese ravioli, Asian grain bowl, and jambalaya. Then there’s the chicken pot pie on the lunch menu that raises this classic comfort food up a notch with a puff pastry top. Also available are a selection of salads, sandwiches, burgers, and the café combination of half a sandwich with soup or house salad.
Upscale dinner entrées include beef Wellington, Kona-encrusted beef tenderloin, Brazilian flat iron, coffee-encrusted stella burger, a couple of pasta dishes, and vegetarian and gluten-free options. From the ocean and lake menu, diners can select from Thai scallops, Canadian walleye, and wild salmon. Paoli Schoolhouse is famous for its coconut cream pie alongside other beautifully presented desserts.
Sunday brunch and lunch is offered from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and includes French toast, buttermilk pancakes, ham and mushroom omelet, sirloin and poached egg, classic eggs Benedict, quiche, a breakfast sandwich, blackened smoked salmon, and crab cakes with eggs. For lunch, you’ll find chicken salad, a bacon bourbon burger, blackened chicken salad, and a roasted vegetable sandwich.
When weather permits, lunch and dinner can be enjoyed on the patio. A full-service bar features craft cocktails and beer, wine, Champagne, and sparkling wine selections to complement your meal. There’s live music on Saturday nights from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. When the weather is nice, musicians play on a stage overlooking the Sugar River. Music is also featured on Thursday evenings, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The comfortable and serene atmosphere draws a cross section of diners. The café is visited by tourists, bikers, and couples on date night, and is a great site for birthday parties, small weddings, and other celebrations. It’s a central hub for those who want to connect in the middle from where they call home. And attire, from biker shorts to wedding finery, is suited to the occasion being recognized or situation that brings visitors to Paoli.
The gift shop is just inside the front entrance, making it convenient to browse for distinctive gifts before and after eating in the café. It carries a wide array of jewelry, clothing, accessories, ponchos, scarves, hats, small gifts for home, and holiday gift merchandise.
The gift shop with a little café is now known as the café with the unique gift shop. To enjoy great food and take in the serene experience by the Sugar River, check out Paoli Schoolhouse Shops & Café.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison.
Paoli Schoolhouse Shops & Café
6857 Paoli Road
Paoli, WI 53508