Saturday, December 22, 2012

What food in Merrill?

Living in Merrill sometimes gets a bad rap regarding having places to go out to eat. There are few fast food chains here and there are relatively no chain restaurants. While I'm not exactly the biggest chain food connoisseur, I do appreciate the easy night out at an Applebees or a Denny's every once and again.  With having a "unique" selection of places to eat out in Merrill we have the privilege of getting to know more local made and locally grown products.  We have a more home grown feel to our eating establishments, which can be good... and sometimes bad.  Still, with how many run of the mill 'ma and pa diners' there are for us to choose from, there are a few places that truly stand out.  Places that go the extra mile and try to bring something fresh and new to our area, while staying competitive with our economy and keep their prices low. Ages ago Merrill had a Gyros place, a good Sub shop, and even a local taco place. After the economy took a turn for the worse (And a fire or two) we were left with a less desirable selection of fooderies.

Outside of Chips Restaurant (A local fast food/burger joint that has been a staple of Merrill food for billions of years), we’ve had to venture out to surrounding towns for decent food when dining out.  However, in recent years a few new places in town have sprung back to life and have more than a few local foodies taking notice. Of these places we have started to nearly get a bit of culture in our otherwise culturally starved hometown, with an oriental dining experience, a genuine BBQ place, two excellent coffee shops, a hell of a pizza place and an up and coming legitimate steak house turning heads, I've decided to talk here about these as my favorite places to eat in town!!



Checkered Churn:  Terrific atmosphere, friendly staff, excellent selection of drinks (hot and cold) and very tasty lunches! I have never had a bad experience at the Checkered Churn located just downtown next to Merrill House of Music.  Every time I go in during the weekday (midday) they have hot and delicious soups and lunch plates (Best Quiche on earth! No lie!)  What sets this place apart from everyone else is the feeling of genuine change and comfort. There are no bad seats and everything looks so original and organic.  One of my favorite places to take people new to the area. The only real setback that I know of are the hours.  They are only open during the lunch hours on weekdays.  They are also open mid day on Saturday's but it's only for drinks and snacks (Scones, cookies.. etc etc)  No lunches on weekends.  As a guy that works 5 days a week (out of town) this crushes my ability to come here more often. They are also closed by dinner time daily, so no chance to get in after work lets out either.  I know these guys have attempted to do more dinner hours and stayed open later on Friday nights in the past, we just can't seem to generate enough traffic.... It's a shame really.  Still, if you're in town on a weekday looking for lunch, you really can't go wrong here.

Jillian's: As a kid growing up I remember coming many times to a restaurant with my parents called "Club Modern". Club Modern was seen at one time as a higher end dining experience in town.  It was a supper club that had a decent bar.  Matter of fact I worked there in my teenage years as a buffet chef on Sunday afternoons.  As the years went on, the quality in food and service started to plummet.  A few years later and the restaurant was holding on for dear life looking for someone to swoop in and buy the place.  Enter Jillian’s.  The main cook/grill expert is a former chef from the now deceased “Hereford n’ Hopps” Restaurant from Wausau WI.  The care and time that is put into the dishes is possibly the finest in the area.  I’ve had a T-bone steak one time and another time tried the chicken Parmesan, and both times left super satisfied!  The dinners were of a quality that I hadn’t seen in Merrill my entire life.  I would say the food is on par with Great Dane, but the decor is in desperate need of a reboot of sorts.  The prices are just right for the quality of food you get.  I would have to say that it is slightly pricier than most places in town. (A good steak dinner is upwards of $20), but you truly do get what you pay for. Also there is no ambiance and it still has that ‘ma n’ pa’ diner look to it.  They have mentioned to me that they are planning on remodeling most of their dining area in 2013, so I look forward to the day when they have new seating and new decorations for a truly great dining experience.  As of right now, great food, no atmosphere.

Ku’s Wokery: there are two places in town that offer “Chinese take-out or dine in”.  One is China Inn and the other is Ku’s Wokery.  Both have great sweet n’ sour chicken and fried rice along with the usual Americanese to go dishes we’ve come to love from shopping malls and fast food/buffet joints.  However, what sets Ku’s apart from China Inn is a terrific selection of more traditional Vietnamese and  Thai dishes.  I’ll just go ahead and say it: Ku’s has the 2nd best Phở I’ve ever had in my life.  It may just be the best dish in all of Merrill.  The reason I say 2nd best is because Phở76 in Wausau is the tastiest Phở/soup I’ve ever had in my life.  I’ve tried Phở places in larger cities and none of them are as good as what we have in Wausau and now at Ku’s in Merrill.  The prices are super low, affordable, large portions.  Super fast service and friendly staff.  The drawbacks aren’t many but I think they are due for some new furniture and spend some time updating their dining room.  They also are not open for lunch on weekends!  ARG!! Other than that, it’s one of our favorite places to eat.
First Street Coffee: I have had great breakfast here, great lunches here, and terrific dinners at First St. Coffee.  Their hours are just perfect for everyone, they are open for almost any event downtown (Parades, Crazy Days, downtown specials), they support great causes and just genuinely seem interested in bringing the area something special.  They have special karaoke nights for patrons to join in on the fun while dining in.  They do take-out for people on the go as well.  Their selection of hot and cold coffees and drinks are the best in town.  If it’s not on their menu just ask, they’ll try to make just about anything.  With the food selection this coffee shop experience blows away any Starbucks ‘like’ chain in the area.  Most menu items are very value based and you get a lot for what you pay for.  The setting is very family friendly as they offer a fun atmosphere where you feel very comfortable if you bring in a pack of kids and a family or if you’re by yourself.  Best Coffee shop in town by a hair.

Salvo’s Pizza: Giant sized pizzas, great atmosphere, amazing cheesy delicious pizza, and a fun arcade area!  Yes, actual arcade cabs in a restaurant!  Matter of fact I picked up my Side Arms cab from these guys back in 2009, so I’ve got a bit of a soft spot in my heart for these guys!  (And not to mention, the convention home of Pizza n’ Games (2011-current).  Lots of fun events going on, a great community room for any events of your own.  Pick up, delivery, dine in.  Salvo’s does all of this!  They also have a very spacious dining room for the main areas of the restaurant with HD TV in an additional more sports bar type dining room. Their pizzas are some of the best I’ve tried.  Nice thick crust, and VERY cheesy toppings.  Dozens of different types of Pizza toppings and additional menu items including pasta and sandwiches!  A true gem in downtown Merrill, located right next to the Middle School.  I think a lot of people in the area kind of forget it exists at times when trying to think of a place to eat.  One big drawback of Salvo’s is the lack of parking.  Only side of the road parking is available (or walking) to dine at Salvo’s.  The lack of a parking lot does hurt being able to stop by for pick up and dining in.  We mostly manage to get down there once in a while, but tend to stick to mostly ordering delivery.

Big Haas BBQ: Attached to DAT(Dennis and Tracy’s) Bar in the 6th Ward in Merrill, Big Hass BBQ had every opportunity to be another run of the mill diner in town, but thankfully decided to offer a truly one of a kind food experience not likely to be had anywhere else.  When you first enter into the Bar/BBQ establishment you notice that the bar area and the dining areas are close together, yet have completely separate feelings to them.  The dining area is a darkened and secluded section of about 8 tables (ranging from 2 to 8 seats a table) with so much character and ambiance!  The tables are labeled by names of famous rock stars from history, the walls are decorated with pictures of movie scene posters and celebrity musicians (Blues Brothers, Brittany Spears).  The staff are crazy intelligent and friendly and always try their best to help you out when you’re looking to fill a specific craving.  The menu has the widest variety of items I’ve seen in the area, from Jambalaya to Ribs to Burned end Sammy’s to butt chop sandwiches.   My absolute favorite menu item is ‘The Lemmy Killmeister”.  The dish itself is a mix of breakfast, Mexican, chili, and the best burger you could ever imagine.  No lie.  Our kids love the kids menu and the “Joe Filas” burger that will feed any guy looking to fill a giant burger craving!  Excellent menu.  If you’re looking for a few drinks and a nice dinner, they have you covered.  If you’re looking for a night out with friends and a party platter, they have you covered.  If you want to come in with a party of 7 and say “We only have 45 minutes, can you get us in and out in that amount of time?” – they have you covered (Spoken from experience).  I just can’t say enough about the overall attitude and experience you get from coming here to eat.  It’s just terrific.  I’d say you have to come and be a part of their special dining events (Valentines and Christmas dinners), the special sporting events (Pro Wrestling, Volleyball tournaments), and the personality of the staff and owners just to see how special Big Haas BBQ is and what it means to have an actual fine food establishment in the town of Merrill.  It’s my favorite place to eat.  It has the best dish I’ve ever had in town (Lemmy) (close 2nd is Ku’s Phở) too!

This list consists of my favorite six places to eat in town, but that isn’t to say that every other eating establishment is terrible, however there are a few that stink pretty bad.  I have to mention a few that have some pretty memorable dining experiences and are all local within Merrill.

Ballyhoos have some great drinks on tap and a pretty good lunch menu, along with a very nice bakery located right inside!  Good donuts, great drinks, and a nice menu.  However, we’ve been burned more than once on ordering delivery Pizza and received some of the most poorly made pies I’ve ever seen.  I’ve been in a few times for lunches and they’ve been pretty good. Hugo’s and Queenie & Ron’s have their fans as well, they just never really did anything for me.  The pizza pies are good, just nothing special. Skippers and Cozy Corner have pretty great breakfasts and lunch specials.  They are some of the better diner type places in town and will definitely fill your tummy with good food for a nice price.  I would be completely off my rocker if I didn’t mention one of the long standing staples of Merrill dining with Champ’s Restaurant.  The owner and staff do their best to make eating at Champ’s as affordable as possible with giving you the most bang for the buck.  Chances are that Champ’s will have any price in town beat and they have very large portions.  Champ’s only downfall is that they have some remodeling issues that hopefully will be addressed soon.  The place is a nice place to come eat with friends and just a couple new seats and a paint job away from being one of the finest places to eat in Merrill.

Some of my favorite places to eat locally are Back When Café, “The Former” Wright Place on 6th, WISH- Wisconsin Steak House, Phở76, Great Dane, Red Eye, and Shanghai Grille- all located in the Wausau Area.  While I know the quality of food is better the farther south of Lincoln Co. you travel I would say that dining in Merrill has improved tenfold in the past couple years and would hold a place like Big Haas or Ku’s or First St. Coffee next to any place out of town and expect a fierce competition for my taste buds. 

You read it. You cannot un-read it.

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