Restaurant Review: Food, theater make Fireside a treasure

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By Joan Neeno/Special to The Gazette
July 2, 2015

FORT ATKINSON—It was both Father's Day and my dad's 86th birthday, so clearly we needed a special place to celebrate. The first thing that came to mind was the Fireside Theatre.

The Klopcic family began the dinner theater in 1964. It is an institution, and rightly so.

The Klopcics have turned what was originally a small 120-seat theater into an entertainment complex that features a 1,750-person capacity dining room and what feels like a small mall of gift shops running along its core. It has a swinging 1970s-style bar with fake rock, funky lighting and murals along the wall. It's gloriously dated in a very good way.

My dad, who used to go there with my mom, felt right at home.

In recent years, my family has had some experience with regional dinner theater. My nephew, Sam, is an actor who has performed at dinner theaters across the country. We have visited one in Indianapolis, Beef & Boards, many times. While we've enjoyed every show we've seen, we usually eat someplace else first because the food is pretty awful.

The Fireside does a much better job with its food. Our recent experience was a Sunday brunch before a performance of “Guys on Ice.” Feeding hundreds of people in roughly 12 hours is a daunting task. Overall, the kitchen crew and servers do a laudable job.

In general, dinner theaters are not places to expect world-class cuisine. The quantity of people served, the tight timeline and the pressure to keep costs down while delivering a quality theater experience mean the menu is going to be straightforward and easy to cook in bulk.

The breakfast buffet started with a nice plate of fruit with yogurt served at the table, along with a plate of small pastries. The cinnamon pinwheels, which tasted like mini frosted elephant ears, were particularly tasty.

The main buffet included bacon, sausage, mini quiches, eggs Benedict, biscuits and gravy, ham, turkey, teriyaki chicken, pepper steak, steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes.

The standouts in the good category were the biscuits and gravy, eggs Benedict, roasted potatoes and ham. The standouts in the not-so-good category were the watery scrambled eggs and the super-salty pepper steak.

A dessert, the Fireside's signature homemade strawberry shortcake, was good. So, too, was the coffee. Our server was more than a little short on personality, and it seemed as though servers at some of the surrounding tables were more attentive.

I was happy to see the Fireside still offered the Volcano ($16.95), a crazy Tiki drink that comes in a bowl lit on fire at the center. It was the most memorable part of my last dinner at the Fireside about 17 years ago.

The evening menus offer more individual choices, and they are pretty impressive in their breadth. The Fireside really does take care with its food and shows while still keeping prices in reach. That is a difficult balance, and many dinner theaters have gone out of business. The ones that have survived have done it through smart marketing and hard work. That is evident at the Fireside.

As for the play, “Guys on Ice” did not disappoint. I went to high school with the author of the play, Fred Alley. He lived across the hall from me in an apartment during my junior year of college. I ran into him when the play's first performances were held in 2000 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. A year later he died of an undiagnosed heart condition while jogging near his home. He was just 38 years old.

Watching the play, I could hear Fred's voice. There were obscure references to our hometown, Mount Horeb, that my dad and I got to chat about on our way home. The actors did a great job, and the theater in the round setting means there are no bad seats. It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a hot summer afternoon.

Much like Beef & Boards, the Fireside starts every show with lists of anniversaries, from newlyweds to couples celebrating more than 50 years, and birthdays ranging from young kids to octogenarians. The Klopcics have a family that reaches across the region and clearly loves the Fireside as much as they do.

What a great way to hear Fred's irreverent sense of humor again and to share a special day with my dad. I won't wait two decades to go back. The Fireside is a local treasure.

Joan Neeno is a freelance writer who reviews regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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