Honk if you like the Pine Cone truck stop
For many years, driving from Milwaukee to Madison included infamous billboards that read "Pine Cone Ahead … Start Smiling." Although these outdoor ads no longer exist, the Pine Cone diners are now 35 years old and still going strong, serving hearty, homemade food to thousands of truckers and road trippers.
There are three Pine Cone diners / truck stops: One is located in Madison, the other is in Johnson Creek and a third location is in LaSalle, Ill. All of the Pine Cones feature massive menus, a friendly waitstaff and lots of pinecone décor.
The back of the Pine Cone's menu says, "We believe the Pine Cone is a living link to times past when food was plentiful and prices were right." With huge portions and the average price of a meal falling around $6, the Pine Cone stays true to its pledge. Plus, all of the food is homemade, right down to the salad dressing, and the dessert case features pastries as big as the wheels on a rig.
On a recent trip to Wisconsin Dells, we stopped off at the Pine Cone in Johnson Creek. The homey joint has pine cone wallpaper, fresh flowers on every table and lots of real pine cones of various sizes perched all over the diner. A waitress said they were gifts from truckers who brought them back from all over the country, and they had received so many over the years that bags of undisplayed pine cones were collecting dust in the office.
Thanks to the Pine Cone's eight-page menu, ordering is a bit of a challenge. It's tempting to try the T-bone dinner, a mere $13.95, and entertaining to wonder who really orders the low-calorie plate, a classic on every diner menu that features a scoop of tuna salad, a hard-boiled egg, cottage cheese and fresh fruit.
We decided against the steak, and started with the potato skins, which are the greasiest, cheesiest appetizer on the planet. They are so good that eating them triggers enough endorphins to mute the sound of your arteries clogging or your guilty conscious yammering about your waistline.
All potential health risks aside, the sandwiches taste amazing, too. We ordered a turkey melt and a Reuben (both under $6), which came on pan-fried marble rye. The corned beef was soft and flavorful (thanks, yummy fat!) and tasted like it was prepared in a crock pot. We also had a deliciously salty bowl of homemade chicken soup. The kids wolfed down baked mac 'n' cheese for $3.95, and immediately started begging for one of the Pine Cone's infamous desserts.
Choosing which gargantuan dessert to devour is even more difficult than picking an entrée, but eventually we settled on splitting a chocolate éclair and a caramel apple. We were tempted by the football-sized cream puffs, but decided to wait for State Fair to meet our annual cream puff quota. Both of the desserts we chose were very fresh, definitely homemade and more decadent than the law should allow.
Overall, the Pine Cone always provides a classic truck stop experience, serving up delicious -- albeit not the healthiest -- home cookin'. Perhaps they should tweak the back of the menu so it reads, "We believe the Pine Cone is a living link to times past when food was plentiful, prices were right and people weren't afraid to ingest truckloads of grease and fat."
LOVE the Pine Cone! However, my favorite truck stop, is a bit closer and has the best turkey club north of HWY 66. It is in Richfield, WI, right off HWY 41.
Johnson Crick | April 25, 2008 at 8:14 a.m. (report)
My parents live near there and when they eat there, they bring home enough food to eat for at least two more days. And I'd be surprised if their wallets are even $20 lighter. Now, I'm not saying it's the greatest food, but there sure is a lot of it!
Long live the Pine Cone! The monstrous dinner rolls alone make it worth the trip.
I grew up by the Token Creek Pine Cone. Late night dinner with friends after dances or high jinx! Then I commuted to Milwaukee from Madison for 2 yrs every weekend. I would stop once a weekend at the Johnson Creek Pine Cone. I once bought Jello for the entire restaurant, about 15 people. The waitress thought I was insane. I just said, " I'm a Penn and Teller Fan." I love the Pine Cone, now I must seek out the elusive third Pine Cone.
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