By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 18, 2011 at 9:02 AM

SISTER BAY – The old saw about a leopard not being able to change its spots does not apply in Door County. Exhibit A is the Mission Grille, the casual fine dining restaurant at the bottom of the hill on Highway 42 leading into this picturesque town.

The core of the building dates back 101 years, when a Roman Catholic mission church, St. Rosalia's, was erected to serve the Door County faithful. It was a plain, utilitarian structure sided with asbestos shingles. There were no stained glass windows.

Gary and Mary Ann Guterman bought the church in 1984 when the St. Rosalia parish moved into a large, full-fledged church up the hill. The Libertyville, Ill., couple, successful sales reps for Adidas, were disenchanted with the urban rat race and were hankering for a change.

Five years later they opened the Mission Grille as a nostalgia-themed family eatery complete with an authentic soda fountain imported from Chicago, a genuine old juke box and an arcade with pinball, shooting and basketball machines. Chicago-style hot dogs, fries and fountain treats were on the menu.

Transformation No. 1.

The business prospered to the point that a physical expansion was necessary. The kitchen had to be enlarged and the front of the building improved to enhance visibility from the street. The Gutermans decided to drastically alter their restaurant's concept without changing its name, and trade its Chicago dogs for Maine lobster bisque ($9) and its soda fountain for an award-winning wine cellar.

The couple took the Mission Grille upscale in 1993. "We gutted the whole inside and started over," Gary Guterman recently said while sitting with his wife in the eatery's inviting garden.

Transformation No. 2.

"We were starting to get increased competition to our concept in Door County, but there was not much fine dining here at the time." Supper clubs with their steak and potato menus held a large share of the dinner trade.

The Gutermans invested heavily in ambience, installing stained glass windows in the building that never had them when it was a church. Extra dining nooks and areas, including an enclosed front porch, were created. Customers can be seated in the choir loft.

A beautiful garden has grown in plantings and patio decorations over the years. It now seats 75; the restaurant accommodates 225 persons indoors.

Wine has become a specialty, with two sommeliers on staff. The Mission Grille has received the Wine Enthusiast Award of Unique Distinction, the Wine Spectator Award for 12 consecutive years, and the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for the last five years. It stocks about 500 different wines, ranging in price from $22 to $325.

Nearly 30 wines by the glass are sold for $5 to $14.

For dining, Gourmet Magazine has named the Mission Grille one of the 12 best restaurants in Wisconsin.

"Our managers – Tonda Gagliardo and Karl Bradley – are a big part of our success," Mary Ann Guterman said. "They have been with us for 17 years."

Gagliardo and Bradley were married at the restaurant, and they personify the family atmosphere the Gutermans promote within the staff. Bradley's brother, Brian, has been the Mission Grille chef for 16 years. Five members of the Wuollet family, spread over two generations, currently work in the kitchen and the front of the restaurant.

The Gutermans take great pains to avoid the internecine warfare that often infects kitchen and wait staffs. They said they prefer to hire a restaurant neophyte with a good attitude and positive personality than take on a dining industry veteran who carries bad vibes into their business.

Staff training is emphasized at the Mission Grille, and it shows. Service is friendly and casual but also crisp and informed.

The menu reflects a mix of contemporary dining trends and traditional fare. Small plates are now part of the package.

Cocoa spiced pork ribs with apple horseradish slaw ($9), flatbread Provencal with olive tapenade, fresh basil, caramelized onion, artichoke hearts, toasted walnuts, tomatoes and goat and Provolone cheeses ($10), and a Wisconsin artisan cheese flight with herb toasted almonds, marinated olives and fruit compote ($15) are among the offerings.

Entrees range from a rack of lamb ($36) and Jamaican jerk pork tenderloin ($24) to Maryland blue crab cakes ($24) and shrimp and scallop linguini with Italian chicken sausage ($28). Several dinner salads with chicken and salmon options are available for $18 to $24.

"We were noted for our duck and stuffed pork chop, but we took them off the menu because we wanted to keep the menu fresh," Mary Ann Guterman explained. The duck is still occasionally offered as a special, and anyone craving it or the pork chop can call ahead and order it.

Entrees come with two sides from a list that includes braised red cabbage, sweet potato mash, blue cheese and scallion potato cake, and Door County cherry and walnut wild rice blend.

A lunch menu features, among other items, soups, salads and an Italian mac and cheese bake with mascarpone, gruyere and parmesan cheeses ($8.95), a California Reuben sandwich with sliced turkey breast and apple slaw ($8.95) and a bruschetta garden vegetable burger ($8.95.)

The success of the Mission Grille came perilously close to not happening. The building sat empty for five years after the Gutermans bought it because they wanted to open a Mexican restaurant and couldn't obtain a liquor license. The small year-round population of Sister Bay limits the number of liquor licenses that can be issued in it.

"You can't have a Mexican restaurant without margaritas," Gary Guterman said. He and his wife considered turning their building into an antiques mall, and they put it up for sale. A difference of only a few thousand dollars prevented a deal from being completed.

The Mission Grille now has a liquor license and full bar. It has traditionally stayed open on weekends through the winter, but that may change this year.

"Last winter was very dismal," Gary Guterman said. "We had a blizzard almost every Friday."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.