About halfway between Milwaukee and Madison, there’s a truck stop and diner called The Pine Cone Travel Plaza, and if you know, you know.
For 49 years, this 24-hour restaurant, bakery and gas station has built an insane followers for people traveling past Johnson Creek.
“I’ve always loved the Pine Cone from the time I first discovered it,” says Eron Laber of Milwaukee.
“It seems like it’s just going to be a standard gas station or truck diner. But the gigantic and under-priced bakery set it apart and make it a destination. The eclairs weigh about three pounds and require a knife and a fork and a friend to eat.”
The sheer size of the pastries seem to be one of the big draws of the Pine Cone. I, myself, have ordered a gigantic cinnamon roll or elephant ear, but humungous serving sizes alone don’t personally trip my trigger.
But for my own dad, he’s all about the serving size.
“Good food, generous servings, reasonable prices,” says Larry Tarnoff. “And then there’s the homemade bakery. My fav is the humongous cinnamon buns. Makes my blood sugar rise just by looking at it. Better get there early because they go fast.”
Opened in 1973, it’s that scratch-made food that pulls people off I-94 for a pitstop. But don’t just take it from Laber and my dad. Here’s how their menu describes the secret to their success:
“Not only is virtually every item on the menu made right here in our kitchens, we always guarantee freshness. Rarely will a customer leave without being tempted by our homemade deserts. We boast a daily selection of pies, tasty eclairs, giant cream puffs, carrot cakes, and many flavors of delicious bars.”
And not bad for a gas station, especially one that still has a very retro neon “TYME Machine” above the front door.
At 685 W. Linmar Lane, which is basically the intersection of I-94 and Hwy. 26, at exit 267, you can see why the Pine Cone’s slogans is “Start Smiling.”
Says Matt Larson, "I like it because of the cinnamon rolls. And the old fashioned breakfast options, and it's also close to outlet shopping! "
OK, I get it. I like it, too. But I wanted more, so I reached out to Facebook to see who else was in love.
Says Jason Bohn, “I feel like, for a lot of people, the Pine Cone is just kind of a right of passage, that comes with almost anyone traveling west out of Milwaukee. I've made several trips that direction that always see me stopping there for a giant cookie or eclair, or cream puff or brownie.”
“I was there last night,” said Jon Greenberg. “Love stopping there. It’s really good food. The chicken dumpling soup is unreal. The pastries and cookies are massive and inexpensive. Always get the eclair when I go there. Theoretically it’s good for 2-3 days and 2-3 people for about $4. Always a fun stop on the youth hockey travel circuit or when traveling back and forth from Madison.”
According to Jay Saunders, "It's freaking amazing. My daughter, and this says very little about me, says the cheeseburgers are the best she's ever had. Then I went to the restaurant. Holy crap... a ton of great food at really low prices. Now my work takes me to Madison every once in a while, because that's where by boss' office is. When I told her about my love of the Pine Cone, she said, ‘Me, too, let's start meeting there instead of you coming to Madison or me going to Milwaukee!’”
“Bakery!” Says Caitlin Moyer. “That's the quote.”
But Nicole Larsen summed it up with a rhyme that tells you all you need to know.
“How can you pass up a place that has pastries in a case that are as big as your face?”
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.