Dine like royalty: Baker House's Sunday buffet blends fine food, elegance
Wedged between Gino's East and a blocky modern hotel, the Baker House looks like a Disneyland concoction.
It's a huge Queen Ann Victorian with a fenced front yard that's overstuffed with lawn furniture. Across the street, Lake Geneva swells with a summer crowd of boaters and sun worshippers.
The 17,000-square-foot, 30-room Victorian "cottage" was built in 1885 by Emily Hall Baker, a wealthy widow. It has been a sanitarium, a speakeasy, the St. Moritz Hotel and, as of 2010, its present incarnation as a restaurant and luxury hotel.
Stepping into the Baker House is like entering another world. Inside, your eye immediately picks up on the stained glass, the intricate staircase, dark wood paneling and elaborately patterned wood floors, which are all original to the house. The staff are in period costumes that look to be '20s-inspired. A cabinet full of vintage hats in the entry beckons diners to wear them as they eat.
All the Victoriana and props were a turnoff at first. They felt touristy. But they don't detract from the house. It's the real deal, a glimpse into the city's elegant past, and it's gorgeous.
My husband, Richard, and I came for the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch buffet ($25 for adults, $15 for children 12 and younger). At 11:30 a.m., it was already above 80 degrees outside, and I was concerned we were dressed too casually. Not at all. Diners were wearing everything from dresses to shorts and flip-flops.
We were seated in the library, a smallish room with built-in bookcases and an elaborate fireplace. Our table was a small round set in the corner with two wingback chairs. We were one of four couples in the room. It was a bit like having tea in somebody's living room. It felt odd at first, but by the end of the meal we were chatting with the adjacent couple.
The buffet consisted of several stations in the wide corridor and two adjacent rooms. We were offered our choice of coffee, tea or iced tea and then sent across the hall to check out the choices. The table of light salads and fruit housed a very tasty spinach-artichoke dip and smoked salmon, and it seemed like a good place to start.
The breakfast choices included bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs and cheesy potatoes. The biscuits with gravy were outstanding. The biscuits were light and flaky, and the sausage gravy had a nicely smooth, medium-bodied texture.
A chef stood at a second table, ready to make an entrée to order. He made a traditional Eggs Benedict with a little sauteed spinach on top as I chatted with him and enjoyed the lake view. I watched him poach the egg as he fried the Canadian bacon and English muffin half. The Hollandaise sauce was homemade and beautifully done.
Our hostess had talked up their "famous" crab cakes, which must have been good. They were gone every time we went to the buffet station. Richard expressed an interested in Crab Cake Benedict, and the chef snagged one for him and delivered the dish to our table. It was as good as advertised. Richard went back for an omelette with lox and capers, which was fluffy, moist and flavorful.
An adjoining parlor contained the lunch choices. Richard tried the chicken and dumplings, which were very good. He also tried what appeared to be a Parmesan-crusted tilapia on rice pilaf, which was also excellent. Signs in front of the entreés would have been helpful. We saw many people guessing the contents of chafing dishes.
I tried the bananas foster French toast. It, too, was always nearly empty when I got to the buffet table. The first slice was so dry and hard that I could barely cut it with a knife. I went back a little later for a different batch, and it was much better. More banana-butter sauce would have been nice, but it was good nonetheless.
After all the elaborate effort for the rest of the meal, we found the dessert table uninspired. That's OK. We were full anyway. The only real disappointment was the service. We sat with unfilled glasses and dirty plates at our table for much of the meal. We also waited quite awhile for our check and then even longer for the server to settle the bill. We saw a lot of staff around, but only one waitress.
Still, the quality of the food and the setting elevate this experience several notches above the ordinary. If you can manage it, get a table on the glassed-in porch with a spectacular lake view. You'll feel like Lake Geneva royalty.
Joan Neeno is a freelance writer who reviews regional restaurants for The Gazette.