Fine Food and Wine, a Family Legacy — 25 years of Lake Street Café 

June 27, 2024

There’s something about living and working in a seasonal rhythm that makes time move differently than in other places. In Elkhart Lake, in the summer, things move fast. Really fast. So fast in fact, that one June day you may wake up ready to take on another weekend and realize the business you’ve started from the ground up is turning twenty-five!

This June, Lake Street Café is celebrating its 25th summer in Elkhart Lake. I recently had the pleasure to soak in the ambiance of the dining room and reminisce with the restaurant’s owner, Lynn Shovan. The restaurant is where my family has celebrated many milestones, and this year, Lynn is celebrating her own family’s significant milestone. My sister and I took one look at the menu (though we didn’t really need to) and quickly decided what needed to be done. “Tenderloin Shiraz?”I asked her. She nodded in agreement and without giving it two seconds of thought said, “Orecchiette? We can split them?” It was decided. As Lynn filled our wine glasses, we told her what we ordered. “Why fix what isn’t broken”,my sister told her. Lynn smiled as she replied “I couldn’t agree more. That’s the way we feel around here too.” 

What was once the Corner Bar on South Lake Street became a restaurant that would transform the village’s culinary landscape in 1999. With John hailing from Waldo and Lynn from Sheboygan, the Shovan couple worked hard learning all they could in Sheboygan County hospitality establishments such as Pine Hills, Trattoria Stefano, and The American Club. After learning the ropes from others, they wanted to create their own vision. “We kept on meeting people who had traveled to Elkhart Lake for the road races. We noticed they were driving to Sheboygan for more restaurant options. We loved Elkhart and ended up renting a house here. The more time we spent in the village the more we realized there was room for another year-round restaurant.”

Lynn reminisces on the early stages of opening the restaurant. “When the building went up for sale, we kept walking by and imagining what it could be. One day, John said to me ‘What if we made the room right on the corner a quaint little dining room, and moved the bar to the other side of the building?’ We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my god, that’s it!’ We made an offer the next day”.

Lynn laughs as she remembers the decision to embark on such a large undertaking while raising their two children, Jake and Sydney. “We had a two-year-old and an eight-month-old and figured if we’re going to do it, now is the time. Why not?! Our kids grew up in our restaurant. Sydney took her first steps here! I’ve told Jake and Sydney that when they are filling out applications for jobs, they need to make sure they mention that they’ve worked at Lake Street Café since they were toddlers.”

Anyone who’s dined at Lake Street in the last 25 years has seen at least one, if not multiple, members of the Shovan family in the restaurant. While according to Lynn, “Sydney can run the cold side kitchen like nobody’s business”, Sydney has been eager to continue expanding her skills in hospitality in her general manager role at the Crystal Lake Golf Course. Jake has also wanted to experience how other family businesses run things. After welcoming many guests into the doors of his own family’s establishment, he has ventured to The Brewery located on well-known Water Street in Milwaukee.

In addition to the Shovan’s themselves, there have been countless other families that have proudly made Lake Street Café their place of work. If you grew up in Elkhart Lake, chances are you pulled shifts in the front of house or kitchen. If you didn’t work at Lake Street, you most certainly had a family member or close friend who did. This familial element of the restaurant is linked to the village’s tourist economy. Elkhart Lake restaurants serve a major role in providing teens with their first jobs. Then, should the young employees venture away for college or other opportunities, the restaurants continue to welcome them back in the summer. “We always tell our younger staff, you can always come home,” says Lynn.

Lynn credits another very important branch of the Lake Street family tree for the success of her business – the neighboring restaurants in town. “There’s such comradery. We all encourage and support each other. I love eating at the Paddock Club and I’m thrilled about the new pizza spot, Harry’s. Anywhere I’ve worked across the United States in my career, I’ve never had the sense of family that we’ve had here. There isn’t the fierce competition I’ve experienced elsewhere. We all do something a little different, and it makes us all stronger.”

It truly does take a whole village, a village who believes in what sets you apart and understands the challenges of making ends meet during the sleepier months. For John and Lynn, their meticulous attention to the finer details of the dining experience, along with prioritizing fresh ingredients, emerged as what set them apart. From the start, John and Lynn divided and conquered. Lynn oversaw the details of the kitchens, and as for John, he was and always will be known as the master of wine.

“John had the opportunity to work at the Immigrant Room at the American Club. That’s where he really started to learn a ton about how to develop a list and the purchasing. He built our wine program starting on day one. When we opened, he told me he wanted to have a Wine Spectator accredited wine list. I said ‘Okay, but we gotta start small, because we have no money!’” Lynn chuckles as she recounts this lofty goal in ‘99.

A year after opening, they submitted their list to Wine Spectator and continued to submit every year. By 2003, they received their first award, Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. Once John made his dream a reality, he did not stop there. He continued expanding the list with new producers and varietals. In 2016, they received the next level up, the Best of Award of Excellence, making Lake Street Café one of four restaurants in Wisconsinto hold the esteemed credential.

“John was thrilled when we received that Best Of award. We had 600 different wines on our list at that time! He knew every bottle and where it was in the cellar. He would go through the wine every single day and I would print a fresh list. He never wanted someone to order a bottle and for us to not have what they were excited about.” Since 2003, Lake Street has continued earning an award every year and today maintains the Best of Award of Excellence.

This unwavering enthusiasm for doing things the right way is still felt with every bottle poured out for guests even though John is no longer with us. When you enjoy a glass at Lake Street, your glass is filled, never skimped. Locals know this hospitality affectionately as the “Lake Street pour”. To this day, no matter where I’m dining across the country, if a place fills my glass to the brim, I smile and think to myself “Ah, now that’s a Lake Street pour”. The Shovan’s have always acknowledged gratitude for their community through gestures such as this. It’s the Elkhart way. It’s what keeps us all nourished and inspired to do our best work in our own lives.

While Lake Street’s wine program has played a major role in giving the restaurant its elevated status, the salt of the earth hospitality and consistent spot-on menu items have also sustained its reputation. The restaurant offers the magical quality of allowing diners to experience the best of both worlds– one side of the building being a laid back, lively tavern, and the other being a quieter, quaint dining room. So, whether you’re seeking the ahi tuna or scallops and a crisp glass of white, or a Three Cheese Grill and a pint from the local Switchgear brewery, everyone’s taste has a home.

My personal order as a seven-year-old when the restaurant opened was the peanut butter and jelly panini with an adventurous cup of lobster bisque on the side. A perfect example of how whether you’re looking for a bar top or a white tablecloth, there’s a seat for every occasion. And no matter how fancy you’re trying to be, I think everyone agrees that the house-made chips may just be in their top three favorite menu items. And who doesn’t love the little basket of fresh, made-in-house bread? 

Another signature touch that speaks to the incredibly intentional atmosphere is a tradition that regulars will remember fondly– menus being tucked inside of old books. “Children received age-appropriate story books, guests who were gardeners received gardening books, those who we knew personally from the racetrack would get a Popular Mechanics Book. We tried our best to match the books to the customers.” Locals and visitors alike will always hold on to those menus hidden inside books with a nostalgia as warm as Elkhart Lake summer. That, and seeing John crunching numbers at the end of the bar using a handwritten tally system towards the end of service. Although an upscale restaurant, at its heart, Lake Street Café has always been a Wisconsin family operation. It’s all the good stuff you want during a night out without any pretentiousness.

During my conversation with Lynn, I told her that a tell-tale sign of a thriving business is not just measured in individual success, but the ripples that a business sends out into the community. This is clear when you consider the countless Lake Street employees who have begun their own remarkable culinary ventures. Countless others credit their time working under John and Lynn as the reason they know how to properly sear a fine cut of meat or debone a fish, or why they have knowledge such as Shiraz and Syrah being the same grape but from different regions. It’s families like the Shovan’s who have shared their knowledge and passion with others along the way that makes Elkhart Lake a legendary destination.

These days at Lake Street, diners can expect the traditional atmosphere they love with a few modern updates. Although John never used computers, thanks to Jake bringing his experience back home, the waitstaff has enjoyed a POS system since 2021. The book menus have also been replaced with more sleek, easier to clean menus. What hasn’t changed though is what the menu holds. Mainstay dishes from the good old days of 1999 – tenderloin Shiraz, orecchiette, and shitake chicken.

After 25 years, it’s not a matter of completely re-inventing the wheel. It’s a matter of continuing to see a creative vision through with everything your family’s got and relying on other families to fill the seats at your table. Where does one go beyond a quarter of a century serving up fine food and wine to the village? “I am winding down a little more these days”, Lynn smiles with equal parts joy and relief. “Thanks to an amazing staff, I am able to take time away with the confidence that things will run well. From front of house to back of house to our office, I can’t say enough about my employees. Truly. We’ve had employees that have been here for a decade and counting. The future is bright. Jake and Sydney help whenever they can. One day they’ll take on a larger role. Today is not quite that day. Until then, I’ll keep showing up here as long as I’m having fun.”

Kate Vollrath

Meet The Author

Kate Vollrath was born and raised in Elkhart Lake. Although she now spends most of her time in Northern California, Wisconsin will always be home. The incredible local culture, extraordinary community, and Sundays spent floating on the water are what keep her rooted and returning to her favorite freshwater shoreline.