While we tend to prioritize locations farther away from home when we think of “vacation,” Seven Acre Dairy, the newly remodeled 100-year-old dairy plant on the banks of the Sugar River in Paoli, is well worth the 14-mile drive from Madison. Its fun, stylish vibe and scenic setting makes it perfect for a staycation, and should draw in plenty of out-of-towners as well. Whether your travel plans are guided by amenities, dining or even Instagrammability, this destination will check off more boxes than you might expect.
For decades, the building had been a cheese factory, a big gray block on a scenic riverbank. After the cheese plant closed in 1980, it was reinvented as a gallery space and a modest cafe in the 1990s. It took on a different life when Nic Mink (of Sitka Salmon Shares) and his spouse, Danika Laine Mink, purchased it in 2021 with ambitious plans.
The complex now includes an inn, restaurant, bar, cafe, ice cream shop, microdairy, gift shop, event space and prairie restoration and it’s not even done growing. “We still have significant amenities [planned] on the seven acres,” Mink says, “including an outdoor private dining area, a farm-to-table garden, and an additional outdoor event space.” He anticipates those openings to happen across 2024 and 2025.
The entire project feels too vibrant and modern to be called simply a “restoration.” The building sits neatly on the route from Madison to New Glarus. The on-site dining is a major draw. The micro-dairy is run by Landmark Creamery. And Paoli is so quaint and charming, you want to see fun things happen there.
But it was a good friend from out west, whose love for agritourism (specifically dairy tourism) knows no bounds, who was the driving force behind my recent staycation. She was planning a Wisconsin visit, and her texts turned from lower to upper case when I told her about Seven Acre Dairy. Two rooms for the five of us (two couples plus our friends’ toddler) were promptly booked at The Inn at Seven Acre.
The toddler was pretty excited about the complimentary cookies waiting for us in each room, though in fairness so was I — ours was cow-shaped. (Other friends staying there have received tokens for free ice cream.) Seven Acre offers three rooms and five suites, with one of each grouping recently turned pet-friendly.
There are eight rooms and suites. Half of the lodgings face the Sugar River. The other half face the parking lot, which sounds rough, but the landscaping is substantial and there are full-length window treatments to maintain a little privacy. Each room and suite bears an evocative name, like the Milk Haulers Suite, the Creamery Room or the Pabst Room — the last a nod to one of the space’s former owners. These are frequently booked up on weekends; weekdays offer more leeway.
The vibe is industrial, but polished: a little downtown loft, a little Scandinavia. The nice thing about the Seven Acre renovation is that it doesn’t feel soulless. Finishes are professional, and the artwork is fun, from the Warhol-esque milk jug installation to the “Butter lovers are better lovers” neon sign in the cafe.
The inn only has three dedicated employees and you may only spot an employee at check-in. Frequently, that employee will be Mink himself.
“Our inn is quite small, in the grand scheme of things,” says Mink, “so really everyone on the food side needs to be attentive to [inn guests’] needs.”
The multi-tiered floor plan adds to the sense of three-dimensional space all the same. From the hotel lobby, there are a few steps down to the bar, then a few more steps down to the lower level of restaurant seating, or a low ramp to the cafe. With more stairs leading down to the river outside, there’s almost a feeling of verticality like you’re on a ship, or at least in some sort of old world village with loads of nooks and crannies.
The recent Midwest Comfort Food Festival and Sugar River Bourbon Festival, and upcoming Christkindlmarket Dec. 8-10 all make Seven Acre a draw for drop-in visits, to say nothing of having these happen just outside your room door.
Arguably the greatest amenity at Seven Acre Dairy is the Kitchen, a hotel restaurant that is far more than a hotel restaurant. Any hotel worth hanging around at will have a good bar, and Seven Acre’s bar is quite nice. Before your meal, enjoy the TV monitor with looped video of cows meandering in a field. There’s even a house spirit of sorts, which goes by the name of Cheese Cave Dave’s Whey Spirit.
Cheese Cave Dave himself appears to be the product of a bit of fanciful brand storytelling, but ultimately the beverage is a whey-based spirit made by Copper Crow Distillery in Bayfield that is then further processed and labeled at Madison’s Yahara Bay Distillery to become the Cheese Cave Dave product. It’s the central spirit in Seven Acre’s deliciously tiki-ish This is the Whey cocktail, and bottles are available in the Cafe.
The Kitchen’s operation is overseen by Ben Hunter, half of the brother duo behind the Underground Food Collective. Shades of Forequarter and Underground Kitchen appear throughout the menu, with Hunter’s quirky respect for upper Midwestern tradition and agriculture on full display.
Dishes from a cannibal sandwich presented open-faced to a stunning late-summer squash and tomato bread salad show the team’s range. The use of dairy beef as a protein when most restaurants would disregard it as too tough to work with is an admirable nod to preventing food waste. At Kitchen, dry-aging and lots of butter help to transform it into a worthy ingredient.
And while the dinner menu presents some thoughtfully composed main courses, it also turns out a small selection of “bar snacks,” including a crisp, juicy, pork tenderloin sandwich. Any traveling Hoosier or Hawkeye should appreciate the scale of this hefty “snack.”
No meal is complete without a sweet treat, and the soft serve ice cream made onsite fits the bill. Vanilla and chocolate are regular flavors, with wild rice making an occasional appearance; the toppings range from classic rainbow sprinkles to candied black walnuts. It’s something between hipster and hippie, and I couldn’t imagine a better end to a visit or a stay at Seven Acre Dairy, no matter how far away home is.