Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jul 19, 2009
12:00 AMSmall Dishes
A Bite of History
Not many restaurants function successfully as culinary museums, serving historically accurate menus and recipes. As much as we tend to romanticize the past, today I would find much of what people once ate bland and boring. But, as we all know, food is only part of the experience of dining out. There is that indefinable element called ambiance that some restaurants seem to inexplicably have while others don’t. It never hurts if a place has a past, legends and lore, whether fact or fiction. An eatery with a history also speaks to the quality of their food—you can only get by for so long with smoke and mirrors.
I hear frequently that people are staying closer to home because of the economy. Whether this is true or not, I think we tend to overlook what is our own backyard, dismiss it as commonplace. So I’ve picked a handful of destinations that will not only feed you well, but also have a tale to tell.
Stout’s Island Lodge. In1903, lumber baron Frank D. Stout built a family summer home on his private island in Red Cedar Lake. The rustic lodge and cabins were constructed from local logs. Unfortunately, the log bark became invested with bugs. This necessitated the rebuilding of the structures using cedar logs from Idaho in 1915. Over the years, new outbuilding were added, and on the mainland, the Big Farm and Tagalong Golf Course—modeled after Scotland’s famous St. Andrews. Today the intimate resort houses guests in two lodges and several cabins. The dining room with its view of the lake features a seasonal menu built around local specialties, using local ingredients. The dining room is open to the public for lunch and dinner but reservations are required.
Fox and Hounds. As a kid, I remember thumbing through the pages of Holiday, the then prestigious travel magazine whose recommendations were coveted. The restaurant in Wisconsin to always make their list was the Fox and Hounds. It began as a one-room cabin in 1845. It was restored by Ray Wolf 90 years later to use as his headquarters for the many fox hunts he orchestrated. After a bar was installed on the lower level, he decided to open it up to the public as a restaurant in 1934. Rooms were added and it became an ever more popular dining spot, culminating with Life magazine designating it as one of America’s 40 Best Roadside Inns. In 1963, Roy died and shortly thereafter the restaurant was purchased by Karl Ratzsch’s, Milwaukee’s renowned German restaurant. Today, the Fox and Hounds is owned by Thomas Masters, his brother, Will Masters, and Jim Constantineau whose relationship with the property began when they first worked there 30 years ago, parking patron’s cars. The menu is what you would expect of this Wisconsin dowager. Little seems to change here, least of all its refined, clubby atmosphere.
The American Club. In 1918, Walter J. Kohler erected a large Tudor-style dormitory to house immigrant workers who came to work at the Kohler Company. Son of an immigrant himself, he hoped that by naming it The American Club, combined with an emphasis on high standards and patriotism, it would inspire the new arrivals to love their new country. Almost seventy years later, renovated, restored and expanded, the landmark became arguably the state’s premier resort, including a spa and two championship golf courses. Legend has it that the American Club is haunted. Some claim to have seen the ghost of a woman in room 209, site of a suicide many years ago. Others have watched the ghost of a man exiting room 315, once the scene of a murder. The complex features several dining rooms and cafes, the most acclaimed being the formal Immigrant Restaurant and Winery.
Ishnala. Originally a rustic summer home perched high above Mirror Lake, following World War II Madison’s Hoffman Brothers (Hoffman House) purchased the property and shaped it into a supper club. It’s always been strictly a rite of summer since it has no heating system. Its quirky décor of log walls, stuffed animal heads and fake teepees and totems contribute to its dated charm. Its name in Ho Chung translates to “by itself alone” but it’s always crowded during the season, especially on weekends, and they don’t take reservations for parties of less than eight. Trust me, the scenery and a tall drink from the Tiki Bar will soothe the wait.
The Del-Bar. It’s hard to believe that this place was once a humble log cabin, a little roadhouse halfway between Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo, whose claim to fame was fried steaks. With no restaurant experience and little money, Jimmy and Alice Wimmer bought the place in 1943. The Del-Bar was remodeled and enlarged several times, gradually replacing its rustic look with architect James Dresser’s Frank-Lloyd-Wright-inspired prairie style. However, the original dining room—now called the Garden Room—is still there. The Wimmer family continues to run the iconic supper club today. If you simply want a martini and steak, properly prepared, the Del-Bar seldom disappoints.
Smoky’s Club. It seems steakhouses have once again become trendy, but there’s nothing retro here about the big slabs of meat served un-sauced and sizzling. The biggest change at the restaurant in over 50 years was the recent cigarette ban, taking the smoke out of Smoky’s Club. Leonard “Smoky” Schmock and his wife Janet started the place in 1953. Year by year, as the steakhouse prospered, more and more memorabilia was hung from the walls and ceiling, everything from stuffed muskies and bears to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s story that goes with each piece of accumulated stuff—just ask. Don’t ask for crème brûlée for dessert, but instead, one of their specialty ice cream drinks like a grasshopper or brandy Alexander.
Little Bohemia Lodge. Like many flatlanders, some of the country’s most notorious gangsters—Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger—would head to the North Woods each summer. The Bohemia Lodge became instantly famous in 1931 after the F.B.I. botched a raid there while trying to apprehend John Dillinger and his gang, all of whom escaped. The owner left the bullet holes in the windows and walls so that the people who then flocked there wouldn’t be disappointed. Later, after becoming a popular supper club, Clark Gable and other celebrities often would water and dine here. The recent release of the movie Public Enemy has put the lodge back in the crosshairs since it was the location for several scenes. Next month, the owners will start Dillinger tours of the property. However, since the 1920s most have come for the hearty food, breakfast, lunch or dinner. Now you can sit in the same chair where Johnny Depp recently sat, trying to choose between Eggs Dillinger, Sweet Lady in Red Salad or Baby Face Steak Sandwich.
Karl Ratzch’s. Most of Milwaukee’s signature German heritage has slipped away. Not so at Karl Ratzch’s, sought out for its old-word cooking since it opened as Hermann’s Café back in 1904. Today, it indubitably is one of the country’s best German restaurants. As you might expect, the setting is all dark wood paneling and hewn beams, tall ceramic steins and starched white linen. The menu bulges with hefty classics like sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel and a roast duck as good as you will find anywhere in the state. The service bespeaks another era and is no small part of the dining experience here. It’s hard to imagine a Milwaukee with Karl Ratzch’s.
Watt’s Tea Room. Growing-up, I remember going with my mother to the tea room at Block’s Department Store, on shopping trips to Indianapolis. I looked forward to the Choo Choo Special (one of the few times I would order off the children’s menu). I don’t remember what it was but it was served in a ceramic locomotive. (They also put little paper umbrellas in the pink lemonade.) Watt’s is one of the few tea rooms to survive, most done in by the demise of department stores and fascination with fastfood. Located on the second floor of George Watt & Son, a family-run business for 139 years and one the country’s leading retail purveyors of china, the tea room is an ever popular ladies-lunch spot. The olive-nut sandwiches on freshly baked bread and sunshine cake are local legends. Little changes here, least of all the decorum or recipes.
Heaven City. The stately mansion on the shores of the Fox River has a sordid past. Once a bordello, stories of gangsters and ghosts abound. It’s not uncommon for guests to say they heard voices, laughter and footsteps with no one in sight … or saw knobs turn and doors open by themselves. It’s a fun and funky place and very romantic as well. For many years, the restaurant has enjoyed a reputation as one of the area’s finest. The menu is eclectic and a combination of American and Continental favorites, prepared with quality ingredients. For a real taste of nostalgia, enjoy one of their special dishes on Thursday prepared and flambéed tableside.
Red Circle Inn. It can claim bragging rights as the state’s oldest restaurant. In 1847, Francis Schraudenbach, a Bavarian immigrant, established it as a stage coach inn along the plank road that connected Milwaukee and Watertown. Originally named the Nashotah Inn, with its many fine fireplaces, its reputation grew as a snug and cozy stopover. In 1889, the place took on new life, purchased by the dapper Fred Pabst, owner of Milwaukee’s Pabst Brewing Company. He changed the name to the Red Circle Inn, a reference to an important part of the Pabst logo. In 1917 the inn was destroyed by fire but rebuilt in 1921. The inn passed from Pabst to the Pulaski family and then to Aad Groenevelt, founder of Provimi veal. For the past 16 years Norm and Martha Eckstaedt have owned and managed the Red Circle Inn. The menu reminds me of the finer, big city restaurants my father would take me to in the 60s: escargots, onion soup au gratin, beef Wellington, roast duckling Montmorency, veal scaloppini … as well as the usual choice of steaks and chops but served with béarnaise or au poivre sauce.
The Washington Hotel. Over 100 years ago Captain Ben Johnson built the hotel to accommodate other ship captains who plied the Great Lakes. The rambling wood structure was restored in 2003, and beside the much praised dining room, is home to a culinary school and bakery. The operation is committed to sustainable agriculture and serving the best seasonal, locally grown food. The hotel fathered Death Door Sprits, vodka and gin made from wheat grown on Washington Island—named for the infamous strait of water separating the island from Door County peninsula. For a taste right here in Madison, visit the Washington Hotel Coffee Room, which features baked goods flown in from the hotel daily.