Anyone who grew up in Wisconsin has undoubtedly eaten at a supper clubs. For those who are unfamiliar with supper clubs, they are old school restaurants, usually with a bar/lounge attached. They all have similar menus with steaks, seafood, chicken and sometimes duck and veal dishes. They almost always have a Friday Fish Fry and a Saturday Prime Rib Special. Some staples include roasted duck, Walleye Pike, surf and turf, broiled cod, and chicken. All meals get you a choice of soup or salad (sometimes you get both). You are also usually presented with a crudite platter with carrots, celery, radishes, and various other veggies and dip or a basket with bags of breadsticks, crackers, and Melba toast. For further reading I would recommend that you check out a nice article by Dennis Getto over at JSOnline.com which provides an overview of Wisconsin supper clubs and this entry at the Wisconsin Historical Society. To many people, supper clubs are an afterthought…a piece of nostalgia lost in the wave of America’s newfound fascination with chef-driven cuisine. This is not the case at Madison’s The Old Fashioned.
Named after one of Wisconsin’s most popular mixed drinks, the Old Fashioned serves supper club inspired fare (as well as six different kinds of Old Fashioned cocktails) in a great environment that reminds you of a modern version of an up-north tavern. Old beer signs, fishing photographs, and other pieces of Wisconsin themed nostalgia adorns the walls. As you walk in you are taken aback with the smell of the food and the woodburning grill…and and the crowds. This place is very popular. We were told it would be an hour wait so we settled in at the bar and enjoyed some Wisconsin beer. Their selection is impressive (when is the last time you saw Schlitz on tap?) with a nice mix of Wisconsin beers ranging from Pabst Blue Ribbon to Furthermore Knot Stock Ale made at a newer microbrewery based in Spring Green.
While we waited we ordered some homemade warm potato chips, served with your choice of dipping sauces including Smoked Paprika, Roasted Garlic, Ranch or, Tiger Blue. The chips were served as described, warm, and the Tiger Blue sauce provided a nice cool contrast. These chips were outstanding. Hands down the best homemade potato chips I have ever eaten. I enjoyed a Furthermore Knot Stock, which is an pale ale made with some black pepper. The mixture worked very well and the pepper provided a nice warm character to the hop bitterness. Furthermore is a newer microbrewery out of Spring Green who is doing some interesting beers.
After our one hour wait (I have to commend them on their accurate estimate) we were seated and presented with the menu. The items all have numbers and after reading through the selections, you cannot help be transported back to a supper club. Now this restaurant is not a supper club as some other reviewers must have thought (more on this later) but is more of a bar/restaurant inspired by old time supper club fare. The Walleye Pike dinner, found on any supper club menu north of Wausau, is reinvented at the Old Fashioned as a Fried Walleye Sandwich with cabbage and radish and lemon-caper tartar sauce on country bread and it was awesome. Between the hearty bread was huge fillet of walleye, fried to perfection. The radish and cabbage added some crunch and the tartar sauce was very tasty. It is served with some great french fries as well.
Another staple found at many supper clubs is Braunschwager (a type of liver sausage) served as a complementary appetizer to spread on crackers. At the Old Fasioned the chicken breast sandwich, cooked on that wood burning grill, can be ordered with a smear of Braunschwager on top. For those who don’t like it, you can have it with smoked bacon, swiss, and mayo. There was just enough of the liver sausage on the chicken to give a nice taste of Braunschwager without oblitterating the taste of the chicken breast. This is a combo that I have never seen but I might just have to try it at home.
Another entree takes its cue not from a supper club, but rather from a familiar weeknight meals of ring bologna and macaroni and cheese. The mac and cheese was made with sharp Wisconsin cheddar and had a nice baked breadcrumb crust on top. I had plenty of mac and cheese as a kid and none of them even came close to this. It was hot, creamy and delicious. Probably because the cheese at the Old Fashioned didn’t come from a powder pack or a foil packet that you squeeze into hot noodles. The ring bologna was from the Fendt Brothersin Watertown. It was very flavorful and was nicely grilled.
It was tough to make selections from the expansive menu. Had we not tried the chips, there are three Lazy Susan appetizers to choose from as well as Artisanal cheese plates. The lazy susans are well….lazy susans with various appetizers ranging from herring to summer sausage to deviled eggs. Each one appears to have a theme, seafood, charcuterie (sausages) and veggies. As interesting as the lazy susans are, the cheese plates looked more interesting. Plate 1 featured Wisconsin Cheeses that have been voted “The Best Cheeses in America,” and it includes selections from Uplands, Butler Farms, and Love Tree Farmstead. Other plates offer Carr Valley cheeses (watch for a tasting report on Carr Valley to be posted soon), Organic farmstead sheep’s milk cheeses, and handmade artisan cheeses. I would have a very hard time just picking one plate.
Some other sandwich and entree offerings included a burger on which you can get a fried egg (otherwise known as a Portland Slider), Sheboygan bratwurst, grilled summer sausage, pulled pork, and a portabella mushroom sandwich for the vegetarians. All of these offerings hover in the 10 dollar range, which is very reasonable. There is also a farm raised Wisconsin Rainbow Trout which is grilled whole and a 16 ounce bone-in ribeye. These entrees are pricier than most of the sandwiches on the menu but offer a nice alternative for those seeking more of a traditional dinner. There are nightly specials including Tacos, ribs, perch fries and the obligatory Friday Fish Fry and Saturday night Prime Rib.
In researching this place, I found some mixed reviews. Dennis Getto liked it, some Madison folks werent as impressed. One review over at Dane 101 seemed to have issues because the menu didn’t replicate a supper club menu, which I think is very unfair because The Old Fashioned does not present itself as a supper club, in fact the website clearly indicates: “Inspired by the traditions of Wisconsin taverns and supper clubs, The Old Fashioned was created to pay tribute to the foods and spirits that make Wisconsin famous.” I am so sick of reviewers either not doing their homework or going to a place only to complain about what the place is not instead of what it is. Reviewers should look at the type of food they serve and how well it is prepared. You should not blast a place that clearly focuses on sandwiches because you are mad that they don’t have supper club style meals. You should review the sandwiches. If the options suck (and they don’t here) that’s fare game and if the food tastes like crap, by all means complain away. They should look at ambiance and rate the level of service. If they tell you the wait is an hour and you are seated within 50-70 minutes, you have no right to complain. If they tell you 15 minutes and its an hour, then you can complain.
In summary, I was very impressed with this place. It is cozy, friendly and best of all, the food is great and you cannot help but reminisce about supper club dinners you and your family had enjoyed in the past. The setting is awesome, right on Capitol Square and if you are lucky you will be seated with a spectacular view of of the Capitol. One of the great things about The Old Fashioned is that they get many of their ingredients from local, small Wisconsin producers. They are also involved with the Slow Food Movement and the owners really seem to want to promote high quality Wisconsin products.
The Old Fashioned can be found at 23 N. Pinckney St. Madison, WI 53703. Phone 608.310.4545 Website: www.theoldfashioned.com .