Toby's Supper Club
Since moving to this area, I've spent more time living on the edges of Madison - or beyond them - than I have on the isthmus itself. I've lived or worked near restaurants that often fall well outside the radar sweep of most Madisonians. Sometimes they fit well into their neighborhoods and draw traffic and loyalty from them; others appear to be overlooked even by those who share a city block.
These are the places author Malcolm Gladwell might call "outliers" - places whose appeal defies expectation. Almost all of these destinations lie outside the cozy confines of the Beltline and Interstate; I call them reasons to get out of town.
If you're anything like me, you don't have a single coffeeshop. You have a wallet or purse or glove compartment full of punch cards, ready to be fumbled for at any moment, no matter what neighborhood you're in. Sound familiar? Then the name True Coffee Roasters might ring a bell, too. These beans are ground at a number of area cafes, but if you want to get them as fresh from the hopper as possible (and really, why wouldn't you?), then you have to head to Nesbitt Road in Fitchburg.
A morning trip to True Coffee often starts with a barking serenade from the dogs in residence at Waggin' Tails across the street. Once you're inside, peace and quiet reigns, save for the whirr and hiss of the espresso machines. I have found that True Coffee's Americano - half espresso, half hot water - is among the best around, and certainly my favorite.
Brewed coffees are many, and single-cup pour-overs can be had from any of the numerous varietals roasted in-house. Some of the baked goods come via Gallup Bakehouse, and there are modest but satisfying sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. But when I'm at True, I take my sustenance in liquid form.
Plus, the True loyalty card is plastic and swipeable, thus preventing the inevitable paper punch card deterioration. Make room for another one; True is card-worthy.
How many of you who have succumbed to the call of "HOT! SPICY! CHEESE BREAD HERE!" at the Stella's Bakery stand at Dane County Farmers' Market can say where the magic happens - much less dined at the cafe that's also located at the bakery? Unless you work near where the Beltline meets Fish Hatchery Road, I'm guessing few.
In many ways, this hot little corner mirrors the Main Street Industries development on the near east side. From Stella's Bakery and Cafe on Syene Road, it's a short jaunt to Yahara Bay Distillers on Kingsley.
Stella's has many baked goods, and they're well-known. The spicy cheese bread mini-roll can be wrapped around a variety of meats, cheeses and veggies. It is the default bread option on the Skilly, a hot and messy sandwich of shaved beef, peppers and cheese. The spiciness of the bread sticks to your tongue, even if the cheese gets lost amid the savory ribeye.
Indeed, "messy" seems to be a default option of its own at Stella's. Roast pork, garlic mayo and bacon fall all over themselves to dominate the imposingly named Widowmaker. They all lose out to the apple poppy slaw, which gives the sandwich an unexpected Southeast Asian vibe. Still, for a busy lunch spot, the food comes out fast - and if you bus your own table, the staff just might give you a cookie for your effort.
It was on a blustery, snowy day - rare, this winter - that I first discovered Stoughton's Yeti. I'd seen chatter among believers and hunters alike on Twitter, and even the occasional exclamation from the Yeti itself. I needed to see for myself.
Yes, I could go on like this for some time, but I'll spare you the cheese. If cheese is your thing, though, Famous Yeti's Pizza in Stoughton has you doubly covered. This new pizzeria's charmingly goofy menu is written from the point of view of a wandering cryptid with a lot of ideas about pizza and sandwiches. Say what you will about groaner Sasquatch humor, at least Famous Yeti's stays in character.
And then there's the food. Sandwiches come buttery and sizzling out of the oven, all of them laden with gooey provolone, or mozzarella, or any number of other dairy delights. The Virgil, topped with ham, pepperoni and hunks of salami, also features bright red tomatoes (a complete seasonal aberration, but I'll take it) and spicy giardinera. It's a wonder at $7, and with a bag of chips at that.
Famous Yeti's pizza is the star of the show. Hand-tossed is available by the (ample) slice, and whole pies are available in either hand-tossed, thin or stuffed iterations. Word on the street is that the stuffed pizzas are the real deal. The only way to know for sure is to track the beast down yourself.
Here's the trick with doing barbecue in a region of the United States with no indigenous barbecue style: You can't do them all. You just can't. A restaurant is doomed to mediocrity, unevenness or downright failure if it doesn't settle on a style. And getting someone who really knows a particular school of 'cue to hang a shingle up here on the tundra? That takes remarkably good fortune.
So it's Madison's luck, then, that Jeff Norwood opened Papa Bear's BBQ on Cottage Grove Road back in 2007 and continues to turn out plate after saucy plate of Kansas City-style barbecue. Papa Bear's is still less well known than other Madison barbecue spots, and frequently empty. With a hot link sandwich like the one served there, a line should be snaking out the door. It far surpasses the proportions of the bun, and is heaped with peppers and onions, and dripping with the signature KC-style sauce. The barbecued corned beef sandwich, equally slathered, is rich and tender. A side of biscuits (two to an order!) is a must.
There's chicken, a house burger, ribs - and rib tips worth every penny - but even with the industry-standard buns, I keep coming back for the sandwiches. I'm not sure I've encountered better barbecue sandwich artistry than the pork po'boy that's an occasional daily special. Crispy, sweet slaw, a spicy ranch sauce, and a pile of smoky sliced pork? As they say at Papa Bear's, it's nasty - but in a good way.
Delicate fillets of lake and river fish, battered and deep fried, tend to be something of a siren song in Wisconsin; a good fish fry will out. And interestingly, a remote fish fry of fine reputation never suffers from its distance. In fact, it seems that having to set out on a drive only sweetens the lure of a bar or supper club's Friday dinner service.
At Toby's Supper Club, diners can have sandwiches or steaks, cheese curds or lobster. It's as sprawling a menu of hearty fare as you'd ever expect to see at a supper club in the upper Midwest. But the best reason to go to Toby's is for the Friday fish fry. It's really something to behold.
If you can find a parking spot, and if you can find space to stand around the bar, you need only to flag down a server or bartender (admirably available considering the press of humanity), place your order, and wait. Order an old fashioned or a bottle of beer; both are respectably priced. When a table opens, you're seated and your order goes in. Relish tray, bread and salad are waiting for you. Get the blue cheese dressing.
The baby pike is good, as tender and sweet as you'd want it to be; the cod is even better. Its batter is crunchy and just salty enough, and the flaky fish comes apart in perfect chunks under your fork. Catfish and perch round out the Friday offerings (bluegill is on the regular menu, but not normally served on Fridays). Four of the five fishes served at Toby's are currently listed on the Top 25 of the joyously exhaustive MadisonFishFry.com. Cross under the Beltline at Highway 51 to Dutch Mill Road and find out what that brimming crowd already knows.
Going for a drive to get to a fish fry is one thing; going for a drive to a bar is perhaps slightly more fraught with complications. So please, for the love of all that is safe, legal and smart: This section carries an implicit understanding of a designated driver. With that in mind, I encourage you to keep a little old bar that used to be run by a little old lady in your sights.
The Missouri Tavern is not actually in Missouri; it's just north of County K on Highway 12. There's little to munch on, save for frozen pizzas, landjaegers and bags of chips. You can, however, burn off your drinks playing pool, foosball or darts.
Drinks are standard, but this bar holds the distinction of being (in addition to extraordinarily clean) the home of Travis Hasse's Pie Liqueurs. Hasse is the owner of the Missouri, and his Apple Pie and Cherry Pie liqueurs are recommended shots. Apple Pie is sweet like its namesake; Cherry Pie is tart, like pie filling before all the buttery crust comes into play.
Though Hasse is the current owner, longtime regulars know Mae Mefford as the original gal behind the bar. She owned and ran the place until her death at 101 in 2005, and if you ask nicely, the friendly bartenders might let you look at the photo albums of her tenure. The last page holds a sweet note: Mae's favorite song on the jukebox was George Burns' "I Wish I Was 18 Again." Don't we all. Tradition and history are the finish on this grand old bar, but you won't see it if you don't go out of your way to find it.