13 Madison steakhouses with major chops

These spots have classic cuts and delicious sides

The difference between a steakhouse and a supper club can be hard to spot. To be sure, a single entree, prepared to perfection, takes precedence over the Friday night fish fry, the size of the salad bar and everything else. The steakhouse also has a longer history. Steak is admired all over the world and is often prized as the ultimate dining experience. In this country its roots are in the 18th-century chophouses, which, like their English counterparts were taverns that prepared mutton and lamb chops, kidneys and beefsteaks. It was in New York City at the turn of the last century that the modern steakhouse was born. Many pioneers like Old Homestead, Peter Luger’s and Keen’s are still in business today. They get credit for propagating standard sides like shrimp cocktail, wedge salad, hash browns and creamed spinach. Besides famous chains, including Ruth’s Chris Steak House that originated in New Orleans and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar from Newport Beach, California, the Madison area boasts many homegrown establishments that know a thing or two about steak.

Capitol Chophouse
9 E. Wilson St., 255-0165
Hotel dining rooms too often are noted for indifferent service, bland food and lack of local flavor. Attached to the Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, Capitol ChopHouse suffers from none of these faults. It has clearly earned its reputation as a respected downtown steakhouse, embraced by townies and tourists alike. Featured are dry-aged cuts of Linz Heritage beef, served with mâitre d’hôtel butter or a selection of extravagant upgrades. The menu relies on standard steakhouse fare, but also takes advantage of locally sourced ingredients. The ChopHouse Salad is a resuscitated rendition of chopped salad and crispy Brussels sprouts a satisfying side
dish as you’ll ever find. $$$$

800 Wisconsin Dells Parkway, Wisconsin Dells, 608-253-1861
In 1943, Jim and Alice Wimmer’s goal was to make the Del-Bar an exceptional and stylish dining experience, something the second generation of the family remains committed to today. There are many reasons to come,
not least of all the custom-aged USDA Prime steaks. The surf-and-turf concept is alive and well here, whereby hefty steaks can be further adorned with a lobster tail, king crab legs or jumbo shrimp. Obligatory, though, is the spinach salad with a warm bacon dressing with a hint of sweetness. Another delightfully delicious anachronism is the strawberry schaum torte. $$$$

Delaney’s Steaks and Seafood
449 Grand Canyon Drive, 833-7337
With his steakhouse’s opening in 1973, the late Jim Delaney realized a lifelong dream. The contemporary but cozy steakhouse grew up with the far west side and is now operated by his kids. Notable are a 16-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak with truffle butter and a specially priced, smoked and bacon-wrapped filet on Monday and Tuesday nights. Listed among the more predictable steaks is a grass-fed Piedmontese top sirloin. Soup or salad and house-baked sourdough bread come with all entrees. The baked sweet potato with honey and walnut butter is a welcome break from convention. $$$$

Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse
130 S. Pinckney St., 257-8325
When it opened in 2001, it was the most ambitious and upmarket undertaking by Food Fight to date. Since then, it has matured into a destination where groups celebrate life’s big moments or couples share a romantic evening. Delmonico’s features both dry-aged and wet-aged USDA Choice Angus steaks that come with the house sauce or the option of several other preparations. A monthly event is Cab & Slab, which pairs a powerhouse wine with an equally impressive cut of beef for a set price. The bar features one of the best selections of single-malt scotch in town. $$$$ BOM

Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse
8390 Market St., Middleton, 831-3705
A regional franchise that began in Des Moines, Iowa, Johnny’s now has 11 locations, including one in Middleton. The charbroiled steaks come smothered, marinated or encrusted, but all are accompanied by the house salad served family style. Not surprisingly, the selection of pasta rivals the cuts of meat, including the baroque Johnny’s Chanel No. 5–lobster, shrimp, artichokes and prosciutto tossed with cheese ravioli and garlic cream sauce. Specialty appetizers include the ever-popular Johnny’s toasted ravioli and zucchini fries. My guess is Frank Sinatra would have loved this place. $$$$

Hi Point Steakhouse
6900 County Road HHH, Ridgeway, 608-924-2819
It is a phoenix perched atop a hill in rural Iowa County. Despite numerous devastating fires, after 80 years it survives as a cherished fixture on the local dining landscape. Aged, USDA Choice Black Angus steaks are charbroiled and come with salad bar, choice of potato and garlic bread. Favorites are the 18-ounce porterhouse and 8-ounce fillet. For many of its loyal patrons, however, dinner would be incomplete without an order of garlicky shrimp de Jonghe. Small-town prices and friendly service make for many happy returns. $$$

Mariner’s Inn
5339 Lighthouse Bay Drive, 246-3120
This one is perhaps more supper club than steakhouse, but Mariner’s Inn’s slogan is “Famous for steaks since 1966.” Inarguably, it’s a Madison dining landmark. When Bill and Betty Von Rutenberg opened it 50 years ago, there wasn’t another place quite like it, and even today it boasts an unrivaled lakeside setting. Sons Jack, Bill and Robert carry on the family tradition of hospitality. Specialties include one of the largest shrimp cocktails in town–16 shrimp–hash browns served family style and its pride and joy, clam chowder. Steaks are hand cut and aged by Neesvig’s, a local meat purveyor founded by Betty’s family in 1913. $$$$

Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint
500 Pleasant St., Beloit, 608-313-0700
Named after Merrill & Houston Iron Works, which began operation in 1858, this steak joint shares a renovated building with the Ironworks Hotel. Oodles of wood, leather and exposed brick combined with photographs documenting Beloit’s industrial past create a rustic but refined atmosphere. The food is thoroughly up to date, with selection and quality worthy of a big-city steak house. Steaks include a garnish of mushrooms and crispy onions (but other toppings and add-ons are available), soup or salad, and garlic mashed or au gratin potatoes. The mostly American wine list is as serendipitous as everything else. $$$$

Rare Steakhouse
14 W. Mifflin St., 204-9000
It aims to emulate that big-city steakhouse ambiance. Dark wood and tufted red leather banquettes dominate a dining room where gilded frame portraits of bigwigs from the past watch over diners and white-jacketed waiters. USDA Prime steaks are absolutely the best–from Allen Brothers in Chicago, aged in-house and cooked under an 1,800-degree infrared broiler. Caesar salad prepared tableside, lobster bisque and classic sides only hint at the sundry scrumptious à la carte possibilities. Noteworthy are the pan-seared foie gras and pork belly as well as Brussels sprouts with Nueske’s bacon and cipollini onions. The wine list is just as lavish and luxurious as everything else. $$$$ BOM

Rubb’s Steakhouse
4124 River Road, Wisconsin Dells, 608-253-1818
There’s no shortage of places to enjoy steak in the Dells, but this one is a bit off the beaten path and a bit out of the ordinary, located at the rustic Silver Spruce Resort. The focus of this casual restaurant is on seasoning. All the grilled meats are enhanced with one of 10 eclectic spice blends. Steaks come in all sizes, from a 5-ounce sirloin to a 20-ounce porterhouse. There are also kabobs that you order by the skewer. Rolls and a choice of two sides (including superb twice-baked potatoes) supplement most meals. Rubb’s is definitely a real find and a bargain to boot. $$$$

Smoky’s Club
3005 University Ave., 233-2120
This old-timer continues to sizzle just like its steaks. No doubt, its funky decor, disregard for trends and family ownership contribute to its longevity. But the main draw–making it often packed to the rafters on weekends–continues to be steak: thick and juicy, presented spluttering on a red-hot metal platter. Remarkably, dinner still comes with a relish tray, soup AND salad plus hash browns or fries (although passing up the hash browns would be heresy). Janet Schmock’s famous pickled beets and seasoned cottage cheese are no longer included but are available as appetizers. An ice cream drink for dessert should further satisfy anyone’s appetite for nostalgia. $$$$

Tornado Steakhouse
116 S. Hamilton St., 256-3570
It’s simply perfect. The decor is delightfully outdated, the service genuinely attentive and the food and drink impeccably prepared. It would be hard to go wrong with any of the steaks–though I gravitate toward the filet au poivre, made with a lick-the-plate mushroom and cognac sauce. Old standards like shrimp cocktail, wedge salad with French Roquefort, and hash browns here are as good as they get, and the coquilles Saint Jacques are truly inspired. A lagniappe is the late-night menu served in the bar every night after 10 p.m. and in the Corral Room on weekends after 9 p.m. $$$$ BOM

The Wonder Bar Steakhouse
222 E. Olin Ave., 256-9430
Eddie’s Wonder Bar was a speakeasy opened by a Chicago mobster in 1929. Several changes of ownership, a couple of supper clubs and even a cigar bar followed. In 2009, it undertook its most audacious incarnation yet when it reopened as the swank Wonder Bar Steakhouse. The ambience is set with crisp white linen and sparkling crystal. The classic steakhouse menu features big slabs of top-notch beef with the option of sumptuous treatments like bearnaise and Gorgonzola cheese sauces. Hash browns are faultless, but the more unorthodox mashed potatoes are simply divine. And a bowl of the crab bisque is a must. $$$$

BOM – Best of Madison winner
$ < $10 $$ $11-$15
$$$ $16-$25 $$$$ $26+
(price indicates cost of dinner entree)

Taking the heat

Many steak houses once favored cooking steaks over charcoal because of its high heat, but not so much anymore. It presented problems like the ash and carbon dioxide this process produces. More commonly used in the food service industry today is the charbroiler. As with the backyard gas grill, gas burners cook the food on grates covering lava rocks or ceramic briquettes that diffuse the heat.

Another common steak cooking tool is the salamander. Similar to how you would use a broiler in a home stove but without a door, it cooks food under a gas flame or electric element. Unique to many steak houses is the high-heat infrared oven that cooks the top and bottom of the steak at the same time. It affords more control and accuracy than any other method without imparting that gas taste that can come from gas grills.

Skillets and pans are often used to cook steak as well. In the French method, the meat is sauteed in a little butter over high heat and served with a reduction sauce made in the cooking pan. Another cooking technique is to quickly sear the steak in a very hot skillet and then transfer the skillet to a 400-degree oven to finish cooking.

Grading and aging

When it comes to describing the quality of meat, the words “choice” and “prime” are bandied about, as in “choice cut” or “prime rib.” However, as far as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is concerned, the meanings of these words are quite specific. Government beef inspectors use three parameters for grading: tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Accordingly, beef is assigned one of eight different rankings. Most of the steaks served at better restaurants fall into one of the top two categories: USDA Choice or USDA Prime. Prime is the top category and will have more marbling–the intermingling of fat within the lean meat that makes it more flavorful. Naturally, USDA Prime is the most expensive and much of it ends up at the best steakhouses. Certain breeds of cattle, notably the Angus and Waygū, are prized for their highly marbled meat. Most cattle are grain fed; however, recently the demand for grass-fed beef has skyrocketed. Not only is it lower in fat, but many prefer its more robust meaty flavor.

All fresh beef is aged for a few days to allow naturally found enzymes to break down, resulting in improved texture and flavor. Upscale meat purveyors and steakhouses naturally tenderize their streaks with further aging by one of two methods. Dry-aged beef is usually primal cuts–strip loins, rib-eye steaks and sirloins–placed in special climate-controlled coolers for several weeks before they’re trimmed and cut into steaks. Wet-aged beef is left in a vacuum-sealed bag and refrigerated for several weeks. Which method is better is largely a matter of personal taste. Some find the flavor of dry-aged steaks somewhat nutty or compare it to that of aged cheese, while others find it downright funky.