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A juicy steak sizzles on the platter, flickering candlelight bounces off the walls, and the clinking of glasses mingled with hearty laughter echoes throughout the room. There's just nothing quite like a good steakhouse, and the Madison area is blessed with a cadre of strongholds—each raising the bar for the others in an attempt to deliver the best possible dining experience.
"When I hear the dining room laughing and talking, for me, that's the perfect steakhouse," says Chef Shawn Bortz of Wonder Bar Steakhouse. "It brings people together. You're drinking wine, laughing with friends, building relationships, all centered on the simplicity of a stellar piece of meat."
For Bortz, meat quality is first and foremost. He sits down with his distributor every two weeks; together they call the cutters.
"We're extremely picky, we check every single steak," says Bortz. "It's got to pass our grade or it doesn't even come in the door."
Bortz orders twenty-one-day-aged certified Angus beef, then ages it an additional week "so it almost melts when you're cooking it," he says. "The tenderness and flavor are just incredible."
Bortz is most excited about utilizing the Farmers Market to accent Wagyu and prime cuts with local, seasonal produce. Right now the Wonder Bar's most popular steak is a Saturday-night special featuring a whole ribeye that's been wet-aged for forty-five days.
"I get about forty-five cuts out of it and I'm usually sold out by 7 p.m.," says Bortz.
Capitol ChopHouse is well known for its high-end steaks, including the succulent Tenderloin Filet and Wagyu Flat Iron, but it's the local meat that's creating the most buzz lately.
"Grass-fed beef, when cooked properly, has a very good flavor profile," says Executive Chef Craig Summers. "It's a more natural, earthier taste. We normally brush our steaks with a Maître d'Hotel Butter and add our special seasoning, but we don't do that to grass-fed. We really want the natural flavor to come out."
Because of its downtown Madison presence, Summers places a priority on harnessing Madison's unique vibe, buying local as much as possible to create a "Madison flavor." However, ChopHouse still sources the bulk of its steak from the highest-quality Chicago supplier and ages it additional time to bring out the most tenderized raw product. After that, it's butter and seasoning, a piping-hot grill, a single flip, and adequate rest time.
"We want to provide a little of everything, from lean and clean grass-fed to the richest, fattiest, marbled meat possible," says Summers. "Either way, it's top quality."
Although many Madisonians associate The Mariner's Inn with delicious seafood, it started as a steakhouse and continues to earn its reputation as one of the most reliable places to feast on the highest quality steak since 1966. Today, however, The Mariner's Inn is adapting to a growing consumer interest in smaller portion sizes.
"We tend not to be a sky-is-falling, react-to-the-latest-fad type of place," says owner Jack von Rutenberg. "We don't rush into anything. But we've definitely seen a long-term trend, so we've adapted."
Their early bird menu, historically only available on limited days at limited times, has been rebranded and expanded into the Lighter Fare section of the main menu featuring twelve items, including steak. The Tenderloin of Romance is a miniature version of the signature Admiral's Tenderloin, and the popular tenderloin open-face filet is now available in a five-ounce cut.
"Sometimes people just want to eat less, or spend less time, or they're just not in the mood for a traditional dinner," says von Rutenberg. "People are loving the new options."
Steak helps you connect with "your inner Neanderthal" and the Tornado Steakhouse is just the place to help you do so, according to chef and owner Henry Doane.
"It's a real authentic old-Wisconsin experience," says Doane of his low-lit, nostalgic downtown supper club just off the Capitol Square. "Walking in, you feel like you've discovered a special place that transports you back in time to when supper clubs were king."
Reputations are hard-earned, of course, and it takes more than a great location to make a legendary steakhouse. Doane hand-cuts many of his steaks, exercises stringent care over what does and doesn't make the grade, and prepares each steak with care and craftsmanship. Although he serves a killer tenderloin, he encourages guests to try lesser-known cuts such as flank, hanger and skirt. Each cut is different, yet delicious in its own way.
"We understand people are paying a good amount of money and taking time out of their busy lives to eat with us," says Doane. "We always want them to be very happy with their experience."
At Buck & Honey's, a family-friendly steakhouse in Sun Prairie just five minutes from East Towne Mall, owners Tom Anderson and Chris Franks have turned to regional, sustainable farmers producing all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle, such as Niman Ranch and Grass Run Farms.
"Your experience with steak can vary dramatically from restaurant to restaurant. Like anything else, you get what you pay for," says Anderson. "The genetics of the animal plays a very important role in the flavors and textures, as well as nutritional balance of steak."
Anderson asks his patrons to consider medium to medium rare steaks in lieu of medium well and hotter, and Chef Sammy Millan agrees.
"Salt, pepper and a grill," says Millan. "If you've picked a leading restaurant with quality cuts of meat, this is all you need."
"You should never hesitate to talk to your server about anything positive or negative," adds Franks. "The great restaurants are built with teams that care deeply about your experience, and appreciate opportunities to hear about your visit."
At a time when "farm-to-fork" is soaring in popularity, Delaney's takes the concept to the next level—Chef Jerry Kohls is the farmer. Every morning, on his way to work, Kohls stops in his garden and harvests homegrown produce to pair with his famous charcoal steaks that night, from greens to root vegetables to tomatoes.
"It's my baby," says Kohls, who also frequents area farmers' markets and nurtures relationships with local farmers, including those raising grass-fed cattle. "We're able to source locally as much as possible."
Delaney's is celebrating forty years in Madison this fall, a milestone due in large part to its reputation for serving expertly prepared top-quality steaks.
"We have a highly skilled meat cutter on our staff and cut almost all our steaks on premises to make sure customers only receive the absolute best quality," says co-owner Dan Delaney.
"Our restaurant is warm and welcoming, and our location is filled with tradition and the feel of a family establishment," adds co-owner Jim Delaney, Jr. "You won't experience a corporate or manufactured feel. We share our family history with all of our guests to make sure the ambiance is comfortable, yet special."
Few things create as much conviviality and camaraderie as a steakhouse—except, perhaps, gathering around the backyard grill. At Prime Quarter Steakhouse, general partner Al Sanger has combined the best of both worlds for more than twenty-seven years. Guests belly up to six-by-twelve-foot masonry charcoal grills to prepare their own USDA Choice and Prime cuts. Grill chefs are on hand to assist, and for $2 extra they'll even grill your selection for you, if you wish. Most people choose to grill their own steaks yet still receive full treatment from wait staff, who dole out drinks and education on all things steak-related.
Sanger uses the buying power of four locations (Madison, Green Bay, Janesville and Princeton, Illinois) to provide high-quality meat that's too expensive at the grocery store, if it's even available there. The absence of a chef and kitchen staff keeps costs low, as does cutting and aging his own meat.
"We are able to put out a phenomenally great USDA Choice product at reasonable prices because of our unique concept," says Sanger.
The Beachhouse, located in McFarland just a few minutes off the Beltline, is one of only a handful of Madison-area restaurants with true lakeside dining. For Albie Wheeler, general manager and owner's son, it feels a bit like dining in paradise.
"It's a small town feel with big city flavor and the very best sunsets, only one hundred feet from Lake Waubesa," says Wheeler. "It's so different from a big chain. Everybody is always running into someone they know. And you can pretend you're just about anywhere when you're that close to the water, watching those sunsets."
Wheeler's strongest bit of advice when it comes to steak is a warning about taking shortcuts. "If you insist upon well-done, he says, make sure your chef cooks it long and slow to preserve those juices."
"It's okay to order well-done, but then let it take the time it needs. And don't use a steak press [because] you'll squeeze everything out," says Wheeler. "Let it cook, take its time, and hold its flavor."