Spotlight on steakhouses
Madison-area steakhouses are as varied, plentiful and delectable as cuts of meat.
For sizzling steak that wows every time, check out these local hotspots.
Johnny Delmonico’s Johnny Delmonico’s has long been lauded for its exceptional steaks; Certified Angus, Midwestern corn-fed beef, expertly prepared and delivered with top-notch service by a highly professional, tenured, warm and inviting staff. But a recent evolution has the restaurant’s managing partner, Thomas Ray, especially excited—in addition to bringing on new general manager and sommelier Talish Barrow, executive chef Jon Jerabek has joined the Delmonico’s team after eight years at Fresco, bringing with him a passion for high-quality beef and a “steak and potatoes” background gleaned from his northern Wisconsin roots.
“We’ve been having a lot of fun adding dry-aged steaks from a Darlington farm,” says Ray, noting that Jerabek is especially skilled at a dual-style cooking method combining classic flame and a 1,300-degree infrared broiler to create the ultimate sear, ensuring tender, juicy steaks every time. Attention to detail and a generous, down-to-earth spirit are also hallmarks of dining at Delmonico’s.
“It’s one thing to have a perfectly cooked meal,” says Ray, “but I think it’s the service that ultimately sets us apart as an elevated dining experience.”
The Mariner’s Inn Juicy, flavorful tenderloin is a crowd-pleaser for a reason, and The Mariner’s Inn prepares this particular steak in myriad different ways. Perhaps you want to feast on a six-or eight-ounce center-cut dinner. Maybe you prefer a petite five-ounce fillet, or even a trio of three-ounce medallions. It could be that you’re feeling like eating light, so you go with the two-piece medallions off the Lighter Fare menu. Mix and match cuts with enhancers, such as caramelized onions, bernaise sauce or bleu cheese, and that same top-quality tenderloin can taste differently delicious with every visit.
“We’ve been famous for steaks since 1966,” says Jack von Rutenberg, whose family has perfected the art of sourcing high-end grades and cuts, skillful preparation, high-level service and unique dining atmospheres with The Mariner’s Inn, Captain Bill’s and Nau-ti-gal. Whether it’s a hearty bone-in ribeye feast or one of eleven options on the ever-popular Lighter Fare menu (five of which are steak), “our niche is top-quality beef with personal-touch service at a price that’s half the high-end national chains,” he says.
Smoky’s Club Smoky’s Club is more than just Madison’s oldest steakhouse, it’s also the quintessential family supper club—even featured in two recent books and
a new film.
“We’re one of the last locally owned supper clubs, one of the few left in southern Wisconsin,” says Larry Schmock. He and his brother Tom Schmock are the second-generation owners of Smoky’s; they have four sons between them, and all work in the restaurant. Factor in the dedicated longevity of the wait staff and the
highly loyal, regular customers (often multigenerational themselves), and
the festive, family feel is palpable.
“You can have the best product in the world but you can’t make it work without the people,” says Schmock of the top-quality, well-aged, sizzling, steel-grilled steaks, the famous secret-recipe homemade hashed browns, and other supper club staples like pickled beets, cottage cheese, relish crock, garlic toast, and the bar’s famous martini club.
“We understand evolving, but our mission has always been to do what we do well, not to become something else,” says Schmock. “When it comes to great steak, we believe we’ve got that down.”
Bonfyre American Grille If the steak at Bonfyre American Grille seems especially delicious but you’re not sure why, just ask.
“Our wait staff is highly trained on every bit of the steak process, from the hand-carved cuts our chefs select, weigh and trim each morning to the wood-fire grill cooking, prepared precisely to your taste,” says manager Ashley McGrail. “It’s an art form and we’re here to answer any questions you have because we are really passionate and we care.”
Bonfyre’s main provider for all-natural, hormone-free, organic beef is Neesvig Meats, Wisconsin’s oldest food-service purveyor of fine meats and the state’s first Certified Angus Beef distributor. New this year, Bonfyre has transitioned its burgers to 100 percent grass-fed, hormone-free beef as well, and the majority of cattle used will now come from Wisconsin. While the high-quality beef provides the critical start, it’s the wood-fire grill that gives Bonfyre steaks their unique flavor.
“We use our own special seasonings but we don’t actually add much because the wood fire brings out that smokiness and tenderness,” says McGrail. “It’s the reason why people have voted us best steaks in town.”
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse Locally owned Ruth’s Chris Steak House has a reputation for serving the best steaks in town. However, the real secret to its success is just serving good old-fashioned comfort food.
“That’s all we really are, just meat and potatoes,” says general manager Lee Drapp of the highly regarded steakhouse franchise, now in its fiftieth year nationwide. “Meat and potatoes, homemade desserts, and a terrific wine list. That’s what’s made us a great success story.”
That story, born of humble beginnings by Louisiana single mom Ruth Fertile in 1965, has been carried through to Madison by the community-minded Livesey family and UW Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez, who are co-owners. It’s embodied by the staff, who are hired as much for their heart as their skill and professionalism, and it’s told with every bite of the USDA Prime, grain-fed, Midwest Beef, the top two-percent of all beef made.
“We deliver our incredible steaks on a sizzling 500-degree plate,” says Drapp. “Whether you’re working late, celebrating an event, having a romantic date night or just stopping in for drinks, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is a wonderful restaurant to enjoy.”
Rare Steakhouse In its whirlwind first year, Rare Steakhouse‘s Jack Sosnowski says the reality has lived up to his vision in every way, and then some.
“People are really loving the concept, really loving the space,” says Sosnowski of the epic steakhouse on the capitol square with more than three miles of mahogany trim, handcrafted booths, and a 4,000 bottle temperature-controlled wine cellar, inspired by Sosnowski’s scouting of upscale big-city steakhouses. Rare has already earned a 2015 Diner’s Choice Award and been noted on the Open Table Top 100 Wine Lists in the U.S.
“When guests visit Rare Steakhouse they feel they’re dining in a restaurant that has been around for fifty years; that is exactly what we were going for with the design,” says Sosnowski. “We wanted it to feel like a New York-style steakhouse that’s been around since the 1940s, and it seems we’ve accomplished that.”
Rare serves only dry-aged Allen Brothers steaks. And, although seasonal items keep the menu fresh and evolving, one thing remains untouched.
“Our personal service and delectable food speak for themselves,” says Sosnowski, “and that is what we are most proud of.”
Conscious Carnivore For those looking to cook their own delicious steaks at home, Conscious Carnivore is a locally owned, locally sourced, whole-animal butcher shop striving to provide its customers with an ethical product and a critical education—both of which are in high demand today.
“If the animal is not happy, the word ‘local’ means nothing to me,” says master butcher Dave Gathy, who has trained in the art of whole-animal butchery since the age of sixteen, including formally at Paulina Meat Market of Chicago. “Everything that comes in this store is locally sourced, with no hormones or antibiotics, no pesticides in the feeds or grass or pastures, and humanely slaughtered, one by one, at an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) slaughterhouse.”
In addition to whole-animal butchery, Gathy dry ages the beef in-house for forty days, which breaks down the fibers and brings everything closer together, resulting in beefier, more flavorful steaks.
“It takes a little bit more sweat, a little bit more strength, and obviously a whole lot of skill,” says Gathy, “but I’m very passionate about it.”