Dec 15, 2015

A commoner dines (and drinks) at the Old Fashioned, Madison, Wis.

One of the first places my new job sent me was Madison, Wis., and one of the first places I discovered after working hours was the Old Fashioned.  Given Wisconsin’s rich traditions of supper clubs and taverns that celebrate beer, cheese, sausage and fish frys, I couldn’t have chosen a better starting point.  

With its location in the heart of downtown, in an older building on the square that surrounds the state capitol, you’d think -- like me -- that the Old Fashioned has been a food and drink destination for all walks of life in Madison for generations.  But the reality is the Old Fashioned was established in 2005.  I think I have socks older than this place.  Nonetheless, it seems to do old-school Wisconsin very well, and it seems to always draw a diverse crowd, from suits to students, singles to families, blue collar to politicos.   

So, the Old Fashioned’s atmosphere and reputation was enough to draw me and my co-workers there to check it out.  And the quest to find the best cheese curds in town.  And the quest for good local beer.

That beer quest began, of course, at the Old Fashioned’s bar which, appropriately is a long one stretching nearly from the check-in station to the kitchen doors.  We found one of the few spare seats, as the crowd continued to shuffle in and claim spots, and dissected the vast beer menu which hangs above the bar.  

As much as I appreciated the love for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Old Milwaukee, I opted for a lesser known Wisconsin brew … the Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing Co. (it was destined to NOT be my last while in Madison).  I followed that up with a Cave Amber Ale from even lesser known Potosi Brewing Co.  Both were delicious.  

Having 50-plus beers on tap and reportedly a hundred more bottled beers available is impressive, but the place is called the Old Fashioned for a reason after all.  It is their signature drink and, as I quickly learned, a brandy old fashioned has been the longtime go-to cocktail of choice for Wisconsin residents.  

Fortunately, the Old Fashioned provides a sizable drink menu to help customers navigate through all of their drinking options, including five recipes for old fashioneds.  We felt it was our duty to at least try three of them (and share, of course … it was a worknight).  The brandy version was excellent as expected, but the traditional bourbon old fashioned was every bit as tasty (and strong), and surprisingly the orange rum old fashioned held its own with the others.  I may have actually liked the orange rum version best, but I make no apologies for my love of rum.  

I should also add the bartenders at the Old Fashioned were extremely friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.  They knew their extensive beer menu, were willing to take time to ask questions to get to know what style you might prefer and allowed you to sample a snort before you bought a glass.  And, clearly, they knew how to muddle everything just right when making a proper old fashioned.

The food menu is every bit as influenced by traditional Wisconsin tastes as the drink menu.  For appetizers, you can choose something as expansive as one of their meat and cheese appetizer trays (I was sold on the prospect of deviled eggs or braunschweiger) or go with the cheese curds like we did.  Dipped in Wisconsin beer batter and fried just right, these cheddar curds come served with ranch dressing and appropriately release a tiny squeak when you bite into them.  They didn’t last long at our table -- not even long enough for me to get a picture. Once we were finished with them, we knew the gauntlet had been thrown, and it would hard to find another place in town to top the Old Fashioned's cheese curds.

This photo simply does not do this soup justice.
I did, however, think to take a photo before I delved into the soup of the day which I ordered -- a wonderfully fresh corn chowder made with nearby farm fresh vegetables.  This was a real unexpected treasure!

Perch perched perfectly on the plate.
I was a little worried I wouldn’t have room for the nightly special I ordered -- the lake perch fish fry.  Honestly, how could I spend any time in Wisconsin without enjoying some fresh, local fried fish?  And these filets were outstanding.  There was a nice crunch on the batter, fish that flaked apart with every bits, an excellent tangy lemon caper tartar sauce to complement the fish, and the poppyseed cole slaw and rye bread completed an excellent dining experience.  (OK, the fries were just fries, but I won’t hold that against them.)

I enjoyed my trip to the Old Fashioned so much, in fact, that it was one of the few places I visited again while working in Madison.  (P.S., try the summer sausage sandwich and Green Bay chili, too!)  It will definitely stay on my short list of places for food and drink there.  

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