Finding the Edgewater’s lake-level Boathouse is half the fun.
Heading west, Wisconsin Avenue ascends before reaching the Edgewater Hotel, which holds a commanding perch high above Lake Mendota. Then the intrepid traveler needs to go by foot, down, down, down many flights of stairs — past the spa, past guest room levels, all the way to the lake. From street level, you’d never guess there was a restaurant nestled below.
The Boathouse Bar is far easier to discern when approaching it on a boat from the lake than it is from the State Capitol (just a 10-minute walk away) or even from neighboring Langdon Street.
The adage “out of sight, out of mind” is often too true in the restaurant business, where a location just a block away from a main thoroughfare can spell doom.
Yet some dining spots not only manage to make a go of their out-of-the-way locations but thrive on them, whether due to lower rents or a certain mystique conveyed when people can find them at all.
Let’s map out a few, shall we?
Returning to The Boathouse, the journey down those steps is part of a psychological break with downtown Madison that takes the diner miles away without having traveled anywhere at all.
The nautical-themed bar and dining room feels so tucked away that you may be as surprised to run into a co-worker or neighbor there as you would be to encounter them in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.
Pretend you’re in those places by ordering the fish tacos, blackened cod with a pineapple chipotle salsa, or head to the East Coast with a Maryland crab cake, or further up the coast with the New England clam chowder, studded with tender clams.
Note: The Boathouse is currently closed, but will reopen in time for warm-weather lakeside dining and scenery-gazing.
Much harder to find, but also hidden in the midst of city activity on the UW-Madison campus, is the Badger Alley Bistro. Never heard of it? Not surprising.
This campus food stop caters to athletes (but is open to all) and is found by the dedicated searcher in the far recesses underneath Camp Randall Stadium. Even a student checking IDs at the Camp Randall Sports Center (aka “The Shell”) next door hadn’t heard of it.
Aim for a gap between the Shell and the stadium (near gate two) and head back, back, back until you see a set of red double doors on your left. Open them and find a breakfast, lunch and dinner outlet where every dish is designed to be healthy and nutritious. Each has its calories, protein and fat broken out right on the menu board. And, it’s all very inexpensive. For breakfast, try steel-cut oatmeal with almonds, Craisins and brown sugar (just $2) or a Southwestern scrambled egg, black bean and salsa power bowl ($3). Burritos, sandwiches, melts and wraps — nothing costs more than $4.50 or has more than 595 calories. That’s the Bucky sandwich, by the way, a sub by any other name but served on ciabatta bread.
Still, the most rewarding part of the Badger Alley Bistro experience may be in finding the place. And that is quite exhilarating.
The urban-industrial vibe suits Karben4’s taphouse on the Truax side of the airport.
Breweries are not always on the beaten path, but when there’s a tap room involved (and one that has a tempting menu at that), they’re often in a more populated area than is Karben4. Located in a business park on the Truax side of the airport just off Stoughton Road, Karben4’s closest neighbors are a medical lab and a mattress warehouse.
The taproom fits right in to that scene, though, with poured concrete floors and plenty of brewing activity going on. But the mood is brightened with board games and brightly colored original art on the walls. It all feels like a gender-neutral mancave getaway with very fresh beer.
Try a flight of different available brews (build your own from the six or seven taps) and nosh on an apple bacon flatbread pizza, topped with fresh spinach. Sunday brunch at the brewery can feel like an even more well-kept secret. Try the gooey Monte Cristo sandwich with fried egg.
Not that this is a contest, but perhaps the spot you would least imagine for a restaurant is in another business park across town, this time behind the AMC Fitchburg Cinemas, near the massive Sub-Zero plant and adjoining Hybrid Athletic Club.
This is the home of Fit Fresh Cuisine, a gleaming, lab-white open kitchen temple to healthy eating that offers weekly meal plans designed to boost physical performance. In addition to serving as a meal pick-up point, the Commerce Park Drive location is also home to a small cafe where you can order smoothies, acai bowls, scrambles, sandwiches, salads, flatbreads and sandwiches to eat in or to go.
The Cowboy Scramble is a delicious bowl of New Century Farm eggs, roasted potatoes, Neesvig’s breakfast sausage and Hook’s two-year cheddar; it’s luxurious without inducing guilt (at 417 calories). The Energizer sandwich is another favorite, with ham set off with a sweet mango chutney, arugula and chevre and mustard providing a little extra zing. The vegetarian Nosh sandwich does a nice job, too, with arugula, pickled beets and chevre, with more crunch coming from carrot and cucumber.
On the residential edge of Waunakee...barbecue, from Blowin’ Smoke.
Blowin’ Smoke Barbecue is located in Waunakee. But not where most of Waunakee’s businesses cluster, at the heart-and-center intersection of highways 113 and Q.
Blowin’ Smoke is actually closer to Madison’s north side, just off 113 on Arboretum Drive and then a quick turn on Montondon Avenue. If you look it up on Google Maps, it seems like it must be a mistake, plunked down in what looks to be the middle of a suburban neighborhood. You wouldn’t be far off; the small office building/commercial site where Blowin’ Smoke makes its home also hosts a bank, but there are suburban houses right across the street.
That homey feeling extends to the inside of the restaurant, where pitmaster and proprietor Robert Bishop is likely to be on hand. The club house-like dining room is extended by a spacious outdoor patio. There, in summer, you can watch blazing orange and pink prairie sunsets with a beer and Blowin’ Smoke’s famous burnt ends and sweet potato fries. Who needs the beaten path?