Go all in on the butter and cheese with the griddled sandwiches section of the menu.
Over the last couple of years, Madison’s suburbs have witnessed a proliferation of glossy, high-production-value beer-and-burger joints: Headquarters in Oregon; Mr. Brews Taphouse in Waunakee, Middleton and Verona; the 1855 Saloon and Grill in Cottage Grove. Good for Sun Prairie, finally getting in on the action. Willy Ty’s provides comfortable pub food in an area that’s clearly demanding it.
Willie Ty’s closest neighbor is the Sun Prairie Ice Arena, to which the restaurant is actually attached. The next closest is Sun Prairie High School. So the restaurant is already a community presence with built-in family traffic — and is reaping the benefits, if the steady crowd is any indication. Tapping into that young pool for serving staff is a good idea, but the crew out on the floor is very green as a result.
The menu feels as big as Willie Ty’s spacious physical footprint. The specialty is a cheese-stuffed burger that Minnesotans might know as a Jucy Lucy. The basic, here called the Gooey Louie, is indeed very gooey, but bland. The Drunken Mushroom variant is better, with more salt, a more interesting cheese, and red wine-braised mushrooms.
There’s a flavorful herb-marinated chicken breast sandwich, skimpy but with a lot of promise. You don’t expect to see something like the accompanying celery root and apple slaw in this kind of sports bar atmosphere. The brisket sandwich was on point, with good portion size and flavor. What I do wish for is a little fat with my brisket.
However, a whole menu section — griddled cheeses — goes all-in on fat, butter and cheese. These are the brawniest, messiest grilled cheese sandwiches you’ll ever see. Traditional fillings like pesto and turkey are ample enough; mac and cheese with Frank’s hot sauce is just ridiculous, and will make your neighbors stare at your plate as it goes by. But they’re improbably good, and the tomato bisque that comes with the griddled cheese sandwiches (at no extra charge, admirably) is ideally seasoned for the dunking of big sloppy sandwiches.
Willie Ty’s menu is dunk-centric. There are, count ’em, eight different house-made aiolis, and if you’re feeling sporting you can order a sampler of all eight. It’s probably overkill, but there are some winners in there. Roasted garlic, basil and paprika are the three most traditional aiolis, and they’re rich and flavorful. Honey orange zest doesn’t appear to be an aioli at all. The horseradish would be good on that brisket sandwich. Roasted red pepper and sriracha lime are tasty but, like the house-made ranch, too thin.
The thinner sauces make a fine fried food dipping medium, though. Willie Ty’s french fries are thick, with nice contrasting interior and exterior textures, and the batter on the fried cheese curds is crisp and salty, which I like. The best thing about the curds, though, is their startling freshness; nobody’s fried curds squeak more than Willie Ty’s.
As the menu moves farther from its core sandwiches and burgers, some items falter. Fish tacos, not really a starter but on the menu there, straddle the line between hard- and soft-shell and hold up to moisture well, but the tilapia is fishy and overcooked. Avocado hummus came out as avocado puree on pita points, and very little of it.
In-house baking is an admirable pursuit, and the roasted corn and jalapeño cornbread is definitely adorable — little pepper stems top the muffins like elfin caps — but the end product doesn’t quite improve on boxed grocery store cornbread.
The only dessert on the menu is a crumb cake billed as shareable, but to keep this behemoth between two people is still a bit gluttonous. It’s a warm, brick-sized loaf with four scoops of ice cream, way too big and at the same time lacking the crumby, coffee-cake quality its name implies. Damned if we didn’t eat quite a bit of it, though.
Willie Ty’s outdoor patio is spacious, its beer menu respectable, and its kitchen willing to put itself out there. A rotating roster of special soups, flatbreads (think those addictive, sauceless cheese fries you get at bowling alleys, but more composed and on scratch crusts), burgers and griddled cheeses keeps things fresh for regular customers and appealing for newbies. If you want to know the welcoming vibe of a Sun Prairie neighborhood hangout, Willie Ty’s has it.
836 Grove St., Sun Prairie, 608-318-1057, willietys.com, $3-$13, 11:30 a.m.-10 pm Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.