The southern stretch of the Yahara River has a lot of traffic. Test-paddlers from Rutabaga, pleasure boaters and, steaming toward Lake Waubesa, Madison's only nautical food cart: the Barge Restaurant.
If you've driven across the long Beltline bridge over the Yahara on a summer weekend, you may have seen the Barge, down in the water, off to the south. Folks know it around town as the Burger Barge, and it's been feeding hungry lake-goers since 2006. Last year, Daniel Boehnen bought the Barge from Paul and Tracy Howard with his girlfriend, Niki Bruzek, and they've put their stamp on the operation.
Boehnen and Bruzek had a pretty rough go of the floating restaurant business in the opening months. They had to replace the engine, the generator needed repair, and when they tried moving the operation to Lake Mendota, they discovered that the little pontoon couldn't take the big lake's waves nearly as well as Monona's calmer, shallower waters.
"I wasn't going to let a boat beat me," Boehnen says. They made their repairs, settled on an area between Lakes Monona and Waubesa known as "Gilligan's Island" by boating locals, and got cooking. Boehnen runs a construction company during the week, and Bruzek's a grad student working toward a master's in dietetics, so by the time summer weekends roll around, everyone's ready for a nice, relaxing boat ride. That's just as true for the customers.
Boehnen doesn't associate with the restaurant scene in Madison; he's not a member of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. It's not what people are looking for on the water, he says. They're in a good mood and they want their food easy and tasty. Real restaurants, he opines, are a different matter. People there are liable to be "pissed off and hungry...'feed me now!'" He'll have none of that, thank you.
The Barge is ruled by a "keep the customer happy" mentality. Need to call ahead? Go for it (the number is 608-669-8422). Too far down the line of parked boats to walk over to order? The Barge will deliver, usually by foot; yes, the water is that shallow around Gilligan's Island. And if it can be concocted from the various items on the menu, you can order it - no holds barred.
And the menu is ruled by the letters "BLT." Every sandwich and sausage the Barge serves comes with bacon, lettuce and tomato, unless you ask otherwise. That includes the hamburger, the chicken breast, the hot dog and even the PB&J. Simply put: Don't knock it until you've tried it. (The exception to the bacon is the veggie burger. Ordering the veggie burger with bacon is of course allowed, but rather odd.)
The bacon, brats and hot dogs all come from Hoesly's Meats in New Glarus. The bacon is serious, unaffected by pepper or too much smoke. The hot dogs are well seasoned and snappy, and the brats are Italianate in the best way, loaded with fennel seed and just a bit of heat.
By 5:30 p.m. or so, the Gilligan's Island crowd gets a little more...entertaining. "Everybody's had a lot of everything," as Boehnen describes it. The food and bottled water keep those who have been imbibing on relatively level footing, and for the tired and hungry? Energy-drink ice cream floats. They're available in berry and coffee, and they're quite refreshing. You can also go with standard root beer if you want.
Popcorn, soda, nachos and ice cream confections round out the full menu. Diners can pay with cash or credit card, from around 10 a.m. to sunset.
The Barge runs on Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day, as well as special weekday events like holidays. Boehnen and Bruzek are considering a venture over to the Clean Lakes Festival at Olin Park this August. When your restaurant is self-propelled, you can go wherever you want.