On a recent trip up through Wisconsin, I was having a particularly hard time with restaurants of choice. One evening in LaCrosse, I had hoped to eat at a Cajun restaurant in the downtown area. But when I walked in, it was dark and empty. A guy came up from the back and I said, "Are you open?"
He said, "The power's out. We lost our power about an hour ago and there's no telling when it will come back on. Power's out all over downtown." Well, that pretty much put a kibosh on my second and third option for eating in downtown LaCrosse that evening, so I ended up at a Buffalo Wild Wings near my hotel. As you probably know, my number one rule while traveling is to never eat at a chain - especially a chain that I can eat at while I'm home. But of all the chains, I do like BW3 pretty well.
A couple days later on a trip between Green Bay and Milwaukee, I stopped into Port Washington, WI anticipating a great dinner at Smith Brothers Fish Shanty. As I pulled up in front of the restaurant I looked inside and saw an empty shell. It turns out Smith Brothers Fish Shanty had gone out of business about three years ago. Could it be that long since I'd last been there? I guess it had.
I then pulled out my list of places that were given to me by Bob and Casey Kelly as to recommendations of Milwaukee eateries they gave their wedding guests last year. I found a place on the near north side of Milwaukee called Pizza Man, a great little pizza place that was highly recommended by Milwaukee native Casey. As I pulled up in front of where my GPS directed me to Pizza Man, I encountered an empty lot. No Pizza Man. No building. Nothing. I found out the next day that Pizza Man had suffered a horrible fire in January of this year. They had to tear the building down and at last report were still looking to re-open at another location.
So, with that sort of luck that week I thought I'd just go to my hotel in downtown Milwaukee, check in and head over to the always good and always reliable Mader's German restaurant for dinner that evening on historic N. Old World 3rd St. a block from the Bradley Center (see map).
Mader's is probably the best known German restaurant in a city that has some world class German restaurants. In fact, at one point Mader's was voted the most famous German restaurant in the United States. Since 1902, Mader's has been serving up some of the best German cuisine anywhere. It wasn't until Prohibition hit in 1919 that founder Charles Mader put more of an emphasis on food. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Mader's was the first place to serve beer in Beer City USA.
Charles Mader's sons, Gustave and George, took over the restaurant after the death of their father in 1938. When World War II came around, the Mader brothers de-emphasized the German concept to the restaurant, but that didn't hurt their overall business.
In the late 50's, George Mader passed away and Gus took over the full operation of Mader's. In 1961, Gus' son, Victor, enrolled in the restaurant management program at Michigan State University. After graduation, Victor traveled Europe and learned first hand about the German cuisine his grandfather's homeland offered. In 1964, Victor came back to work in the family business. Victor continues to run the business today.
In the mid-70's, Victor Mader, along with his wife, Wendy, began to accumulate a number of artifacts and artwork dating back to the late medieval period of history. Over the past 30 plus years, the Mader's have collected everything from suits of armor, weapons, statues and artwork to display at the restaurant. Today, Mader's has over $3 million dollars worth of antiques and art on display throughout the restaurant.
Also, Mader's has the distinction of being one of the world's largest dealers for Hummel figurines and authentic German-made decorative collectible beer steins. Their second floor is home to their gift shop that houses these large collections. However, Mader's will also set up a small shop to sell steins and figurines at Summerfest each year.
It was about 8:30 when I got into Mader's. While there's a number of places to park in a parking garage near the restaurant, Mader's also has a large valet parking lot with a covered area that allows customers to stay dry as they get out of their vehicles.
The dining room was about half full when I checked in with the hostess. I noticed that nary a person was in the bar area - the Knights Bar. I asked if I could sit in there and the hostess led me to the bar and dropped off a menu for me to look through. The female bartender, dressed in a German style dress with black tights - same as the waitress' attire - asked me if I wanted something to drink. I took a quick look to see what they had to offer on tap and saw Spaten Oktoberfest. Spaten now makes their Oktoberfest available year round. And I do like their Oktoberfest.
When she brought me my stein of beer, she also brought me a basket of Mader's famous onion rolls. These light, fluffy and soft rolls are just addicting. I devoured both rolls almost right away, they were so good. The taste sensation of the rolls brought back memories of my previous visits to Mader's.
It had been quite sometime since I'd last been in Mader's. I'm trying to think the exact last time, but I think it was on my first trip to Milwaukee with my present company nearly 8 years ago. My first trip to Mader's was a memorable one - I rode up from Chicago after the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1988 (back when there used to be a Summer C.E.S. in Chicago) with my then boss and a dealer of his and his wife. The dealer was based in St. Louis but had grown up in Milwaukee and had always been raving about how great the food was at Mader's. I believe I had the sauerbrauten that time and I remember it being just excellent.
I believe I had the weiner schnitzel on my last visit, so I was looking at something else to get that evening. I had talked to my cousin who used to live in Milwaukee earlier in the evening to inform him of Smith Brothers Fish Shanty closing down and I told him that I was just going to cut my losses in trying to find a new place that night and just go over to Mader's. He said, "I do like their Hungarian goulash a lot."
Mader's Hungarian Beef Goulash starts with braised sirloin tips cooked in a sauce with Hungarian paprika (Mader's gets their spices from The Spice House, whose original location is just a couple three doors down from the restaurant), and caramelized onions in a rich brown sauce. It's served over homemade spaetzel and served with a side of spinach.
I had also looked at getting Mader's Sauerbraten again - they marinate the beef for 10 days and oven roasted. It's then topped with a Bavarian ginger sauce. Oh, man. That just sounds great!
I was so torn between a number of items including Mader's Bavarian Sausage Platter - they have a simmered knackwurst and a grilled bratwurst with a slice of Mader's Kassler Rippchen (smoked pork chop) and a side of sauerkraut and a potato dumpling. (Mader's is also located literally across the street from Usinger's - my favorite sausage maker on this planet. Usinger's provides Mader's with their sausages.) Plus, the Beef and Mushroom Strudel - marinated beef sauerbraten with grilled onions, sauteed mushrooms and smoked ham added into a rolled up pastry and baked with cheese, then topped Mader's Bavarian brown ginger sauce.
Oh, man - I've got to quit writing this blog on an empty stomach. My gut is literally doing jumping-jacks right now.
I took the cue from my cousin - I ended up getting the Hungarian beef goulash. And I'm glad I did. It was just superb. The braised sirloin tips were very, very tender. The paprika and onion sauce was just absolutely fabulous, as well. I didn't get much of a hint of paprika - I would have used more in the sauce - but that was fine with me. The spaetzel was very good, as well. The little bit of spinach on top of the beef sauce was sort of limp and lifeless, both in presentation and taste. But there was no doubt about the Hungarian goulash. It was just fabulous.
Of course, I had another onion roll with dinner and I had to have a couple more beers before I left. With a nice tip for the waitress/bartender, it came to around $50 bucks for dinner at Mader's - not a cheap place to eat by any means. But when you're heralded as being the best German restaurant in not only Milwaukee, but in the U.S., I suppose you can get a premium price for your meals.
I still think Kegel's Inn in West Milwaukee (a place I've visited many times in the past, but for some reason I don't have an entry on Kegel's on Road Tips) is a better value than Mader's. And there are some locals who feel Karl Ratzsch's has better German/Bavarian food than Mader's. I'll have to try that place some day. I'll be in Milwaukee a lot over the next few months and I'll have to give those places a try and report back. But they'll have to really bring their "A" game if they're going to beat Mader's.