I had an evening training session for one of my dealers in Madison one evening earlier this spring and I told them I'd take them out for dinner. They know that I'll eat at a national chain as a last resort and like to gravitate toward places that locally unique. We were trying to figure out where to eat that was close by for all of us and someone suggested a steak house up the road a bit called Delaney's Charcoal Steaks. I said, "Yeah, steak sounds good. I haven't had a good steak on the road for quite a while." So, it was off to Delaney's for dinner.
We pulled off of S. Gammon Road on the west side of Madison and onto Odana Rd. My dealer was driving and I said, "I used to stay at that hotel right over there when it was a Hampton Inn." Instead of turning right to go into the hotel, he took a left and just down the street was Delaney's Charcoal Steaks. (see map) I was incredulous. "I stayed at that place over there for six years before they built the new Hampton Inn up the road and I never knew it was over here," I told the guys. "I could have walked from the hotel to this place!"
The official name of the restaurant is actually JIM Delaney's Charcoal Steaks, named after the founder of the place. Jim Delaney was a former Marine Corp officer and a service station manager when he saw an opportunity to open his own restaurant in a strip mall on Odana Road just around the corner from the present day location of the steak house that bears his name. A number of people cautioned Delaney saying that a fine dining establishment wouldn't work outside of the downtown Madison area, but he went through with his plans and opened his steak house in 1973. Delaney was the "jack of all trades" at the restaurant, wearing the hat of maintenance man, bookkeeper, waiter, bus boy and other jobs around the restaurant. However, unlike most restaurant owners, Delaney never pretended he was in charge of the kitchen. He knew good steaks and hired good cooks to work in his restaurant.
After a number of years in business, Delaney moved the restaurant to a larger location on Grand Canyon Drive, nestled back on a side street that you obviously had to know was there. Delaney felt that the quality of the food and the service at his restaurant would attract people no matter where it was.
Unfortunately, Jim Delaney died earlier this year at the age of 71. His son, Daniel, is the long-time manager of Delaney's Charcoal Steaks and continues to run the business today.
The interior of Delaney's immediately reminded me of a rural supper club, the kind found all over Central and Northern Wisconsin. There was a large bar area off to the left as you come in with a large rectangular bar with a center liquor island taking up a good slice of the real estate of the room. I immediately saw myself sitting at the bar at some point enjoying a meal.
There were three of us that evening - the other salesperson had to go home to attend to a sick wife - and we were seated in a smallish dining room. Delaney's appeared to have a number of little dining rooms in the place and not one large dining area. Well, except for the bar. Our host gave us menus and we ordered up some drinks to tide us over.
We were tag-teamed that evening by two well-dressed waiters who were very attentive to our needs all evening long. I was sort of confused how to tip them at the end of the evening as I didn't know if I should add a little extra for both guys. I think I ended up tipping about 20% and let them fight over it.
Delaney's Charcoal Steaks also had a pretty nice little wine list that featured a number of wines I was familiar with. They had a 2006 Whitehall Lane cabernet that I've had in the past for $50 bucks a bottle, a little expensive compared to other places I've seen it, but still a good wine to have with steaks. I offered to get some wine, but my two guests were content with beer and a rum and Coke, respectively, for their dinner. Delaney's did offer a handful of wines by the glass and I figured I could just get a glass with my meal if I needed it.
For beer, I had an American pale ale from the Lake Louie Brewery located in Arena, WI. I've seen this beer when I've gone beer hunting at liquor stores in the greater Madison area, but had never tried it before. The guest who ordered the beer was telling me about it and I thought I'd give it a try. It was more of a malty taste for a pale ale, not quite as hoppy as I'm used to. But it was still smooth and it drank well.
Naturally, steaks rule the menu at Delaney's. But they also feature pork chops, grilled chicken and seafood, as well. The onion rings are famous throughout South Central Wisconsin and we got an order of those as an appetizer before we ordered up our main meal. And they were great - a light, beer batter over sweet onion slices. I can see why they're so famous in the area.
The special that evening was an apple-wood smoked bacon-wrapped filet. That sounded good, but I was leaning toward just a straight filet. They had three sizes - 6 oz., 8 oz. and 12 oz. The 12 oz. was a little pricey - $38 bucks. I ended up ordering the 8 oz. filet, rare. For a couple bucks more, I had it prepared au poivre style with a cognac and pepper cream sauce on top. I got a side of their garlic mashed potatoes to go along with my steak. A salad came with the meal and I got their homemade oil and vinegar with blue cheese crumbles on top. It was a very good salad.
One of my guests got the special that evening along with a side of mushrooms and onions, while the other guy got the 16 oz bone-in rib eye steak. He got a baked potato with the works as his side. I decided that I liked the Lake Louie beer and decided to stick with that instead of going with a glass of wine.
Our steaks came to the table and the presentation was very nice. My steak was exactly has I like it - a red, cool middle with a nice charred crust around the outside. The au poivre sauce was a wonderful compliment to the taste of the steak. The peppercorn chunks with the cognac cream sauce gave the steak a little bite to the taste. The garlic mashed potatoes were OK, not very garlicky, but that's OK, I was much more interested in my steak.
My guests also said their steaks were very good. One of my guests said, "It's been a few years since I was last here. It's just as good today as it was then. But then again, this place has always been very good."
We thought about having an after dinner drink after we finished, but decided against it. After I paid the bill and we were walking out, I looked into the bar area and I was just mesmerized by the wonderful step-up bar. I said, "You know what, I really wouldn't mind getting a drink at the bar, after all." Delaney's had a small list of good Scotch's and we each had one - I had the Oban 14 year single malt which was smooth, earthy and smoky. Well, I had a couple. We got to talking about business, proposed expansion of their building and ended up talking about some of the great supper clubs these guys had encountered over the years when they vacationed up north. It was a really fun evening with these guys.
A lot of people think that Smoky's Club is the best steak house in Madison. We were sort of talking about that and my guests were sort of perplexed as to how that could be. "I've always thought this was much better than Smoky's," one of the guys said. I told them about my experience at my one and only visit - ever - Smoky's (you can read about that disappointing meal by clicking here). The service at Delaney's was much better than Smoky's Club and the steak was much better, as well.
Delaney's Charcoal Steaks is sort of tough to find, but I can see why a lot of the locals love the place. There are a couple good to great steak places in Madison, and Delaney's is one of them. It was just excellent and I'd go back in a heartbeat.