Finding the best local fare is just a matter of asking.
by Yolanda White
Some unpack. Some flip on the local channels. And some just flop on their crisp, too perfectly made beds without kicking off their shoes. But not me. I like to eat. Scratch that. I LOVE to eat! So before my bags hit the floor in my hotel room, I’m outta there in search of the best local fare.
One thing I’ve learned throughout my experiences traveling is that the best recommendations for dining out come from the locals. And when you’re in a new place, who better than a cab driver to recommend the best, off-the-beaten-menu options? Not only do they know their way around, but they can also share countless firsthand accounts from people who have dined at these place. The hospitality industry is filled with many people who are not short of opinions.
So it begins for me, the search for my holy grail of local grills, diners and heavenly hole-in-the-wall establishments. And here’s a little taste of what I learned recently from trips to Madison and Milwaukee.
Linsey Kinsey-Lindh – Assistant Front Desk/Office Manager, Campus Inn
My first morning in Madison, I awoke to a hungry stomach. Surprise, surprise. I got ready and went down to the front desk to ask about where I might be able to find a great breakfast place. That’s when I met Linsey. She grew up in Madison, and just loves it. Her face lit up when she spoke about the city. I would’ve confused her for someone working at the local chamber, if I didn’t know better. The perfect insider!
I knew Linsey would have some ideas for me.
“Having breakfast anywhere but Curve is a colossal mistake,” she emphatically stated. The pride and conviction was self-evident. “The American Fries are to-die-for…if you can get passed the grease,” she offered with wide-eyed grin.
That was easy. The cab couldn’t arrive soon enough.
Jamie – Taxi No. 116 Madison Taxi
Once the cab arrived, I quickly hopped in and asked to be taken to Curve. I learned the driver’s name was Jamie. I was eager to strike up conversation, to learn more about Madison’s culinary hot spots from a local’s perspective, but it turned out that Jamie wasn’t much of a conversationalist; however, there was magic in the few words he did say.
Upon hearing Curve, Jamie grabbed the rearview mirror with his right hand, tilting it just so to make eye contact with me and then said, “Try the American Fries.”
Eureka! An unsolicited, second recommendation! I almost asked if he could drive a little faster. My stomach was growling.
Jamie slowed the cab and stopped in front of building that looked like an old diner from the 1950s. The business next door was a tattoo shop. The block was filled with vintage character, which to me just added more flavor. I paid Jamie and asked him to return and pick me up later.
As I walked in the first thing that struck me was authentic diner décor and broken-in flair as only a place with so many years under its belt could. At the counter, I found room next to a man, who was leaning back in his chair, stretching to make more room in his belly.
“Good breakfast,” I asked.
“The best,” he replied. All that remained on his plate was the bill to be paid. Ed Ellickson, as I came to know him, has been coming to Curve for breakfast for nearly 30 years and orders the same thing every time: American fried potatoes and sausage.
“Sometimes I get a pancake…you should get a pancake,” he offered to me and then leaned in to say, “but I am warning you, it’s very big.”
I love to eat, but I can do without that extreme bloated feeling. Besides, I had my heart set on the American Fries!
But Ed persisted, “I had ‘em throw a big stack of pancakes on top of my big Denver omelet.”
When my order arrived, Ed gave me a playful nudge with his elbow when he saw my one, single-stack pancake. The smile on his face must’ve shown all the way to the Apostle Islands in northern Wisconsin. I’m sure he felt as though he had done his good deed for the day: convincing me to order the pancakes. Well, make that pancake, as in one, but that one pancake filled my entire plate. And, of course, I got my American Fries on a separate plate. And now I, too, can recommend Curve, along with their American Fries and pancakes. They’re sensational, and the company they keep is even better!
My ride back to the Campus Inn with Jamie was similar to the first one. Little conversation, but as soon as I got into his cab, he asked, “Well, what did you think? Did you try the American Fries?”
I replied, “Let me finish licking my lips and I’ll tell you!”
Helen – “The Elaine” of Union Cab
My next cab experience introduced me to Helen, who has been driving a cab since the 70s. She was giddy at the thought of someone wanting her opinion, and it was as if I opened the floodgates. Her face lit up, and the stories spilled out.
“Evening’s were fun back then. The [TV sitcom] “Taxi” was out and the characters on the show were similar to some of us at the cab company here. We had our “Alex,” “Louie,” and I was “Elaine” (played by Marilu Henner). She reminisced a bit longer, but then shifted her focus to being Madison’s resident expert on the local fare – only fare this time meant the best hamburger in town.
Her first suggestion was Dottie’s Dumpling Dowry, self-proclaimed as the World Hamburger Headquarters. Her second: The Old Fashioned.” I flipped a coin. The Old Fashioned it is.
The Old Fashioned lived up to its name. The décor sizzled with that old western movie saloon décor, accented by Vintage photographs that line the walls throughout. The cab ride with Helen may have taken me back to the 1970s, but The Old Fashioned transported me to the 1870s. Surely this burger will not disappoint.
Helen, what’s that you say? I should also try the Cheese Curds and the New Glarus Belgian Red? Okay, if I must! But I’ll do you one better. The house dressing, Old Fashioned House, is anything but house-like. The list goes on, but you’ll just have to plan your own trip and try it!
Tony “T.K.” Keys American United Cab
When my travels took me to Milwaukee, I met Tony Keys—a very busy man. No, he’s not busy driving his cab 24/7, but his other interests and line of work pretty much fill the rest of his day. Tony also works security for a nightclub, produces music, and in his spare time, he uses the seemingly endless fodder that comes his way as a cabbie to write a book chronicling his experiences as a cab driver.
He explains, “When you’re a cabbie, you’re sort of like a shrink on wheels. People don’t really want to hear you talk, but they want you to listen all the same. You have to watch what you say, because people come from different backgrounds and have different religions and jobs.”
Boy, did I find a winner!
Unlike Helen, Tony was not overly interested in being considered an “expert on the local fare,” despite having such diverse interests and areas of expertise. In contrast, Tony preferred passing along the things he’s learned about area restaurants from his patrons.
On this particular day, I’m craving seafood served up in a place with a fun, out-there atmosphere. Tony assures me that Bosley’s is THE place. A few minutes later, we’re there.
As you enter, you quickly get a sense that you’ve stepped into an upper scale island bar and restaurant in Key West, Florida, and the thought of Key West this time of year is hard to resist!
Proprietor Michelle Green says that’s by no accident. She’s been bringing warm sunshine and fresh seafood to the Midwest for thirty years now, opening Bosley’s four years ago. Michelle and her husband have spent so much time together in Key West, they wanted to bring it back Wisconsin. And I’m glad they did! The menu is incredible and together with the décor is an experience that’s nothing short of a tropical paradise.
Thank you, Tony! Do you have some sunscreen in the glove box?
“Country,” Keep it Movin’ Transportation
There is one Milwaukee cab driver who isn’t afraid to express his opinion when it comes to the best tasting food in town. And he goes by the nickname Country. For Country’s money, nothing compares to a home-cooked breakfast at Park View Café. He jokes, “I know that’s not the kind of name where you expect to find breakfast, but that’s an advantage I have driving all over the city.”
Originally from Arkansas, Country prides himself as one fine judge of comfort food. He recommends their southern-style, home-cooked menu without question. “I know good food, whether it’s beans, cornbread, or fried chicken, they do it. The building might not look the best, but the food is,” he laughed. In fact, he went so far as tell his mother that their cooking was almost as good as hers! If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does!
For another down home experience, Country recommends Brooklyn’s – a north-side hidden gem. Though the entire space is more akin to a nightclub, the food is an unequalled for hungry bar goers. The kitchen is open nearly to closing time, so it’s a great option for the late-night fare. Friday and Saturday nights even offer live jazz and R&B music.
Brooklyn’s version of southern fried catfish, complete with fries, crispy coleslaw hits the spot. And their signature homemade Sweet Potato Cheesecake, plated with creamy hot-fudge, caramel swirls and whipped cream garnish is an amazing concoction.
Brooklyn’s owner Bruce Cash confides, “I can vouch for the ‘home’ in our homemade cheesecake, because my mother makes it for us.” Bruce together with his cousin Gary set out to bring fare that is sexy, which has traditionally been off limits to the “regular folks” in Milwaukee. Yet today their offering is quickly becoming more accepted. It really is another example of originality at work here in Wisconsin—something Wisconsinites pride themselves on.
Whether you’re getting to know the person at the front desk of your hotel or seeking the advice of your cab driver, the hospitality industry throughout Wisconsin is filled with genuine people who care about your experience and the communities they live in. See what you can discover. Your tastes buds will thank you for it.
(800) 894-FUNN (3866) National and Local
The Old Fashioned
23 Pinckney Street
653 South Park Street
American United Taxi Cab Services
Keep it Movin’ Transportation
4781 North Green Bay Avenue
4610 West Fond Du Lac Avenue
Bosley on Brady
815 E. Brady Street