You can’t really say you’ve rocked a summer in Madison unless you manage to eat a meal overlooking one of the city’s several lakes.
There’s just something so uniquely zen about enjoying a fine meal while looking out on the sun sparkling over the waters of Lake Mendota. And there’s something comforting about doing it at a place with deep local roots and a knack for searing a fine piece of steak.
The Mariner’s Inn remains the high-end tent pole of the Von Rutenberg family restaurant empire, which continues to thrive into its sixth decade in Madison. Three of that tent’s four posts (Mariner’s, the more mainstream friendly Nau-Ti-Gal and the Betty Lou Cruise experience) are still going strong. The fourth, the Middleton mid-range steak and seafood joint Captain Bill’s, was sadly drowned by the pandemic.
Mariner’s Inn, um, stakes its reputation on its steaks, and that rep is well-earned.
Much like the Brewers’ playoff hopes, the price of beef has soared over the summer (it’s a supply-chain thing). Compared to some other local steakhouses, Mariner’s prices are less likely to induce sticker shock, offering a wider variety of smaller cuts that appeal to a range of appetites.
To wit, the priciest cut on the menu, a bone-in rib eye, will set you back $50, but other cuts (think sirloins and tenderloins) hover in the $20-$30 range. The steaks also come as part of a complete meal as opposed to a la carte, and they are served in a wide range if ways—with Cajun seasoning, with a tangy whiskey peppercorn sauce, and more.
While the formal supper-club ambiance and breezy patio are welcoming for those who choose to dine in, service is currently a little bit of an issue. Like a lot of restaurants, Mariner’s has struggled during the latest COVID-19 surge to attract and retain staff at a time of year where customer traffic happens to be peaking again.
Calling in a curbside order—which we could have done dockside if we had chosen to arrive by boat—was a significantly terser experience than it needed to be, and although the order was prepared perfectly and on time, that initial brusqueness got the meal off to a rocky start.
There’s a menu special every single night at Mariner’s featuring everything from stuffed shrimp to a traditional Friday fish fry with Canadian walleye and haddock.
Targeting Sunday, which is surf and turf night, was a great choice. For $45, your plate comes packed with a thick and tender lobster tail—a delicacy that is actually fairly hard to find during the pandemic, thanks yet again to disrupted supply chains—and an 8-ounce top sirloin steak that was expertly seared on the outside and pleasantly pink and tender within.
Mariner’s must have a special line on lobsters, as they have been hosting $69 lobster boils on the last Thursday of the month all summer, with two more to go in September and October. You’ll need to call ahead for reservations.
The menu labels the hash browns, usually a reliable go-to at any solid steak joint, as “legendary,” but I’m throwing a flag on that designation. The lump of onion-heavy seasoned potatoes served here is barely ordinary, let alone legendary.
Punt the familiar potato options and go with the clam chowder instead. Creamy, thick and packed with chunks of clam and mushroom, this soup is so flavorful it might have you considering making it the centerpiece of your meal. If you’re more of a salad person, make sure you top yours with Mariner’s blue cheese dressing, which shares a smooth chunkiness with the chowder.
Interestingly, some of the non-beef and fried seafood options on the menu are clever dark horses worth trying.
A pair of entrees create some magic through layering and stuffing.
The Chicken Betty Lou ($23,99), named for the restaurant’s founding matriarch, stuffs a tender and sizable breast of chicken with not one, not two, but three types of mushrooms, perches the breast on a bed of tomato, spinach and basil bruschetta and drenches the entire affair with a Chardonnay-based sauce. What sounds like a street fight of flavor works remarkably well together, with subtle and sharp flavors elevating the bird to a higher level.
If salmon is more your thing, a salmon Florentine ($29.99) spins the same multi-layered formula, stuffing the fish with vegetables and then broiling it and covering it with a white-wine dill sauce.
Wrapping up the meal with a piece of key lime pie that tasted much better than it looked (the crust was a bit soggy) capped a great late summer meal.