Clam Chowder, Crab Cakes, and Coconut Shrimp—for 22 years, this trifecta of menu magic has made Captain Bill’s restaurant on Lake Mendota in Middleton the go-to place for seafood and family dining.
With its cozy, rustic atmosphere, summer lakeside dining, and indoor winter fireplace, Captain Bill’s is a year-round destination. The classic family-owned restaurant specializes in fresh seafood, featuring local trout from Rushing Waters Fisheries in Palmyra, Wisconsin, and sourcing fresh salmon, tilapia, lobster, shrimp, walleye, and more from a variety of purveyors year-round.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” says co-owner Jack von Rutenberg, reflecting on two decades of running a restaurant named in honor of his late father, Bill von Rutenberg.
“From the beginning, we aimed to be a moderately priced waterfront restaurant, where families could enjoy a high quality, casual meal. That hasn’t changed,” Jack says. “What has changed is the year-round availability of fresh seafood, the ability to source local foods in season, and a bar featuring nothing but local craft brews on tap. That’s amazing, and we’re excited to have been part of those changes.”
Today, Captain Bill’s is one of three restaurants owned by the von Rutenberg family, all located within six miles of each other, and all offering a unique dining niche. Mariner’s Inn on the north side is famous for its steaks and lobster, while Nau-ti-Gal is noted for its traditional Wisconsin fish fry. Captain Bill’s, however, is best known for three signature menu items: Clam Chowder, Crab Cakes, and Coconut Shrimp.
The Clam Chowder is made from scratch with potatoes, bacon, heavy cream, and seasonings. Captain Bill’s version of this classic New England dish is second to none. Using local ingredients, including heavy cream from Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, Wisconsin, the restaurant’s signature dish has even been featured on The Food Network.
“It’s really the first thing people mention when they walk in the door,” says Kris Kalb, general manager at Captain Bill’s. “It’s been on the menu since the beginning. We have people come in who are from out East and swear it won’t be as good as what they’ve had on the coast. But most end up asking for the recipe on the way out.”
Served in-house in either a cup or bowl, the famous Captain Bill’s Clam Chowder is also available to-go in quarts. “We even have customers who order a gallon at a time, and that’s just fine,” Kris says.
And then there are the Crab Cakes. “The main ingredient of a lot of crab cakes is panko. Not ours,” says Kris. “We make crab cakes from premium jumbo crab leg meat. The consistency is more like eating crab, not bread crumbs.” As a result, the cakes, pan seared and drizzled with house-made Remoulade sauce, are one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and are offered as both an appetizer and entrée.
“People always ask for the secret ingredient to our crab cakes, and the truth is there is no secret ingredient except for a high grade of lump crab meat,” Jack adds. “A quality ingredient makes all the difference.”
Order Coconut Shrimp at a chain restaurant, and you’ll likely be disappointed. Order it at Captain Bill’s, and you’ll be served five colossal jumbo shrimp battered in a house-blend of coconut and Malibu Rum. The dish is served with house-made honey mustard sauce. As a dinner entrée, it is served with choice of Captain Bill’s famous Clam Chowder or house salad, vegetables, potato, or rice, and the restaurant’s well-known Rosemary Ciabatta rolls with house-made gourmet butters.
When they’re not serving dinner six nights a week, the crew at Captain Bill’s hosts a variety of special events, particularly on Mondays when the restaurant is closed to the public. For events, the restaurant offers a first-rate buffet, filled with special-request items for organizational meetings, fundraisers, and corporate events. Both the deck and entire restaurant are available for reservations, and catering is also available.
“Several groups hold their monthly meetings here, and many companies schedule seminars or presentations on Mondays,” says Kris. “We can be flexible with set-up for groups from 10 to 150 people.”
While Captain Bill’s is known to many loyal customers as the neighborhood hot spot, Jack says some in Madison have yet to discover the local institution. That may be because, unlike corporate chain restaurants with multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns, Captain Bill’s is a family-owned original restaurant that often depends on word-of-mouth recognition.
“Unlike the chains, we don’t have mass marketing on our side,” Jack says. “What we do have are our unique qualities, such as our large circular fireplace, local ingredients, expansive outdoor deck, and lakeside view. This building has a history. It’s part of the fabric of the community and we’re proud to be here.”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.
2701 Century Harbor Rd.
Middleton, WI 53562