Classic Food with a Twist: Bonfyre Grille

Photo by Eric Tadsen

When it opened in 2009, just about no one expected a restaurant on the first floor of a six-story office building adjacent to the busy, not-so-scenic West Beltline to be particularly successful. That was then. Today, Bonfyre Grille is one of the hottest lunch and dinner tickets in town, evidenced by a steady stream of cars circling for a coveted parking space and an almost-always-packed dining room.

It’s easy to drive past Bonfyre Grille, located inside the Arbor Gate Towers at 2601 W. Beltline Highway in Madison. After all, more than 135,000 cars whiz past the shiny, glass buildings every day, making this stretch of highway the busiest in the state, outside of urban Milwaukee. But two things make Bonfyre Grille worth exiting for: the food and the food. Wait, did we mention the food?

Billed as “contemporary American cuisine,” the food at Bonfyre is the kind of cooking many aspire to create in their home kitchen, but hardly ever do because, well, let’s face it, we can eat it at Bonfyre Grille.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

“It’s food that many people grew up eating. It’s what their mom would make, but with a twist,” says Marketing Manager Ashley McGrail. As an example, she points to one of the most popular items on the menu: Mort’s Pot Roast (named for one of the partners). The dish is exactly what it says—pot roast. But it’s seasoned and served in a red wine demi-glace, and accompanied by shitake mushrooms, spinach, baby carrots, asparagus, and mash. As Ashley talks about it, she gets excited, describing each ingredient in detail, giving credit to Chef Januario Cienfuegos and General Manager Alfredo Teuschler. “I’ve worked here for three years, and I still get really animated talking about the food,” Ashley laughs. “I think that’s a testament to the quality of what we serve.”

It’s also a testament to what Alfredo and Chef Januario have created at Bonfyre Grille. The pair knows how to create and execute not only classic comfort food, but crafted contemporary fare that will be considered the comfort food of the future. In a city with hundreds of eateries and cooking opportunities, it’s rare to find two people who have been with a restaurant from the beginning. But Alfredo and Januario have done just that, and they keep doing it every day.

It all starts with a wood-fired grill, viewable from the dining room and almost always burning brightly under rotisserie chicken, steaks, and seafood. Two of the restaurant’s signature dinner dishes revolve around this wood-fired grill: BBQ Ribs and Chicken (why choose when you can have both?) and the Wood-Fyred Seafood Trio.

“Our BBQ Ribs and Chicken is the best of both worlds,” Ashley says. “The rotisserie chicken comes in either herbed or barbecue, and the ribs are marinated and then slathered with our homemade barbecue sauce. People are obsessed with our ribs—they’re fall-off-the-bone tender.”

Photo by Eric Tadsen

For the seafood lover, the Wood-Fyred Trio dish includes salmon, scallops, and shrimp served with Swiss chard, lemon caper sauce, and spring risotto. It’s continually one of the top-selling items on the dinner menu.

Before dinner, guests often stop at the restaurant’s centrally located bar to enjoy a signature cocktail and bar plate of Korean Tacos, Zucchini Fries, and Chicken Skewers, each only $5 and served from 4:00 p.m. to close. The cocktail menu changes seasonally, rotating around a different spirit. Some cocktails always remain, however, such as Bonfyre’s Irish Margarita, made with Jameson Irish Whiskey, or Fyre and Ice, the house Bloody Mary, which the bartender loads up with a garden of toppings.

“We’re known for our signature cocktails, and because Madison is a foodie town, we know people are interested in trying new things and learning more about what they’re drinking and eating,” Ashley says. For example, if the featured spirit is rum, the bartender may create three different types of signature rum drinks with three different types of rum.

The bar at Bonfyre also features 16 beers on tap, including local brews that change seasonally. Keeping with the theme of American contemporary cuisine, the restaurant’s stellar wine list showcases almost exclusively American wines, complemented by Malbec from Argentina and Italian Pinot Grigio.

In addition to the upscale, yet casual, dining areas, which at peak lunchtime can get a bit noisy, Bonfyre Grille offers a quieter dining area for small groups or couples looking for a long lunch away from the crowd. Located down the hall from the main restaurant, the Beacon Lounge features 10 tables with wait service and the same Bonfyre menu.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

New this year, Bonfyre Grille has added catering services, offering party platters, sandwiches and wraps, soups and salads, entrées with à la carte sides, and mini desserts. The catering menu is perfect for not only business meetings, but also graduation parties and private dinners. Just as with all of the restaurant’s offerings, local produce is used when in season, meat is procured from Niman Ranch, and pasta is from RP’s in Madison. And when Bonfyre isn’t busy cooking and catering great food, they’re giving back to the community through charitable donations and support of organizations.

As a locally owned and operated, one-of-a-kind restaurant, there’s no doubt Bonfyre Grille has exceeded all expectations with its consistently good contemporary American cuisine. And because the owners, manager, chef, and staff are dedicated to bringing new classic dishes with a twist to town, it seems this restaurant just off the Beltline is here to stay.

Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.