Secret Gem: The University Club

Photo by Eric Tadsen

In a city full of award-winning restaurants and acclaimed chefs, The University Club at the bottom of Bascom Hill at 803 State Street in Madison might just be the longest-running and most highly regarded restaurant you’ve never heard of.

Once a private club for the upper echelon of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Club’s private dining room is now open to the public for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. And since General Manager Justin Duris took over operations three years ago, word has gotten out that The Club is one of the best deals in town.

On a recent lunchtime visit, the dining room was packed with a diverse mix of professors, students, downtown employees, and guests from the public. It’s no wonder with a stellar, seasonal menu of $10 entrées and daily specials featuring homemade bread, fresh produce, local meats, artisan cheeses, and fish that’s often flown in daily, lunch at The University Club is a “must do” for downtowners.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

While he won’t take credit, Justin, who worked as the operations and catering manager at the Madison Club nine years before joining the team at The University Club, is a big part of the dining room’s current success. You’ll find him on any given day greeting guests, setting up special events in The Club’s spacious Reigel Reading Room, and working with staff to make every visit special for every single guest.

“Hospitality is what we do best,” Justin says. “It’s the guiding principle that The Club was founded on. We strive to make sure every event is exceptional, whether it’s lunch in a private dining room, a charity event, a wedding rehearsal dinner, or our weekday breakfast and lunches. It’s just who we are.”

Founded in 1907 by UW–Madison President Charles Van Hise as a faculty club to promote fellowship in the campus community, The Club’s dining room has operated continuously for more than 100 years. The Club’s upper floors once housed unmarried male professors, who could invite female guests for dinner provided the ladies entered through a side door, checked in at the registration desk, and then waited in the ladies’ drawing room until being collected by their beau. (The ladies drawing room is still in existence and is now coveted by guests as a quiet place to work or read.)

The original clubhouse was torn down in 1924 and replaced by the current impressive English-manor style building with a front entrance fit for a duke or baron. Sticking with tradition, private events are limited to members, although any Wisconsin resident or university-affiliated person can apply for membership, and weddings, retirement dinners, and charity events often occupy the dining room during dinner hours. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the dining room was opened to the public for breakfast and lunch.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

The Club’s breakfast menu features solid standbys, such as build your own omelet, biscuits and gravy, and cinnamon swirl French toast—each just $7. The University Club Classic—two eggs, potatoes O’Brien, a buttermilk biscuit, and bacon or sausage for $6—is a big enough meal to last most people until dinner.

For lunch, diners may choose from a classic menu featuring salads, sandwiches, and burgers. One of the most popular items is the crab cake sandwich, featuring pan-fried Dungeness crab cake with lettuce, coleslaw, and remoulade served on a griddled Portuguese muffin. Seasonal offerings might include a roasted beet salad, Cuban panini, or truffle bacon macaroni and cheese. On a recent visit, the white cheddar and pear grilled cheese with arugula on homemade honey cracked wheat bread was just about the best grilled cheese anyone could ask for.

The University Club is also renowned for special events and themed dinners, some open to the public, others reserved for members. On March 5, a charity gala, open to the public, will feature a themed costume party based on the television show Downton Abbey . The event benefits Wisconsin Public Television.

Then on March 27, The Club’s annual Easter Brunch will be open to the public with two seating times. The brunch features an expansive buffet, carving station, cheese tray, charcuterie selections, and numerous entrée choices. And later this fall, a Harry Potter–themed dinner is planned, complete with sorting hat and walls lined with imposing pictures of retired university faculty. The Club’s dining room is perfect for themed events with its long, spacious footprint; magnificent cast iron chandeliers; and tables and chairs that look like new, but have been used since the 1950s.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

During the summer, weddings and rehearsal dinners nearly take over The Club. With its outdoor veranda, also open to the public for summer lunches, many a bride and groom have had their first married kiss facing the big Campus Mall with a scenic backdrop of Lake Mendota. The Club’s stellar banquet and wedding dinner options include such dinner entrées as frenched rack of lamb, petite filet with stuffed shrimp, classic meatloaf, and chicken cordon bleu. Hors d’eouvre packages and platters feature everything from Wisconsin cheese to cherry wood smoked salmon to Thai spring rolls. A carving station for special events is also available with roasted turkey breast, Wisconsin maple glazed ham, center-cut pork roast, and roasted beef tenderloin. And save room for dessert—all desserts are made in house from scratch, and include pages of choices from chocolate mousse to carrot cake to strawberry shortcake.

“While the university community has known about us for decades and booked many a party, charity event, or wedding with us, we’re just now getting better known with the public,” Justin says. One guesses that with a little word-of-mouth recognition, the ambiance and food at The University Club will speak for itself for years to come.

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