Few summer sights are more relaxing than distant sailboats drifting slowly across a lake. A white, triangular sail in silent motion is almost meditative.
For some of us, that sight can be a primary draw to dockside dining. However — though Madison is wrapped around four different lakes, dockside dining options aren’t plentiful.
One of the few — and better — options is The Boathouse, part of a recently expanded hotel simply named The Edgewater, located on the shore of Lake Mendota at the opposite end of Wisconsin Avenue from the Capitol.
The original Edgewater was built in 1948, and since has been a popular downtown hotel — which boasted a lobby full of autographed celebrity photos from Elvis Presley to the Dalai Lama to prove it. But after 65 years of service, the hotel was in need of freshening. Developers argued over and finally completed a $100 million upgrade and expansion in 2014.
The property’s footprint was reconfigured and expanded, much to the approval and appreciation of Madison’s downtown development elite. The number of dining options also increased, but struggles in service and food quality plagued the property for the first few years after the reopening.
We hadn’t heard much lately, so we assumed The Edgewater’s food problems had been ironed out and it was time for a visit. One thing we knew survived the renovation was The Boathouse, the hotel’s casual dockside-dining restaurant and one of the few Madison-area restaurants you can visit by boat.
We don’t have a boat. Instead, we had to take our car, which became an issue for us. But more on that later.
The Boathouse is located at lake level in the “old” Edgewater. Eschewing the indoor elevator, we traveled down a long, steep flight of concrete stairs to reach it.
The Boathouse does not take reservations. We waited for 20 out of an estimated 30 minutes at the bar before being seated at one of about a dozen or so outdoor tables overlooking the lake on a recent weeknight.
Our waitress opened the screw top on a bottle of Higher Ground Pinot Noir ($36) and left without pouring the wine. Having effectively arrived at our destination, we sighed and settled back to watch the evening lake traffic.
At least a half-dozen powerboats were moored at the twin docks, further adding to the casual boating community feel. The menu, too, reflected the same casual ambience, but at Madison prices.
Appetizers range from Clock Shadow cheese curds with ranch dressing ($9) to peel-and-eat shrimp served with Col. Pabst cocktail sauce ($18). There also is beer cheese soup ($8) and crab salad with veggies and wheat croutons ($18).
Sandwiches, served with chips or fries, range from a Sheboygan bratwurst ($12) to lobster roll with heirloom tomatoes and herb mayo ($21). There also is a modest kids’ menu.
Along with our wine we ordered the BLT chop salad ($14) with sweet corn, avocado, feta cheese and lemon vinaigrette dressing. We also ordered, with apparent apologies to Culver’s restaurants, the Boathouse Butter Burger ($14), a double-patty burger with lettuce tomatoes, onions, bacon and pickles served with fries.
The lake view, with idling ducks and a few early evening fishermen, gave us something engaging to watch as we awaited a nice sunset, scheduled to arrive at 8:47 p.m.
The sun was behind some clouds when we were seated at 7:20 p.m., making us wonder if the view would live up to its promise. It did. The sun emerged with a blinding reflection off the lake water and an increase in outdoor temperature of at least 5 to 6 degrees.
Note to self: Be careful what you wish for.
The food arrived in a reasonable amount of time, and the burger was large and juicy, with an ample serving of fries to share. Our salad eater generally liked her dish, but complained that it was mostly lettuce. Overall, we agreed the meal was satisfactory, although not exceptional.
Despite the blazing sun, the lake experience was more than satisfactory and provided the ambience we were seeking. We weren’t sorry we went.
We were sorry, however, that we had to park in the hotel’s ramp, which it shares with a neighboring insurance company.
The Boathouse hostess couldn’t validate our parking ticket and sent us to the hotel front desk. The desk clerk claimed to have no idea what we were talking about. We ended up paying $6 for our 90-minute visit.
The Edgewater still has a few kinks to iron out, it seems. Next time we will arrive by boat. No one was collecting any money at the pier.
The Boathouse is the dockside restaurant at The Edgewater hotel complex, located at 1001 Wisconsin Place, Madison.
The restaurant serves appetizers, sandwiches, soups and salads ranging in price from $8 to $21. The food is flavorful and fair for the money. Mariners can arrive by boat and tie up to one of The Edgewater’s two piers.
The Boathouse is open daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m. and does not take reservations. For more information, call 608-535-8232.