As a rule I try to review restaurants that are new to the area or new to me. However my partner and I have been on some dietary restrictions thanks to our impending bundle of joy so we’ve found ourselves repeating some places numerous times because we know the menu will fit our needs. Thankfully one of those places is an old favorite in a relatively new home.
I was a college junior when the original Great Dane opened in downtown Madison. My post graduation lunch was the first of many times where I brought out of town guests there due to their variety of pub fare and in-house brews. Over the years I’ve come and gone from Madison but The Great Dane has always been a reliable choice. The key word in that sentence is reliable. If you asked me to name my top 10 restaurants in Madison I’m not sure that the Dane would make it but I can tell you it’s a restaurant I eat at more often then half of those on the list.
The Hilldale location is the third Great Dane in the area (a fourth just opened outside of Madison in Wasau). Closer to my home then the downtown version or the uneven Fitchburg location, the Hilldale version recently went through a renovation and expansion thanks to its huge popularity since opening there in 2006. The décor is pretty similar to the other locations: pool hall in the back, cozy bar stalls and then a quieter dining area.
One reason I’ve always suggested the Dane for groups is that while the menu is full of pub fare, it is rather unique in its combinations. On a recent visit my group started off with the calamari. The squid itself was rather mundane but the addition of banana peppers and a spicy tomato sauce picked the dish up. A starter I can speak very enthusiastically of is the brown ale onion soup. I tend to avoid soups but this version of French onion was full of gooey Swiss cheese and the bread underneath had just the right amount of sturdiness. On my last visit I tried out the bacon mac and cheese pizza and yes it was as delightfully sinful as it sounds. While mac and cheese pizza has become more ubiquitous in this day and age of bistro pizza shops, Great Dane’s certainly stands out. The quality of the ingredients really set this pie apart especially the bacon and the crust laced with garlic oil. The 9-inch pie sounded small on paper but I ended up taking half of it home. My partner has become quite taken with the prime rib special on Saturdays and for the price I think its one of the best values in town. The skin on mashed potatoes and green beans that accompany the 16oz. piece of meat are not just afterthoughts either. Amongst the sandwiches I must point out two standouts. The brat and bacon pretzel burger was recently named the best burger in Wisconsin by Food Network magazine and while I won’t go that far, I’ll say it’s definitely in the top 10. The bun however is the greatest bun I’ve ever had in my life. The idea of a pretzel bun is again not new, but the execution is flawless. I’d order a dozen burgers at a time if only to take extra buns home with me. The brat, bacon and beef all retain their individuality and the homemade brown mustard deserves a spot in the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb. The other sandwich worth writing about recently left the menu. Don’t worry though folks the Dane often rotates dishes in and out so I have no doubt the meatloaf grinder will be back shortly. Served on a French roll (would be better on a pretzel roll, but I digress) the meatloaf sits upon fried onion straws, jalapenos and yes, mashed potatoes. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Dane is not a place to “eat light”. I could continue on about the solid food performance but I must mention the beer itself. Currently the Hilldale Dane is offering their Texas Speedbump IPA, which is one of my favorites. Not quite as hoppy as you might expect. Other standouts are the regular Landmark Lite and the seasonal Velvet Hammer bock and Tri-pepper pilsner.
Service has always been a standout at the Dane and the Hilldale version excels for the most part. I’d say their front of the house staff could use some more tips on seating. On the last two occasions I’ve had to lift a table out of the way for my pregnant partner and on the last trip we weren’t even offered the option the opportunity to sit outside. The wait staff though is knowledgeable and willing to do just about anything for you. On one recent visit we got numerous updates and apologies when the kitchen was a bit overwhelmed and on another we got some great recommendations including that amazing onion soup.
I’m guessing that once we welcome baby pop culture fanatic to the world, we may take a break from the Great Dane since we’ve ate there so often lately. That being said I can’t imagine another visit can’t be too far away thanks to their consistency from the tap and the kitchen.
Great Dane (Hilldale), 357 Price Place, Madison, WI, 608-661-9400