We get it. Sometimes, when you want to eat, you want your meal immediately – no waitlists, no reservations, no hassle.
But that lack of foresight would make you miss out on some of the best food Wisconsin has to offer. From no-frills diners to James Beard nominees, and everything in between, here are some of the most popular restaurants across the state that are worth the work it takes to get a seat. Whether it’s because of popularity, seating capacity, or both, there are just some restaurants that require you to queue up, plan ahead, or find a miracle to get a seat.
We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life as we all practice social and physical distancing. While we’re continuing to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, we don’t expect or encourage you to go check them out immediately. We believe that supporting local attractions is important now more than ever and we hope our articles inspire your future adventures! And on that note, please nominate your favorite local business that could use some love right now:
1. Merchant - 121 S Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
Come for a few of their amazing craft cocktails, stay for simple, filling farm-to-table food.
With a bevy of awards to their name, you'll have to fight for a spot at the bar at Merchant, but it won't be a hardship to sip a cocktail or two until your table is ready.
2. Blue Heron Restaurant - 4443 Chain O Lakes Rd, Eagle River, WI 54521
You might not think you can find thoughtful, fresh food like this so close to the UP, but Blue Heron delivers.
Lines might not be out the door like they'd be in a more well-populated area, but the Blue Heron is still full on the weekends.
The chef warns right on the menu that their food is fresh and takes time - meaning not a lot of table turnover. You may have to wait your turn, but the wait will be so, so worth it.
3. Odd Duck - 2352 S Kinnickinnic Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53207
You can try your luck at the bar, which is open seating, or on the patio in warmer weather, but otherwise you need to call a few days in advance to get yourselves a table here.
A smaller restaurant combined with an amazing array of interesting, innovative and just plain delicious small plates means Odd Duck is usually packed to the brim.
Add that they serve some of the most thoughtful vegetarian and gluten-free meals in the city and you're in for a wait.
4. Moe's Corner - N7298 Cty P, Algoma, WI 54201
You know you're out in the boonies a bit when most listings for the joint only mention the county road it's on.
But come Friday night, you'd be lucky to find a seat at Moe's.
The fish fry is a Wisconsin staple and locals say Moe's does one of the best. Plan to stick around for a bit before you get to eat, but the freshly fried, crispy fish will be your reward.
5. Blue's Egg - 317 N 76th St, Milwaukee, WI 53213
Tucked in a strip mall between a bank and a martial arts studio, it's hard to reconcile that this is probably the most crowded restaurant in all of Milwaukee.
More than once I've found my way here on a weekday morning because it's frankly the only time I can spare to get in. Plus, they have some pretty great daily specials.
On the weekends, you won't find parking or the front door for all the people waiting, but you can stop by and get put on the list and have them text you. Folks aren't lining up for the reputation. Blue's serves hearty breakfast that's both simple and flavorful and they pepper the menu with unusual benedicts and drunken monkey bread. It's worth an early alarm clock - or a *cough* sick day - to try to beat the weekend crowds.
6. Madison Sourdough - 916 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
You'll wait in line to place your order and you'll probably hover around waiting for an empty table, as well.
And you won't complain. Because you're about to be munching on towering, smothered french toast made with thick, house-made bread hardy enough to hold up.
Or you're waiting for a flavorful savory dish that's unique and amazing. And in the meantime, you're drinking house infused lemonade and snacking on a fresh chocolate croissant, so really, the kitchen can take their time.
7. Chives - 1749 Riverside Dr, Suamico, WI 54173
Ok, some of the wait may have something to do with a certain local quarterback who's been known to dine here.
But even without that guy, folks are lining up for a chance to dine here.
If you can plan ahead and snag a chef's table reservation, you'll be talking about it for months. It's the kind of food and experience you expect in a big city - but with the charm and friendliness you expect in Green Bay.
8. Le Chateau - 410 Cass St, La Crosse, WI 54601
The locale alone is enough to have people lining up, but the continental experience provided by owners with the European credentials to pull it off.
Owner Eva Ewers was born in France and is a trained sommelier and provides a wine list worth calling ahead for.
Le Chateau offers authentic French fine dining in a place most wouldn't expect. Plan ahead and make this a priority on your dining wish list.
9. Northwood Pines Supper Club - 10171 WI-70, Minocqua, WI 54548
In the summer, don't even think of trying to dine here on a whim.
Combining the casual relaxation of the Northwoods with the elegance of an old school supper club, a meal here is an experience.
From the obligatory Friday fish fry to relish trays and steak Oscar, you will not regret making plans to eat here.
10. Thrive Foodery - 2105 N 2nd St, Wausau, WI 54403
This funky little place has an eclectic menu with dashes of New Orleans and tons of Wisconsin farm influences.
Check out the chalkboard to see what local producers are being used.
Here's a tip: Go for lunch to avoid some of the crowds.
Thrive is committed to being active in their community and the community has responded by giving their patronage in droves. But with quirky dishes and a great philosophy, I'd line up here again and again.
11. Father Fats - 945 Clark St, Stevens Point, WI 54481
The New York subway-style sign might seem out of place in Stevens Point, but Father Fats uses influences of the big city combined with the fresh farmland ingredients of Wisconsin to produce amazing food.
With southern, Spanish and Asian influences peppered in, you're not likely to find plates like these anywhere else.
The plates are meant to be shared, so though it might mean a bit more planning, bring a few friends, help your wait time pass with a few of their craft cocktails and settle in for an awesome family meal.
12. Mickie's Dairy Bar - 1511 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
No one would be surprised if you had no idea what the front of this place looks like since it's usually got a line down the road to block your view.
A favorite of UW-Madison athletes and visiting players alike, Mickie's has been around since 1947.
Plates can easily serve two and the must-order shakes come with as many straws as you need. Tables turn over fast, so come hungry and get ready for the best ratio of cost to calories in the city.
13. Frank's Diner - 508 58th St, Kenosha, WI 53140
Literally a diner car, Frank's is an institution without much seating to spare.
It's a cash only spot, so hit the bank before you go.
It's hearty and happy and the best kind of greasy spoon. If you need more than that to be convinced, I'm surprised you've read this far, honestly.
14 and 15. Ardent and Red Light Ramen - 1749 and 1751 N Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202
One's a James Beard nominated restaurant that's a mix between down home Wisconsin and the fanciest restaurant you could imagine and the other is the most popular night-dining spot Milwaukee has ever seen. Both are run by a James Beard nominated chef.
Ardent has lap blankets knit by the chef's mother and beef raised by his father. It also has an eight-course tasting menu and more awards than I have room to list.
It's just a few seats and meals take a couple of hours as you make your way through amazing plates of complex and simple flavors melded together like no other restaurant in the state.
Red Light Ramen started as the "after house" venture of Ardent on the weekends and has since moved into its own space next door.
You used to have to line up an hour before Red Light even opened (at midnight) to get your hands on authentic ramen that Carlisle would spend days preparing.
Now the line isn't nearly so long - or so late - but it still sometimes exists.
But the boozie slushies and flavorful ramen are worth the wait no matter the time of day. A trip here is as close as one can get to Japan in Wisconsin.
Where else do you not mind calling ahead and waiting in line to dine? We’d love to know where else you have to plan to get in, but is well worth the effort.