When you drive away from the capitol in Madison, WI, you do so on one of eight radial roads. If you take the northeast spoke, you’ll cross I-90 in about eight miles, which defines the city’s eastern edge. But keep going; when you’re 12 miles from the capitol, you’ll hit the burgeoning ’burb Sun Prairie. The road, now US Highway 151, continues due northeast, and once the epicenter of 2011’s national labor unrest is 24 miles away in your rearview, you’ll arrive in Bristol, a town of fewer than 1,000 households. Three right turns lead you to the North Bristol Sportsmans Club, which holds four smelt fries a year.
Non-Wisconsinites, or perhaps non-Midwesterners, might be braced for an ethnographic study of culture clash: gustatorially curious urbanites from the land of recent Jesse Jackson and Michael Moore serenades venturing into more conservative climes where the fairy lights above the bar are decorated with alternating red and green shotgun shells. I’ll even raise the stakes by saying one of our party was not just a Wisconsin state employee but a public radio staffer, making her perhaps the nation’s most beleaguered-by-pundits worker.
But the thing is, that isn’t the thing at all. OK, as we were stalled in the eight-by-eight lobby of the North Bristol Sportsmans Club, with the inner door clogged by the tails of two queues — one for the wait list, one for drink orders — a becapped fellow looked around and cursed the internet. (Although our party first learned of the club via a flyer at a dive bar; you can impute how many points better or worse that is than the internet on your damned-hipsters scale.) But on a population density basis, I don’t know if there was higher concentration of fun anywhere in the county that night.
The Sportsmans Club splits its rectangular frame: In the same space taken up by the dining room on the left, the kitchen, bar, and bar seating squeeze into the right. The narrow alley in-between, the one that the aforementioned lobby opens into, is in practice clogged with bar spillover — though everyone’s waiting for smelt, sardines are the appropriate ichthyological simile. For the entirety of the 90 minutes we waited to be seated, the only way to move through the club was gentle elbowing or precarious sidling-with-drinks, and ultimately my party got broken in two, with my half unfortunately positioned directly beneath the PA. Still, for a country-road gun club on a late Saturday afternoon, the energy in the room is terrifically high, jovial and boisterous and rippling with laughter.
Everyone was tucked into little social eddies like mine — I believe I only saw one party of one during either of my visits — but, again, no one seemed too put out by the wait. The club opens for a smelt fry at 4pm and moves down the sign-in list to start seating for dinner at 5pm. I chatted with a gentleman who came in February and arrived at 5:30pm, and they were out of smelt by the time he was seated; today he was here by 5pm. I was here in February, too; I arrived at 5:15pm, and knew I barely got seated, so this time my party was here by 4:45pm — a good thing, because whereas last time the parking lot was merely full, this time the driveway was lined with cars on both sides. I hope the other guy got his smelt.
Any system with moving parts in such close quarters requires lubrication, which costs $2.50 for most drinks and $4 for something like a brandy old fashioned. The bartenders’ philosophy is blessedly simple: Take the kind of clear plastic cup popularized by keggers, fill it to the brim with ice, then fill it to the brim with liquor, wait a second for the ice to settle, and spritz the drink with mixer. Varnishingly strong, but, if you can navigate your rail liquors (for instance, cheap vodka tends to offend less than cheap gin), quite tasty.
As parties are called to be seated, they will occasionally cheer, as we did, and with good reason. For $12 cash ($13 for carryout), you get a divided Styrofoam plate and move down the buffet. Servers are on hand to ladle out the smelt and fried chicken, and diners can add their own portions of cheesy potatoes, potato pancakes, applesauce, coleslaw, buttered bread, and a glass of lemonade or water if you didn’t bring anything from the bar.
Now, almost everything is exactly as good, or perhaps a half-step better, than you would expect, with the succulent fried chicken in particular exceeding expectations — perfectly encased in a solid copper shell, with abundant juices when you cut or bite into it.
The smelt, however, is perfect. As our esteemed illustrator tweeted, “The Smelt Fry at the North Bristol Sportsman’s Club was as revelatory as the foie gras at Bouchon. I KNOW THAT MAKES ME SOUND LIKE A GIT!” Cleaned and beheaded but, as one diner noted, with the spine left in place, it’s morsel after irresistible morsel. More lightly breaded than the chicken and with flesh the firmness of, say, a great french fry, the smelt have just enough fish flavor to give them dimension, substance, and personality, while still serving as vessels for salt / grease goodness. Because mayo with pickles, onions, and lemon always strikes me as a bit of a wonder condiment, I found the smelt were nicely complimented by tartar sauce, but they need no accompaniment; just by their lonesome, they compel you to eat another, and did I mention it was an all-you-can-eat buffet? Obviously this is tempered by the fact that, indeed, they run out — we were seated around 6:15, and heard during our meal that they were 150 lbs. into their 250 lb. supply. But none could begrudge you one more plateful for the table.
It’s been odd to wonder about how all of the goings-on in Madison have been portrayed elsewhere. In my experience, Wisconsin is not a divisive place — everyone doesn’t always agree, but we get along pretty damn well. The friend who found the poster in the dive bar wasn’t motivated to attend out of novelty, but rather out of nostalgia for a Midwestern childhood, where these events were community staples. Communal dining and shared tables are making a resurgence, but here, they never left. This is the land of the big table; also, when it comes to getting along, $2.50 gimlets don’t hurt.
The North Bristol Sportsmans Club’s last smelt fry of the year will be on Saturday, April 9, 2011.
North Bristol Sportsmans Club
Supper club near Madison, WI
7229 N Greenway Rd
North Bristol, WI 53590
Opens Friday at 4:30pm