Restaurant Review: Wando's offers nice bar, but food, service falls short

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By Bill Livick/Special to The Gazette
June 25, 2015

MADISON—Wando's Bar and Grill, a sports bar located near the UW-Madison campus, is a great place to watch a sporting event. It's also a good place avoid on weekend nights, when mostly college-aged customers pack the place until a line to get in forms outside.

We knew to avoid that scene, so we visited early enough on a recent Friday to catch what Wando's bills as “the best fish fry in town.” In fact, as we were standing at the corner of University Avenue and North Francis Street about to enter the restaurant, a customer walked out and declared, “Great fish!”

With that in mind, we entered Wando's, climbed two sets of stairs and grabbed a table on the third floor. The place is built with three levels and a creative design scheme that includes lots of exposed brick and enough flat-screen TVs to have a decent view of whatever game might be on.

After about 10 p.m., however, Wando's becomes a dance club and party scene that includes some pretty heavy drinking.

Its claim to have the city's best fish fry was not what we experienced. Instead, we had some OK food—grilled salmon, a deep-fried cod sandwich and a stuffed grilled cheese sandwich—and some of the worst service in recent memory.

Wando's features an attractive interior and bars on each of its three levels, but large commercial brewers dominate its tap beer selection. It could use more craft beers, but it does offer local microbrewer Karbon 4's Fantasy Factory IPA (one of the best locally brewed IPAs).

One of my companions couldn't find a beer to suit her tastes, and she instead settled on an iced tea. She said it seemed to be homemade, and that it was fresh and tasty.

Wando's list of appetizers is predictable for a sports bar—all deep-fried and pretty standard: fries, onion rings, chicken strips, cheese curds, mini corn dogs, buffalo wings and the like.

We sampled the kitchen's onion rings ($5.75) and agreed they weren't fresh or noteworthy. They probably came out of a freezer, were deep-fried and served.

A problem arose when ordering main courses. Wando's fish fry includes a breaded cod or perch dinner ($9.75), as well as breaded walleye, shrimp or grilled teriyaki salmon ($10.75). All fish dinners include homemade coleslaw, a dinner roll and tartar sauce, plus a choice of fries, curly fries, clam chowder or a side salad.

When I asked how the kitchen prepares its fish, whether some is pan-fried or if it's all deep-fried, our server said she didn't know. I asked if she could find out, and about 10 minutes later she returned, saying the fish is lightly breaded. I repeated my question, specifically whether the walleye is pan-fried, deep-fried or both?

She again replied she didn't know. I asked again if she could simply ask someone and let me know. I wasn't annoyed or disrespectful. I just wanted an answer to a simple question.

Our server returned about 10 minutes later, telling us the walleye is deep-fried. I had apparently offended her by asking because she seemed irritated following the exchange, and she then disappeared altogether. Later, when we needed beverages refilled, we had to seek out another server.

Setting that snafu aside, a friend was satisfied with his cod po' boy: lightly battered fried cod with lettuce, tomato, sliced pickle spears and chipotle mayo on a ciabatta bun ($7.50).

Another in our party felt the same about her stuffed grilled cheese sandwich ($5.75), which featured grilled onions, mushrooms, red and green peppers, bacon and American cheese on thick-sliced white bread. Not all of the ingredients listed on the menu were included—the peppers and mushrooms seemed to be missing—but she said the sandwich itself was tasty and filling.

An order of grilled teriyaki salmon ($10.75) was all right, but the fish was a bit overcooked and was served with some sort of dill mayonnaise instead of tartar sauce. The plate came with a very average dinner roll—the brown-and-serve type my grandmother used to serve with Sunday dinner—and the coleslaw seemed like it had been prepared a few days in advance.

With no server around to present a bill at the end of our meal, we again sought out someone at the third-floor bar to give us a total and take our payment.

Wando's is a fine sports bar for sipping a beer and watching a game, especially on a weeknight. And it's got an interesting space, design-wise. But with mediocre food and shoddy service, it's certainly not a place we would recommend for lunch or dinner.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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