Restaurant review: Baldwin Street Grille, 'where you are only a stranger once' –

The “e” at the end of Baldwin Street Grille is used with a wink because this neighborhood tavern is about as unpretentious as it gets.
The bar, on the corner of East Washington Avenue, is unassuming, inside and out, even though the building recently got a new paint job and some other updates.
But it should not be overlooked. Its fish fry is one of the best around.
It was owner Ryan Schultz, 40, I found out later, who took my order by phone and was as friendly a guy as you’ll find.
Schultz said my food would be ready in 12 to 15 minutes, and when I stopped in at 5 p.m. on a Friday, he was working behind the bar solo.
He asked how I was, and when I asked him in return, he said, “above average.”
The beer-battered cod is so lightly breaded it almost doesn’t taste fried.
It would be easy to say the food at Baldwin Street Grille is, too, but much of it is well beyond that threshold, particularly the beer-battered cod ($12), which was so lightly breaded it almost didn’t taste fried. The spices it was dusted with were fantastic. I was hooked.
The coleslaw was also unusually good, made with red cabbage, onions and the perfect amount of dressing. The meal came with grilled rye bread and a large serving of excellent, homemade tartar sauce.
Baldwin Street’s sweet potato fries are a good match for the fish fry or any sandwich.
The potato of the day, or a choice of fries, is an extra $2.50, but there was sadly no potato of the day when I ordered my takeout, so I got sweet potato fries. They were crinkle-cut and unsalted. I split them with my daughter and two friends, and they liked them as much as I did, so we were lucky it was a generous helping.
Other fish fry choices are beer-battered lake perch and beer-battered or grilled shrimp, but neither was available when I ordered. Schultz, on the phone, asked the chef if they had gotten their supply of either, but they hadn’t.
The Baldwin Street burger with Swiss cheese.
Instead, my friends and I also split the Baldwin Street burger ($8.50) with a slice of Swiss ($1 extra) and perfectly ripe tomato slices, spring mix lettuce and red onion. On first blush, the patty seemed small, not stretching to the edges of the bun, but it was thick and of high quality, so first impressions were quickly erased.
Baldwin Street Grille’s chicken sandwich features a plump chicken breast.
The grilled chicken sandwich ($9), also served on a soft, tender bun, had a choice of cheese (I went with pepper jack), and the same great toppings, plus mayo. The marinated chicken breast was plump and juicy; it was a great sandwich all around.
Baldwin Street Grille’s grilled cheese is not lacking for cheese.
My vegetarian daughter had the only option open to her, a grilled cheese ($6), with her choice of bread and cheese. She chose sourdough and cheddar, and the sandwich was thick with it. She added mustard at home, a trick I picked up from my dad and handed down to her. “It just needed another flavor,” she said.
“This is two steps up from what you’d expect for bar food,” said one of my friends. “It’s what you’d expect from a good restaurant.”
Michael Cerv has worked for a year as the bar’s chef, and Schultz said Cerv has won many fish fry cook-offs and competitions. Paul Miner is the assistant chef and is also a chess grandmaster, Schultz said.
Schultz bought the bar in 2011 and five years later bought the building with his father. “We’ve reached the 10-year mark,” he said. “It’s amazing we made it.”
He said they just finished a five-year remodeling project that included new booths, mechanicals, roof repairs and electricity.
“We were blowing breakers all the time. And you don’t want to do that during a Packers game,” Schultz said.
He said they did some concrete work in the back and are hoping to have patio space there this summer.
“This is a great location, a great neighborhood,” Schultz said. “We love Tenney-Lapham. We love this area. We love the people. We have the best clients. We have the best clientele.”
Before it was Baldwin Street Grille, the bar was called Pug Mahones, and before that, most famously, it was The Friendly Tavern.
Ryan Schultz just finished a five-year remodeling project that included new booths, mechanicals, roof repairs and electricity.
Schultz said he’s been bartending and managing for almost 25 years, including at the former Old Towne Pub on Gammon Road, the Melting Pot and the old Scatz night club in Middleton.
Baldwin Street Grille never closes, not even on major holidays, unless, of course, there’s a pandemic.
“We’re actually pretty busy on Thanksgiving and on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, as well as New Year’s,” Schultz said. “It’s like a second home. It’s like a common area. If Tenney-Lapham was an apartment building, this would be the lobby common area, the eatery.”
Ryan Schultz bought the bar in 2011 and five years later bought the building with his father.
Schultz said Baldwin Street’s motto is “where you are only a stranger once,” and it’s prominently noted on the bar’s website.
“I’ve always bartended with the mentality of ‘Hey, everybody that walks in the door, I’m going to make a new friend,’” he said.
Restaurant: Baldwin Street Grille
Location: 1304 E. Washington Ave.
Phone: 608-442-8400
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. until midnight; Saturday and Sunday the bar has brunch from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. (Saturday, the bar is open until midnight, and Sunday until 10 p.m.)
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $9, sandwiches $6 to $9, burgers $8.50 to $14, Friday fish fry $12 to $15, brunch $6 to $10.
Noise level: Medium
Credit cards: Accepted
Accessibility: Yes, through back
Outdoor dining: In future
Delivery: Through EatStreet
Drinks: Full bar
Gluten-free: GF buns 
Vegetarian offerings: In last week brought Mediterranean plate back
Parking: Street parking
Service: Excellent
Bottom line: This unassuming neighborhood bar will surprise you with its fish fry. 
Baldwin Street Grille is unassuming, inside and out.
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The Harvey House, 644 W. Washington Ave., which opened in July, bills itself as a modern-day supper club, and its atmosphere, prices and service elevate it into the upper echelon of Madison dining. The restaurant even landed at No. 8 on Esquire magazine’s « Best New Restaurants in America, 2021. » The highlight of a recent meal was the Superior walleye that had a crisp crust made with an ingenious thin layer of buttery rye bread. Read the full review here
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Villa Tap, 2302 Packers Ave., has such a popular fish fry that owner Chris « Chico » Warren shuts down his grill on Fridays, and adds an extra fryer for the Icelandic cod, walleye, lake perch, bluegill and jumbo shrimp. The cod dinner features three thick pieces of fish, hand-cut by Warren, that are lightly and flavorfully breaded, with no greasiness. Read the full review here.
Kettle Black Kitchen, 1835 Monroe St., is an intimate, charming restaurant that opened in August in a spot that formerly housed Joon, Burgrito and Double S BBQ. Don’t miss chef/owner Brian Hamilton’s French onion soup, shrimp and grits cakes with bacon, and sour orange pie. Read full review here.
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Wisconsin State Journal feature writer Samara Kalk Derby writes about the arts and brings you the latest news on the Madison area’s eclectic restaurant scene. She can be reached at [email protected] or 608-252-6439.
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Baldwin Street Grille is unassuming, inside and out.
Ryan Schultz bought the bar in 2011 and five years later bought the building with his father.
Ryan Schultz just finished a five-year remodeling project that included new booths, mechanicals, roof repairs and electricity.
The beer-battered cod is so lightly breaded it almost doesn’t taste fried.
The Baldwin Street burger with Swiss cheese.
Baldwin Street Grille’s chicken sandwich features a plump chicken breast.
Baldwin Street Grille’s grilled cheese is not lacking for cheese.
Baldwin Street’s sweet potato fries are a good match for the fish fry or any sandwich.
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