And the winner is…everyone
By D. Todd Applegate
Photos by Christian Watson
The latest Extol food excursion took me to two iconic establishments in Madison that you simply must try: Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop and Shipley’s Tavern.
Of the two, Hinkle’s is more well known to outsiders, but both are well known to locals. I’ve been to Hinkle’s many times over the years and, in fact, it was considered another food group during my college years at Hanover. If you like slider-type burgers at all, or old-school diners, you will love Hinkle’s as well.
But what about Shipley’s Tavern?
Shipley’s is a pub in downtown Madison, but that’s about all I knew about it. Ironically, and unrelated to this review, a few weeks back, I spoke with a trusted fellow foodie who was born and raised in Madison, and brought up Hinkle’s and cheeseburgers. “So, you would pick a Hinkle’s cheeseburger over a Shipley’s cheeseburger?” he asked, his choice (competitiveness?) evident in his tone.
With that in mind, I decided to focus on the obvious: Who has the best cheeseburger.
Hinkle’s and Shipley’s both serve up good eats and are just around the block from each other.
Hinkle’s is quintessential diner food done right since 1933 when Winfred Hinkle opened his restaurant at 204 West Main St., the same location you find it today. Not fancy and largely unchanged, but with a personality, a following and community presence all its own. Hinkle’s started out as an ice cream parlor idea in Bloomington in 1930, expanding to Columbus, North Vernon and then Madison in 1933. And Winfred Hinkle added small burgers for 5 cents that people could afford during The Depression. Madison is the lone location that remains today. Thankfully.
Shipley’s, meanwhile, is a local pub serving your favorite libations and good pub grub in a friendly atmosphere. It was derived and has survived as a tavern and meeting place for locals and visitors alike since 1867. It is perhaps the original “Cheers” of Madison.
While, the food and its role has evolved, what hasn’t changed in 151 years is the “come in, everyone is welcome here” atmosphere of this local watering hole.
Think about this: For 85 years, Madison stalwarts Hinkle’s and Shipley’s have been making their burgers and doing what they do from a mere 132 steps apart. Kudos to all involved.
But, back to searching for the best cheeseburger in Madison.
To compare cheeseburgers as the focus simply wouldn’t tell the whole story. To begin with, their cheeseburgers are too different. And – this was delightful albeit surprising – after talking with employees from both locales, each emphasized they have never viewed the other as a competitor. Rather, they see themselves as unique with totally different businesses and histories but with a shared love of doing business in downtown Madison, and each one respects the other’s longevity and place in the community.
So much for the contest idea. But left up to my own culinary devices, the only way to settle this was to go and find out for myself. To this end, on a recent Friday night, I did my culinary and historical research on both.
And here’s what you need to know:
Hinkle’s: Hinkle’s has two entrances. The door on the left is for tabled seating (added in the mid-70s). The door on the right steps into the original counter seating from 1933 with 11 rotating stools. I recommend the counter seating, but don’t be in a hurry, especially during busy times. While you wait, step back in time and order a milkshake (there are 43 flavors to choose from).
I ordered a large chocolate shake, and it was the best shake I have had (at least since the last time I had one there). Choose from thick, diner-style large ($3.59) or small ($2.09) shakes. Take off the lid, place a straw in the middle and it won’t move. Exactly as it should be.
I also ordered the obligatory cup of chili ($2.09 or bowl for $3.09). Just diner style goodness from the ground beef and onions from the griddle, with beans and spaghetti added to a rich and thick chili-mac base It’s good hearty, diner chili.
Then came the infamous slider-style cheeseburgers ($1.70 ea.) and fries ($2.09) – crisp, but maybe needing a little more salt. Two Hinkle style cheeseburgers on this day, hot off the grill, came served with fresh, handmade beef patties, grilled onions, American cheese melted perfectly and dill pickle slices. Just like they were served up in 1933. Condiments are on the counter if you prefer, but they aren’t necessary. I don’t know what nostalgia tastes like, but you will know you are eating it here.
While not the original slider as we know it – as White Castle opened in Wichita, Kansas in 1921 – Hinkle’s has a winner.
Yes, there are other things on the menu at Hinkle’s, including breakfast (be sure to order the hash browns), but you won’t find alcohol on the menu or a fancy interior. And you won’t need them.
Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop
204 W. Main St.
6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
24 hours Friday and Saturday
To get to Shipley’s, exit Hinkle’s, turn left, walk 75 steps east on Main Street to the light at West Street. Cross Main Street and walk 57 more steps and you will arrive at Shipley’s Tavern, 322 West St.
Shipley’s Tavern is unmistakable with the harvest gold painted brick and large black awning. In the daylight, the south side harvest gold façade makes a 2-story canvas for a spirited mural painted 5 to 6 years ago by a Hanover art student.
Entering Shipley’s, you sense you might be stepping into a time warp. The narrow and dark (even at noon) entry opens into a cavernous single room with a bar that seems to run the length of the building. Except for the big screen TVs above the bar, you imagine it could be 1867 or 1933 or 1967. But it’s not.
You can immediately tell that the bar is the focus here. It faces mirrored walls, various bar lights and memorabilia, and appears stocked with pretty much any possible libation you might be interested in.
The left wall is adorned with movie posters and framed pictures and caricatures, many with comments and autographs of past and current patrons, presumably some celebrity types. You can sense the history of river boat voyagers, regatta patrons, filmmakers and actors from movies shot in Madison, musicians and others who have made this a stop over the years.
I perused the menu but ordered the large ½ lb. cheeseburger ($10.95), fries (included with burger or $3.95 a la carte) and a bowl of chili ($3.95).
The locals and my server suggested that the chicken breast ($7.95), pork tenderloin ($7.95) and fried pickles ($5.95) – “you can’t go wrong with those” – but this was a burger competition. So…
The beefy goodness, handmade daily, was enveloped in melting American cheese. You can order it dressed (lettuce, tomato, onion) or undressed – like me – with just dill pickle slices, and a lot of them I might add, and condiments.
NOTE: Don’t be in a hurry. If you want fast, there are other places that will accommodate. This isn’t necessarily one of them. It takes time to prepare greatness. I (impatiently) relaxed, took some notes and watched my burger being prepared on the surprisingly small grill within view. But finally, my burger and hot crinkle cut fries arrived. So worth the wait! And as if the burger wasn’t enough, the chili was excellent.
322 West St.
Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight
So, after this match-up, who is the winner of Madison’s two mainstays? Hinkle’s and Shipley’s both win. Madison wins. And you win when you visit.