Airport restaurants worth a special landing

I’m old enough to remember when some people went to airports just to watch the planes land and take off. Heightened security and hefty parking fees have made this harder to do, especially at the busiest departure points.

It’s one reason why The Jet Room, off U.S. 51 in Madison, is a delight. The bright and friendly restaurant, inside of Wisconsin Aviation, has a wall of windows that make it easy to see private aircraft go about their business.

Much of the traffic is hobby aircraft, but multi-million dollar business jets make their way here, too. Some swoop in and out with celebrities and sports teams.

Pat O’Malley, a pilot for 18 years, and wife Pam since 1997 have operated The Jet Room as a breakfast-lunch place that closes at 2 p.m. The space has a sleek but comfortable feel, with walls and display cases that demonstrate a passion for aviation, and a menu that dispels all those nasty stereotypes about airport food being high in price, low in quality.

A half-dozen versions of Eggs Benedict make the food different than the average diner. One creative variation contains crab. Another has broccoli and bacon. Nothing on the menu costs more than $9.

Some sandwich names play off the setting. The Seaplane is a tuna melt. The Wingwalker resembles a turkey club. The Crop Duster combines grilled mushrooms with havarti cheese, lettuce and tomato on a grilled Kaiser bun.

“People don’t realize that we’re open to the public,” Pat says, because Wisconsin Aviation isn’t the place where commercial flights land. Among the restaurant’s regulars are retired pilots with “terrific stories.”

For more: 608-268-5010, The Jet Room is at 3606 Corben Court, Madison.

All this talk about offbeat places to eat and watch planes fly began when a friend, Diane Ballweg of Middleton, took me for a ride in her Cessna 182 Skylane in 2003. She is a high school aviation teacher who has 1,100 hours of flight time that includes piloting rental aircraft in Japan and Africa.

It was a beautiful and relatively calm day when we soared with another friend, Tina Frailey, toward Lone Rock for lunch at the Picadilly Lilly Diner, near Tri-County Regional Airport, Sauk County.

It felt like the middle of nowhere, and Diane almost pulled her plane to the restaurant door.

This is where pancakes are bigger than plates. I don’t recall what we ate that day, but the food was hearty and business was good – a nice mix of locals and pilots. Closing time is 2 p.m. Call ahead if you’re bringing a party of six or larger.

For more: 608-583-3318. Picadilly Lilly Diner is at E2513 Hwy. JJ, Spring Green.

I had a camera that day, was enthralled with the autumn views and began taking a lot of pictures as we circled southwest Wisconsin. It didn’t take long for me to feel nauseous, because of all the head turning, but one of the images that I brought back to the ground became the cover for my book, “Sidetracked in Wisconsin.”

Had my stomach and head been more resilient, we would have continued the aerial tour to southeastern Wisconsin, where two resorts have landing strips that are a quick and pleasant walk to fine on-premises restaurants.

They are Lake Lawn Lodge, Delavan, and Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva – but the dining facilities don’t have airstrip views. It’s a bit different at Telemark Resort, Cable, because the resort bar faces the nearby airstrip. (Bar hours are reduced during this time of year.)

For more: 715-798-3999, Telemark Resort is at 42225 Telemark Road, Cable.

“If you are an aviation nut this is the place to be,” a reviewer says at “Great view and friendly pilots who always want to talk.”

The subject was CAVU Café, at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, Janesville. The acronym stands for pilot talk: Ceilings And Visibility Unlimited. The café’s Lori Hookstead says a popular order is The Airport Burger, one-half pound of ground chuck that is described as a $100 hamburger, because – counting fuel for the airplane – that’s how much it likely costs the pilot who eats it.

It is not uncommon for these little airport restaurants to describe their burgers this way. “Nothing fancy or famous, but a good Friday night fish fry” is how Diane explains CAVU. Planes get parked within a few steps of the café’s door; food is served into early evening.

For more: 608-754-9039. CAVU Café is at 1716 Airport Road, Janesville.

The Runway in Marathon County is upstairs in the terminal at Central Wisconsin Airport, Mosinee, with runway and air control tower views for diners. Owner Jon Small calls it a family business that – unlike a lot of other smaller town airport eateries – serves supper until around 8 p.m.

He says the Friday fish fry – with choices of haddock, perch and walleye – reels in locals as well as travelers. So does the seafood buffet on Fridays, and the Saturday night special is prime rib.

For more: 715-693-6122. The Runway is at 100 CWA Drive, Mosinee.

One of Wisconsin’s more unusual places to land is Voyager Village, a Burnett County country club where the runway is between fairways. From there, it’s a short walk to the clubhouse for lunch (when the course is open – it closed at the end of October and likely will resume business sometime in April).

“I don’t know who should be more afraid,” my friend joked, “the golfers with their flying golf balls, or the pilots with their planes.”

For more: 715-259-3910, Voyager Village is at 28851 Kilkare Road, Danbury.