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Five Cozy Restaurants in the Fox Cities

Don’t let winter stand between you and a delicious meal

When winter winds howl and one snowstorm runs into the next, venturing out for dinner might be the last thing on your mind. However, human contact during the coldest part of the year keeps us Wisconsinites sane, so we suggest strapping on some boots and zipping up your parka at least once in a while. Here are five of the Fox Cities’ coziest restaurants in which to ride out the rest of winter.

Katsu-Ya of Japan, Appleton

At Katsu-Ya of Japan, warm woodwork, handprinted murals and flames from the built-in grill tables create an inviting atmosphere perfect for a winter’s night.

The meal starts with an “oshibori” ritual in which guests are offered a hot towel to cleanse their hands. This practice starts things off on a very cozy note.

For a soul-warming meal, Manager Lisa Nakashima recommends the Japanese katsu curry with a choice of katsu chicken, shrimp or pork. The soba noodles, served in a warm broth, are another great comfort food option with a choice of either salmon or shrimp.

“But our most popular ‘cozy meal’ is the yakiniku or shabu shabu which can be ordered in our sushi dining room,” Nakashima says. “If you were to choose yakiniku, you are seated in the sushi dining room at a table with a small grill in the center. The fire from the grill warms you right up!”

The yakiniku menu consists of a variety of marinated meats, seafood and vegetables that you cook on the table’s built-in grill. A guest favorite is the ribeye and hanger yakiniku with a side of vegetables. Shabu shabu is also cooked at the table fondue-style with ribeye, noodles, tofu and vegetables. For a warming beverage, Nakashima recommends the hot sake or traditional green tea.

Town Council Kitchen and Bar, Neenah

With a 50-person seating capacity, exposed brick walls and rustic wood tables, the ambiance at Town Council epitomizes “cozy” from the get-go. Take a look at the menu and things only get better.

Chef and owner Jonathan Horan says winter is the season for slow-cooked meats, cabbage and squash, which are all reflected in the menu. “We go from lighter, Southern French and New American fare in the summer to hearty French-Germanic food this time of year which is a comfort zone for me,” he says.

For the ultimate cozy meal, Horan suggests the “Supper for Two,” a limited-availability special offered periodically throughout the colder months. The Supper for Two is served on a large platter and starts with a pile of sauerkraut topped with a pork shank, duck leg, two sausages, pork belly and fried potatoes. The whole thing is covered in gravy for good measure.

Other winter-worthy options include the bolognese with hand-rolled pasta and meat sauce, gnocchi with mushroom cream and house-made pork rillette.

But the coziness at Town Council extends beyond the physical space and even the food; it seems to be woven into the fabric of the establishment. Regular bar guests enjoy conversing with one another and the chef team they have come to know as they work in the open kitchen.

“We’ve had essentially the same staff since we opened which lends itself to the coziness,” Horan says. “It’s not like a larger restaurant where you see an entirely different crew depending on when you visit, so I think people really enjoy that.”

Sai Ram Indian Cuisine, Appleton

Step through the doors at Sai Ram and be instantly transported to a warmer climate. Aromas of turmeric, coriander, cumin and ginger fill the air. Jewel-toned tapestries and traditional Indian artwork adorn the space. The restaurant’s ambiance glows with warmth.

And the food is as colorful as the decor. Owner Siva Rajarathinam recommends the chicken makhani or marsala as well as the vegetarian navaratan koorma for those looking for a comfort food fix. He also suggests the tandoori chicken – chicken leg and thigh pieces marinated in yogurt, herbs and spices overnight and cooked on skewers. Complement your meal with a hot masala chai or madras coffee.

The Indian spices featured in Sai Ram’s dishes and drinks are sure to create some heat, but only to the degree to which you are comfortable. Rajarathinam says that because dishes are made to order, the spice level is completely customizable to each diner’s palate. Just let your server know how spicy – or not – you want to go.

“Quality is very important,” Rajarathinam says. “We never compromise quality and freshness. We cook homestyle, so it’s fresh all the time.”

Rye Restaurant, Appleton

While it’s not a prerequisite for a cozy restaurant to have a fireplace, it sure helps. The dual-sided fireplace at Rye can be enjoyed from both the bar and the dining room, making it a sweet spot for dinner or a few drinks. (There’s a reason Rye was the winner of the 2018 Golden Fork for Best Ambiance.)

“When it’s cold, the fireplace is always on. We keep the lights dim to give it an intimate feeling,” says Head Chef Nick Morse.

Morse says the menu also plays a large part in the restaurant’s cozy ambiance. The menu changes regularly, featuring seasonal ingredients and dish preparations. Roasted root salad, butternut squash bruschetta and spiced sweet potato risotto are a few recent examples.

Rye offers several soups perfect for warming up this winter. French onion is a mainstay, but rotating varieties usually include a cream-based and broth-based option, Morse says. Sometimes the menu will even feature three soup samplings as a flight, allowing guests to sample multiple offerings.

“One of my favorite things to cook in the winter is braised items, like braised short ribs, with something homey like mashed potatoes,” Morse says.

This fall, Rye offered a root beer braised short rib with celeriac mashed potatoes. “The root beer sweetens it up a bit and gives it that unique flavor which complements the flavors of the steak,” Morse says.

Wiseguys Pizzeria & Pub, Menasha

With high-backed, dark wood booths and low lights, Wiseguys Pizzeria offers the ideal mix of date night privacy and sociality. Despite its location in a strip mall, which could easily feel cold, the exterior is inviting with a pet-friendly patio, pergola and rope lighting. (Just a couple more months until that patio will be open for business.)

Owner Brenda Jorgensen says she and her partner, Michael, have been in their location for 10 and a half years and wanted the interior to have a Frank Lloyd Wright feel, with warm woodwork and influences from the arts and crafts architectural style. “We built soffits to bring the ceiling height down so it didn’t feel like a gymnasium,” she says.

Lighting is kept low for an intimate vibe. Jorgensen says the bar area may be getting some updates this spring with newly built booths to create more cozy seating options for guests.

While pizza itself is possibly the perfect comfort food for a cold February day, kick it up a notch with a stuffed pizza. “Those have been going gangbusters this winter,” Jorgensen says. These deep-dish style pies take a bit longer to bake, about 40 to 50 minutes, but they are worth the wait. Try the Wiseguys Extra Loaded with mild sausage, pepperoni, onions, green peppers and fresh mushrooms.

Jorgensen also recommends Michael’s lasagna layered with a four-cheese blend, herbs and hearty meat sauce for those seeking some serious comfort food. Gluten-free guests can still get in on the action with gluten-free pastas and pizza crusts.

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