It was a roller coaster ride. Just a year ago, hardly anyone had been vaccinated. Many restaurants were still take out and operated at reduced hours. Some had closed for the winter, not knowing if they would reopen; others have installed fireplaces and tested Wisconsinians’ resolve and willingness to eat and drink outside – when not at a tailgate. Then came the vaccine. As vaccination rates in Dane County increased and the number of COVID cases declined, restrictions on restaurants were lifted. There was a brief period – this summer it’s all a blur now – where things are pretty much back to normal. Now the masks are back for eating (when not sitting at your table) and the Omicron variant is the new unknown. Through it all, restaurants have also faced staff shortages, sometimes responding with reduced hours and unexpected closings. It seems odd to write about the food scene primarily in the context of logistics, but that’s where we are.
The most publicized opening of the year was Harvey House, a highly anticipated restaurant at the West Washington Rail Depot. Owners Joe and Shaina Robbins Papach decided to wait until the pandemic was over and by the time the reinvented dining club opened in the summer, no take-out pivot was needed.
Its opening was balanced, unfortunately, by a high level closing. No pivot has prevented the disappearance of Estrellón, Tory Miller’s Basque-influenced small-plate restaurant. Although Miller tried family take-out and a restaurant concept at a restaurant called Miller Family Meat & Three, keeping the space open proved unsustainable and it closed in late September.
Paisan’s has opened and closed several times due to structural issues at 131 W. Wilson St., the building in which it is located. finally calling on him to stop definitively at the end of the year.
Black Kitchen Kettle on Monroe Street has gone from take-out to on-site dining this year with a small but ambitious menu that includes country pâté, flat iron steak and roast Cornish chicken as well as an extensive wine and champagne list. Sharpen Also offers a small, focused menu with dishes chosen from world cuisines including lumpia, doner kebab, budae jjigae, duck confit and strip loin. Bombay fast launched, the city’s first food cart dedicated to Indian street food like pav bhaji. Get to know him well.
7 Social Iron opened upstairs at 508 State St. last January, offering a limited menu of appetizers, drinks, and golf simulators. Social blind shooting club open midsummer on Fair Oaks Avenue, with a larger menu (including breakfast!)
The Social Botanist open at the end of the year in the old Icon space on State Street. Despite the “social” in the name, golf is not involved. Specialties are small plates, main courses including lobster roll and a variety of premium gins.
Léopold’s Books Bar Caffé open on Regent Street with books and coffee as well as cocktails, wines and beers. And Madison finally had her first beer bar in a dog park when Cemetery open onto Walsh Road on the east side. The innovation here is being able to hang out with your dog, friends and their dogs while enjoying a beer or two. Food was provided by several food carts, Sal’s Tomato Pies and Chef Ken, who cooks Malaysian dishes.
Tried and true
Most of the new restaurants cut out for the familiar. Marigold cuisine reopened under new owner in its downtown space after being closed for the worst of the pandemic, with some menu and dining updates. Takarajima, a sushi restaurant in the same family as the two Takara restaurants, opened in the former Good Food Low Carb Cafe on Cottage Grove Road. Push bar brought the bowl of raw Hawaiian fish to Middleton. Fodder kitchen added a Middleton location to its State Street, Hilldale and Monona sites. A new Ancora in Maple Bluff opened in February in the old Manna Cafe. Rising Sons Lao & Thai opened a second site, this one in Verona. JD’s, long a popular late-night food cart, secured a place of brick and mortar as JD’s Taste of Chicago on Rimrock Road with chicken, catfish and the steakburger on the menu.
Mr. Seafood closed at Gateway Mall and reopened as Asian delicacies on State Street with the same concept of Asian / Cajun seafood. The Gateway storefront is now occupied by Double 10 Mini Hotpot, which was on South Park Street and closed there due to redevelopment.
Local Mexican restaurants were also popular. Patricia’s taqueria opened in the Old Farm Tavern near Lake Farm County Park, then opened a second taqueria and Mexican grocery store on North Sherman and Commercial Avenues. Tex Mex from Arod opened inside the Global Market and Food Hall near East Towne. Local tacos opened in the old Underground Butcher on Williamson Street.
Raising the cane, a national chain of chicken fingers, opened on State Street, and a second by Portillo open, this one in West Towne. City barbecue, an Ohio chain, also opened in the West Towne area.
Drowning our sorrows
Union Corners Brewery, after operating for considerably reduced hours, has closed for good. Ale Asylum, after struggling to maintain its faucet room and food service under COVID restrictions, ended on-site service and the brewery was put up for sale. (It has been reported that the brewery has been purchased, but who the new owners are has yet to be disclosed.) The much smaller Next Door Brewery on Atwood Avenue has been sold to investors who have it. will reopen as Starkweather Brewery this month. And One Barrel Brewing has reopened at Schenk’s Corners with a new barbecue menu prepared by a food truck called Barbecue shop, behind the building.
And … no more closures
There were many of them. Hody Bar & Grill in Middleton closed. Benvenuto on the north side of Madison closed; its other sites in Fitchburg and Middleton remain open. Zoup, a soup-of-the-day restaurant in Middleton, has closed. Ground Zero Coffee on Williamson and Barriques on Atwood both closed. Crave Coffee & Donuts closed. The Pine Cone, a truck stop at the I-39-90-94 and Highway 51 interchange, has closed.
Fresco, the Food Fight group’s restaurant atop the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, has closed for a host of reasons, including the high cost of necessary renovations. Another Food Fight restaurant, The Avenue Club, closed for good (after making takeaway fish fries on Fridays and cooking meals for nonprofits) when the property was sold to make way for a new home. for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. Some would say The Avenue closed when the old Avenue Bar was transformed into something retro and renamed The Avenue Club.
And so we pivot, boats against the tide….