Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
May 2, 2010
12:34 PMSmall Dishes
What makes a restaurant a cult classic? Obviously, they must have a loyal, hardcore group of customers, important in the food service industry where repeat business is key to success. But some for no apparent reason make it against all odds while others fail. They posses a mystique that’s indefinable. The kind of restaurant I refer to is always local, oozes personality and is a bit quirky. Most are inexpensive and the food served without pomp or circumstances. They all have a history and rarely advertise. For what it’s worth, here’s my list: Drink the Kool-Aid!
Nick’s. I actually remember when this place opened in 1959. At that time the Formica and vinyl accented décor was the latest thing. Nick is no longer with us but the business is still family owned. The menu is an odd mix of Greek specialties and diner favorites. It’s one of the few places in town you can still get a slice of homemade pie.
Natt Spil. This den of hipsters (run by the hip Berge brothers) keeps a low profile to say the least. There is neither a sign or listed phone number—and they don’t take plastic, either, only cash! They have a wood fired oven but I doubt that’s the primary draw. Invisible as it is, it’s a place to see and be seen.
Cleveland’s Lunch. I never was sure where the “Lunch” came from since the only people I knew only went here for breakfast. Technically, it doesn’t exist any more since the building is now occupied by Plaka, a Greek taverna run by Telly Fatsis. But just like Brigadoon, every morning except Monday the old Cleveland’s breakfast menu reappears.
Mickey’s Tavern. There is nothing retro about this dive bar but the food which is quite good (in spite of the sign in the window that touts “Good Food”—usually a dead giveaway that it’s not). The clientele is a mix of neighborhood types and the young and the restless. Gentrification clearly is not in its future.
Harmony Bar & Grill. Like Mickey’s Tavern, they don’t have a website but a MySpace page instead. Most first come here for the entertainment which is eclectic as the clientele. The bar menu is extensive and extraordinary. Burgers to be sure (including a walnut burger that’s the best veggie rendition in town) and pizza that’s actually worth the trip, but also the likes of grilled yellow fin tuna with pineapple chutney and sesame noodles.
Esquire Club. The Kavanaugh family has run this supper club since 1947. Little changes on the menu but the prices. It’s all about steaks, lobster and fish fry on Friday. At the bar, heiresses from Maple Bluff rub elbows with blue collar workers from Oscar Mayer; together they curse the smoking ban.
Mickie’s Dairy Bar. This lunch counter only serves breakfast and lunch and there’s always a wait on the weekend. Students and Nearwestsiders alike flock here for the humongous egg scramblers and oversized pancakes. There’s no printed menu, but Mickie’s is about satisfying appetites rather than providing amenities.
Smoky’s Club. They never take down the Christmas decorations in the bar—just hang up more stuff, and hand-lettered placards warn you of the consequences of profanity. Waiting for a table here after a Badger game seems to be part of its charm and the steaks really do sizzle. Alas, the pickled beets and cottage cheese no longer automatically come to the table but are à la carte.
Anniversary. This month, I’m celebrating seven years with Madison Magazine—127 articles and 84 blogs … I think (I’m sure my editor will correct me).