Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
May 6, 2012
10:34 AM
Small Dishes

The Dining Room

The Dining Room

Rigadoon Room circa 1950

There was a time in our history when eating outside of the home was only done out of necessity; when traveling or living arrangements so dictated.  Dining options other than hotels and boarding houses could be disgraceful; often associated with prostitution, drinking and gambling. They certainly weren’t suitable for ladies or children. 

The concept of what we recognize as a restaurant today originated in 18th-century France.  The French continued to set the standard for fine dining for the next 200 years.  The first modern restaurant to open in the United States was Delmonico’s in New York in 1830. Delmonico’s was also the first restaurant to make public dining acceptable for women, opening a ladies dining room in 1868 which immediately became fashionable and ultimately respectable.  

Though mimicking a European model—especially the French—the first American restaurants were as much about the experience as the food. Diners, drive-ins, and lunch wagons; restaurants shaped like a weenie on a bun, that looked like a Polynesian village, and revolved on top of tall buildings; singing waiters, car hops on roller skates, and servers dressed in every improbable form of costume imaginable. Restaurants here needed a gimmick to entice customers.  It could be as simple as good food, cleanliness or efficiency, but novelty helped.

 Except for the few who lived in the country’s larger cities, restaurant dinning remained an unfamiliar experience until the 20th century. Then began an incredible transformation in the way we lived; the result of changes in politics, ideology, economics, society, culture, science and technology.  Specifically, with the advent of the automobile and the 5-day workweek a new pastime was born:  tourism.  Henceforth, travel for mere pleasure was exotic since most had neither the time nor the means to do so.

With more people on the road and with more money in their pockets, hotels that offered more than bare necessities sprung up everywhere, even in small towns.  With them came a level of opulence and sophistication hereto unknown in the hinterlands. One of the attractions hoteliers would taunt was their dining room, both its stylishness and the quality of its food. Thus began a golden era of hotel dining.

I have many nostalgic memories of Sunday lunch at grand hotels, usually in tow of my grandmother or aunt.  But I especially remember one that my father favored in Paducah, Kentucky, the Irvin Cobb Hotel.  It opened in 1929, and was named after the local-boy-made-good, humorist Irvin S. Cobb, who was its first registered guest. Like most architecture of its era it had a romantic theme; in this case, Merry Olde Englande. I can still see myself descending a dramatic staircase off the lobby to enter the dimly-lit, high-ceilinged dining room with painted beams and elaborate paneling. I can still see the white coated waiter set before me a warm slice of apple pie accompanied by a small pitcher of melted butter that he would then use to anoint this heavenly dessert. Even then I knew this would be the most memorable piece of apple pie ever. 

The same family ran the hotel until 1959 when it was sold.  I remember coming back after the change of ownership and the remodeled dining room now sanitized pastel green with a dropped ceiling and modern furnishings.  Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end and it soon closed in 1972.  With the now proliferation of motels and restaurants, hotels and hotel dining had declined just about everywhere.

A decade passed and then began a renaissance, seeing many of the country’s old hotels restored to their former glory with modern amenities added to boot.  Many new, stylish boutique hotels appeared as well.  What they both had in common was the importance of noteworthy in-house dining options.  Today, the likes of the French Room at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, the Inn at Little Washington, and the Dining Room at Little Palm Island Resort are some of the country’s highest rated restaurants.

Moving to Madison my family briefly lived at The Edgewater and I remember how magical it was to be sleeping right on the lake, the big city ambience of the Rigadoon Room and the boats coming and going at the pier with its outdoor café. I remember the Hotel Lorraine, too—it was the only place my aunt would go out to eat when she came to town.  The Edgewater has changed much since then and further change may be in its future. The Lorraine became a state office building, then renovated as condominiums.

Many hotels, new and old, right here in our own area, continue to use their dining rooms to hook us in.  

Capitol Chophouse. When the Hilton first opened I had to go check out its new restaurant called the Bistro.  After the first visit I knew it would be my last.  Eventually reincarnated as Capitol Chophouse, though skeptical, I returned largely because I heard Mary Ward, a much beloved Madison mixologist, was tending bar there.  The changes in décor were subtle but gave it a much more intimate and welcoming atmosphere—sometime a challenge for a hotel restaurant.  The best change of all was food worthy of a top steak house.  Needless to say, I’ve been back many times and always look forward to going there.

The Wise. The much anticipated opening of the Hotel Red generated a lot of buzz since it was the first to hit town of a genre that’s become so popular in major metropolises.  Thoroughly hip and trendy, so is its restaurant The Wise which features imaginative appetizers and small dishes like seared scallops served over mashed potatoes with a drizzle of cranberry oil.

Fields at the Wilderness. Fields is a big restaurant in the best Wisconsin tradition. It elegantly serves the supper club food we all grew up loving with a serious passion for prime steaks.  The setting is contemporarily dramatic, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, James Dresser (he also designed the nearby Del-Bar).

New Glarus Hotel. It is as quaint and charming as its hometown. The place just oozes Swiss gemütlichkeit with its chalet architecture, fondue and geschnetzeltes with rösti, and dirndl-attired servers.  The Sunday brunch is a spectacular spread—definitely something to yodel about!  New Glarus is well worth the drive and so much closer than Disneyland.

Mayfair Dressing

The historic Mayfair Hotel open in downtown St. Louis in 1925.  After renovation in the late 80s, it reopened in 1990.  This is an updated version for its famous house salad dressing.

Half a medium onion, peeled and cut into 4 pieces

1 rib of celery, cut into 4 pieces

1 large garlic clove, peeled

2 ounces anchovy paste

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon granulated sugar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3 eggs

2 cups light olive oil (or half olive oil and half vegetable oil)

In the food processor finely chop the onion and celery.  With the motor running, drop the garlic clove through the feed tube.  When the garlic is finely chopped, turn off the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. (Or, chop the onion, celery and garlic by hand and put in a blender.)

Add the anchovy paste, pepper, sugar, mustard, lemon juice and eggs and blend well.  With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil through the top of the machine.  When all the oil has been absorbed, turn off the machine and transfer the dressing to a covered container.

Chill several hours before using.  (The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.)

Makes about 4 cups.

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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