A couple of months ago we had dinner at Restaurant Magnus and reconnected with owner Christopher Berge. We talked about the past and the present, and the challenges and rewards of working in the restaurant business. Later we reflected on the conversation and realized Berge had opened a window offering a rare glimpse at the motivations behind a twenty-year career on the Madison restaurant scene. And then, in an instance of absolute synchrony, a front-page story in the Wisconsin State Journal announced Berge’s decision to close Restaurant Magnus and create Velo Bahn in its place. We wanted to know what he was thinking. And we asked him to start at the beginning.\
“In 1989 I had just graduated from the UW with a BA in history. I worked at a number of area restaurants. I traveled for eight months. I came back broke, with student loans, and teamed up with a college roommate, a friend and my brother to physically build the Blue Marlin. No one else was interested in making any new business on the Capitol Square. We were total business neophytes. We built a beautiful room in one of the city’s oldest commercial buildings at the lowest point for the Capitol Square in the city’s history. A vanguard of diners in 1990 went to L’Etoile, Wilson Street Grill, and Blue Marlin a decade before the Square could be considered a viable business destination.
“I do not often look back. Memories are strangely subjective. The pleasures of the restaurant business were oftentimes mixed with crisis and agony. I see the restaurant business as a theater with a play that will have the length of its run based on nearly all the economic and social barometers of society. In some cases the director, me, needs to change actors or change the sets, and in the most radical moments, change the whole play. Our plays have theater critics without newspapers now.
“This is the greatest time in any generation of Madisonians to eat well. The organic and sustainable food world is becoming commonplace everyplace in Madison. Improving the school lunch program is one of the last great frontiers. The domain of great ingredients has transcended the fine dining and exotic food markets into the mainstream. The fine dining realm and the farmers’ markets and co-ops have done their job of pluralizing healthy, sustainable food to other outlets. The most over-arching theme of the past ten years has been the growth of the locavore farm-to-table movement. It is probably the most important.
“I will have changed Magnus twice. Explaining why—I have taken the noble path of honoring my heritage, our local farms, my father, and the chef, even when the goal wasn’t to squeeze the most profit out of the space. One does not pursue a fine dining career for the money; it’s a lifestyle. Twenty-one years of ownership after six years working in others’ restaurants has been enough.
“The challenge now is to do something that hasn’t been done before. Velo Bahn. The restaurant will no longer strive to present a national or ethnic cuisine, but to create a place to gather, play, eat, drink and chat among others who share similar lifestyles and passions. The future, with all the great source material for making original good food, will be a break from labeling the ‘food style or origin’ as a restaurant’s pedigree, but to make a scene around food and drink of a certain status quo. A hypothetical example might be a Yoga, tea and wine bar.”
Generosity is a trait of most restaurateurs. It’s a hospitality business, after all. But it’s a competitive business, too, so that generosity need not be extended to one’s colleagues. In 2001 we found ourselves preparing for the last night of service at the Wilson Street Grill. We expected hundreds of customers but couldn’t justify buying the needed table settings. Christopher Berge lent us everything we wanted and needed. He probably doesn’t remember that. But we do.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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