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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Overcast
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Cranberry Creek Cafe offers fast casual eats in Monona
Cranberry Creek serves breakfasts on Saturdays and Sundays only.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Knowing that I was going to be over on Broadway in Monona around dinnertime, I put some advance thought into where to grab a bite to eat. Spots at the Pier 39 shopping center came to mind -- namely Red Robin and Noodles -- but I've eaten at both of these chains before and, well, Red Robin strikes me as the kind of place that the kid's soccer team gets taken after a game -- loud. And Noodles, always good in a pinch. But....

I ended up instead at Cranberry Creek Cafe & Grill, a pleasant, fast-casual restaurant with a counter ordering system, table service and a super-above-average decor. In fact, the restful interior received an award of from the Wisconsin chapter of the International Interior Design Association.

The system works like Culver's; order your meal at a counter, you're given a number, and the food's brought to your table. The menu, though, is a few steps above Culver's, with an emphasis on dinners under $10 and additional burgers, sandwiches, salads and soups. And there's nothing about the place visually that will remind you of a Culver's or any other fast-food outlet -- the stylish burgundy-print upholstery, leather sofas forming a reading nook near the large fieldstone fireplace and the rich woodwork create a look that's a cross between a new steakhouse and a upper-end coffeehouse. Patrons are welcome to use the space as a coffeehouse, too.

The dinners are divided into "chicken," "seafood," and "homestyle" -- the latter featuring the house special pot roast, meatloaf, baked ziti, and eggplant parmesan. Five baked chicken dinners and four baked fish dinners round out the menu.

The parmesan crusted tilapia ($9.30) came with wild rice pilaf, a small side salad, and a choice of a second side. The salad was perfunctory -- although there was some effort put toward including baby greens in it, it seemed overall a limp lettuce mix. The fish, topped with a cheesy crumb mixture, was moist and flavorful. The other side, cole slaw, was a bigger hit -- crunchy, not overly-mayo'ed, nor overly horseradished. The "cranberry" theme is carried through in the cranberry butter that comes with the dinner roll. Yes, you can really taste the cranberry. (The cranberry theme also appears in a couple of dinners -- cranberry chicken and a salad with dried cranberries.)

From the burger menu, the chipotle bleu ($7) comes topped with a spicy chipotle bleu cheese mayo which was (unlike many of these sorts of mayos) actually pretty spicy. There was plenty of bleu, too. The burger also comes with lettuce, tomato, and red onion, which makes the whole package a little sloppy, and bacon. It's a tasty combo, although the patty is the thin-and-grilled-thoroughly kind rather than thick-and-juicy kind. The thick-cut seasoned fries were also nicely on the spicy side.

This was actually a very satisfying burger, although the whole deal was so rich I would think about ordering something else next time, like one of the seven big salads ($6.90-$7.90) decked out with grilled chicken or steak, mandarin oranges and the like. The house pot roast dinner ($9) would also be a good prospect.

Cranberry Creek also serves breakfasts on Saturdays and Sundays only, with eggs, waffles and pancakes in the $4-$6 range.

It is nice to have a locally owned fast-casual option where a couple can have dinner for about $20 or less in an atmosphere that isn't diner-esque or drearily family-restaurantish. The menu is thoughtful, and fills a niche for those times when you don't want fast food -- but don't have the time or money for slow food, either.

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