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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Despite the economy, restaurants keep opening in Madison
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A spate of closings at the tail end of 2008 seemed to bode poorly for 2009 in terms of fledgling restaurants in the Madison area. Would we even have any new restaurants to review in the next year, I wondered? But it's turned out to be a somewhat hopeful year for the Madison food scene. Certainly, there have been many closings. There have also been enough restaurants opening that it's been a task (though a pleasant one) to get to them all.

The new hot zone in Madison dining is the east side's Atwood/Winnebago corridor. Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery, Ironworks Cafe, Batch Bakehouse and the Green Owl Cafe all represent a careful-yet-casual approach that showcases fun, along with fine ingredients, seasonal specials and interesting vegetarian entrees. These restaurants have also started out cautiously, with Daisy and Ironworks adding dinner service only after getting their sea legs, and Batch open only Wednesday through Sunday until 3 p.m. Ha Long Bay also added Viet/Thai cuisine to the far end of Willy Street.

The west side did not see that kind of concentrated surge this year. The most thriving dining area there remains Hilldale (although adjustments in menu and hours continue at the dining and bar spaces at Sundance 608). The Great Dane completed a big expansion there early in the year, and a reborn Cafe Porta Alba opened at Hilldale in November. Another Laredo's is headed for the old Pizza Hut just across from the center on University Avenue.

Monroe Street's eponymous Bistro closed and reopened as jac's, with a menu better tailored to the neighborhood (less pricey, more sandwiches). On Regent Street, Palis - a Middle Eastern/Mexican/burger stop - opened in the former Taco John's (briefly Acropolis).

Downtown, a big shuffle took place at 15 N. Butler St., former home to Cafe Porta Alba. This space has had so many tenants, I now refer to it by its address instead of by the name of the restaurant. After a major renovation, Old Market Bistro opened there under the direction of Kipp Thomas, who had originally planned to keep his Kipp's Down Home Cookin' on Monroe Street going as well. But first Kipp's closed, then Old Market. 15 N. Butler is now Las Cazuelas, serving Mexican food.

Restaurant Magnus shook things up when it switched from South American cuisine to New Scandinavian, and The Bayou brought N'awlins cuisine. Gotham Bagels opened a satellite in the St. Mary's building on South Park. Lake Vista Cafe opened on the roof of Monona Terrace.

Last year's new Kushi Bar Muramoto, featuring bowls and skewers from chef Shinji Muramoto, closed suddenly in August, only to be reborn as the Haze Asian + American BBQ, also from Muramoto (along with Justin Carlisle and Dan Almquist) by late October.

Elsewhere, things did not move as fast. The Angelic Brewery on West Johnson is finally getting a new tenant (Logan's, currently still in remodeling), and Cooper's Tavern is still working on opening in the former Sucre on the Square. Crave is still empty, as is Cafe Montmartre. Le Chardonnay closed, but will be "finalizing arrangements on a new and bigger, better restaurant," according to its website; Taco Heaven is moving into its Johnson Street storefront.

And Peppino Gargano retired, closing Peppino's after a lifetime spent in the Madison restaurant business.

On State Street, Lovshak closed and Fat Sandwich Company opened; the Dawg House closed and Sushi Hut opened. Mad Dog's on Henry Street got a new owner and reopened under the old name. Fugu brought a real Chinese menu to Gilman Street. Opa took over the old Maza space, and next door to it, the Pub went upscale. You heard that right. The Pub. Went. Upscale.

On the perimeter, Good Times closed; Kickshaw opened. Cloud 9 Grille closed, Jovian Taphaus opened. J.T. Whitney's closed, to be succeeded by Vintage Spirits. Rice Cafe shut its doors and Fiesta Grill took over. In Middleton, Bavaria Family Restaurant became Sofra; the Soup Factory closed and K Pepper's opened. Babe's opened a second site near East Towne.

And 1617 N. Stoughton Rd., another one of those addresses that can't seem to keep a restaurant going, may finally have hit on a good formula with the Lazy Oaf Lounge.

More restaurants tried prix fixe menus and other new approaches with one-of-a-kind dinners, joining purely event-based dinners served by the likes of the Underground Food Collective and the School Woods Supper Club. Bradbury's does meals every six weeks as the Glass House Supper Club; Pasqual's in Verona has morphed into the Circolo Supper Club, which puts on a theme dinner every month or so; and L'Etoile introduced "Second Tuesdays for $22" family-style comfort-food dinners served in the downstairs cafe space.

And grocery stores are getting increasingly into the dining biz. Hy-Vee opened with an all-you-care-to-eat buffet and an on-site chef, and Metcalfe's Market hired Leah Caplan of the Washington Hotel as executive chef. So you can have a populist meal at L'Etoile and fine dining at the grocery store. What will they think of next?

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