In 1976, the year of Isthmus' birth, the Madison dining scene could largely be summed up with two words: supper club. It wasn't nostalgic or retro hipster; back then, that was really the way things were. There were Italian restaurants and a handful of Chinese spots, bars that served food and sandwich shops. And there was a glimmer of Madison's restaurant future, too. But mostly, steak and seafood reigned.
Some of 1976's restaurants have survived; most have not. Still, there are plenty of recognizable names. In the steakhouse and supper-club vein, Delaney's, the Esquire Club, the Mariner's Inn, Smoky's Club, Toby's Supper Club and the Wonder Bar were all in business, as was Kennedy Manor. Crandall's was a full-fledged restaurant (at the site of today's Tornado Club), not the takeout spot on University Avenue it is today.
Hotel dining was prominent: The Edgewater, the Concourse, the Sheraton and the Inn on the Park had well-known dining rooms, although the equivalent of the Top of the Park has moved to street level and all the eateries within the Concourse have undergone name changes.
Around campus, Dotty Dumpling's Dowry was serving burgers at 1720 Monroe St., and Mickie's Dairy Bar was nearby. Ella's Deli was still on State Street (as well as its East Washington outpost). Gino's made pizza in the same spot on State where it stands today. The Kollege Klub was doing its thing, as were the Nitty Gritty, Paisan's (at the old University Square), Portabella and the Parthenon. Nick's was on State Street, Mildred's on East Johnson, the Shamrock on Main Street. The Avenue Bar was in place, but the dining room addition was still in its future. A pre-Patrick O'Halloran Lombardino's held the corner of University and Highland. Pizza Oven was at its original Monona location, Buck's was on Cottage Grove Road, and Pizza Pit had a five-outlet empire.
Gone, though, are a brace of supper club-style restaurants, including Leske's, C.J.'s, the Blue Max, the Hoffman House (east and west), the Left Guard, Poole's Cuba Club, Poole's Northgate, Tio Pepe's, Rohde's, the Hatch Cover, Guido's, the Ivy Inn, Namio's, the Top Hat, Murphy's atop Nob Hill, the Pig's Ear, the Golden Rooster and Wings Inn.
Scanning the Yellow Pages for restaurant listings, a couple of things jump out. The lack of ethnic restaurants, for one. There are no Indian or Thai or Lao or Tibetan spots, no Brazilian or Peruvian menus, nothing in the way of Middle Eastern, Japanese, and certainly no Korean. A couple of Mexican restaurants (remember Jose Taco? Dos Bandidos?) join some Greek (the Athens and Zorba's as well as the Parthenon) and some Americanized Chinese.
Another stunner is how few chain restaurants are listed compared to today. Country Kitchen, Red Lobster, "Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken," Big Boy - sure, they're there, but the onslaught of Olive Gardens et al. had not yet moved into mall-ville.
But Madison's dining future of more vegetables, better bakery and locavore everything was growing back in '76: the Fess Hotel, La Creperie, a hippie outfit on State Street called Good Karma. More than any other kitchen, the Bakers' Rooms and the Ovens of Brittany on State were to foster the next generation of Madison chefs and restaurateurs. L'Etoile was born that year, opened by Odessa Piper, an Ovens alum.
If I could go back in time and revisit some of the places I ate when I was a kid (or places my parents never took me), the list would be eclectic. Who wouldn't want to go back and eat at a fledgling L'Etoile? But I'd also love to eat again at Nob Hill (where the WEAC headquarters are now) and gaze over Lake Monona, in the dining room that seemed to me the height of elegance. Was it?
I'd go back to Bud's House of Sandwiches (the current site of Glass Nickel on Atwood) for a red brat with my dad; and to Uncle Stanley's, a sandwich joint in University Square that had amazing yeasty bread. I'd order a spinach gateau at the Ovens of Brittany.
And of course, one more time, I'd sit at the counter at Rennebohm's. Not for the food, but for the esprit de corps. Rennie's, somehow, would have been the perfect home during the recent weekends of budget bill protests on the Square, just the right place to stop in and get warm.
I never got to go to Good Karma, or the Cathay House (with its weird, irresistible volcano facade, painted over but still visible at 2526 East Wash), and if I ever ate at the Cuba Club, I don't remember it.
I must keep reminding myself that it didn't actually serve Cuban food.