These days, chefs and restaurateurs are rebelling against being tethered to the four-walls-bricks-and-mortar model of an eatery. Locavores are out dining in fields. In Austin, Texas, yummies are being dispensed from vintage travel trailers parked in vacant lots. And in Madison, Christopher Berge wants to build a cafe accessible only by bike or foot next to the southwest bike path.
For Berge, the man behind the Weary Traveler, Restaurant Magnus and the Blue Marlin, this is not just a pop stand for bicyclists. He considers the Badger Den, as he's dubbed the wayside, a community service (bathrooms, bike pumps, refreshments), an enhancement of the natural scene and inspiration for less oil-dependent transportation.
He'd also like to employ kids from the neighborhood with 40 jobs; to embrace seasonality in the menu and serving hours; and to close before sunset. The initial sketches for the cafe show infrastructure below grade, materials of local fieldstone and reclaimed timber, and, above ground, tables and chairs made of tree stumps among native plantings. "I'd rather hire a gardener than spend money on air conditioning," Berge says.
But many nearby residents did not immediately think, "Wow, that's so cool."
"The alert went out" via listservs and word of mouth, says April Hoffman, who wrote a letter to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz objecting to the plan (copying media including Isthmus). Hoffman relates how, in the early 1980s, locals went up against MGE over tree trimming and won, a story meant to warn that there are some things the near-west-side neighborhood will not put up with.
Opponents point to food services on Monroe Street and Regent Street. Berge counters that those busy streets aren't safe for kids to bike to; a path cafe would provide services yet retain the sense of being in nature. There's further concern about noise and congestion, both on the path and on nearby streets, where people might park and walk to the cafe. Conversely, Berge envisions a community gathering spot and a unique amenity that will make Madison a "platinum bike city."
A cafe, Hoffman says, is a gateway to more commercialism. Bikers she sees on the path look "serene" in their contact with nature. She doesn't want that spoiled: "We try to keep a little nature in the city, there is so little of it."
The patch of woods in question, shoehorned between the path, Glenway Golf Course and Forest Hill Cemetery, is "one of the few undeveloped woods areas, green spaces, right in the city," says Kate Edwards, who walks her dog there. A path cafe may be a good idea, Edwards allows, but this is "the wrong location."
The site, midway between Glenway Street and Virginia Terrace, is not exactly the crown jewel of the Madison park system. (Those looking for nature would find more of it in the nearby Arboretum, Hoyt Park or Lakeshore Nature Preserve.) It's not a park at all, just some hard-packed dirt trails used for dog walking and mountain biking, interrupted by a drainage area and big power lines.
Houses run all along the other side of the path, a former railroad line. Some homeowners have adopted the area between their lots and the path, creating patios and gardens. But for all its suburban look and feel, neighbors say that come sundown, it's like you're in the middle of nowhere, and that's something they want to retain.
Both sides are devoted to nature. Berge cites nature artist Andy Goldsworthy as an inspiration. Perhaps a better figure to look to is Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City's Central Park, who shaped land for human use yet created scenes people perceive as natural. Central Park retains wild rambles and incorporates concessions.
Madison Magazine columnist John Roach's And Berge is open to input "to further develop the project. I'm a sponge for ideas."
And Berge is open to input "to further develop the project. I'm a sponge for ideas."