Despite its modest size, the city of Middleton has long been a reliable dining destination, a fact doubtless noted by Money magazine arbiters when they recently designated the town the Best Place to Live. The dining scene has changed, though. Back when the sprawling "lifestyle retail center" Greenway Station was just a sparkle in an ambitious developer's eye, most of the action was east of the Beltline.
The opportunities for a gourmet experience were limited, of course. But whether you were headed to the Village Green for burgers, the Stamm House for a bountiful fish fry, Fitzgerald's for a steak or the festive, white-tablecloth-draped Louisianne's, Etc. for some rich New Orleans-influenced cuisine, you knew that you were assured of good, fairly priced food served in a warm atmosphere.
Chances were, a veteran waitress from around the block or a guileless, fresh-faced kid matriculating down the street at Middleton High would serve you, adding an extra dollop of local flavor to the dining experience every time they shattered a few syllables with their Midwestern twang.
No, it wasn't the kind of restaurant eating you'd find in the big city. But that was its charm. There was a dearth of exoticism and, with a few exceptions, a whole lotta wholesomeness.
Thankfully, this portion of the Middleton dining scene hasn't been steamrollered by the food-trend self-consciousness that began to reach a fever pitch in the 1990s. The Friday fish fry is still one of the week's key social events, and the choice between soup and salad still perplexes those of us who wonder how chicken noodle and wedge of iceberg slathered with Thousand Island dressing became an essential binary opposition.
But Middleton isn't Mayberry. It's morphing into a slick suburb as rapidly as any town on Madison's periphery. And its slate of new sit-down restaurants is expanding just as quickly. The bulk of them are west of the Beltine, and nearly all of those are upmarket, "casual-plus" chain operations that offer Americanized versions of ethnic food in settings that suggest faraway places, with help from Disney-style stabs at verisimilitude.
A ceramic artifact here, a stained-glass window there, and you're in a graceful Mexican hacienda, a previously unknown corner of the Forbidden City or a rustic stone-and-mortar pub in the Irish countryside. It's the kind of destination dining replicated in burbs from coast to coast.
Moreover, casual-plus isn't Applebees. Forget the tired "family grill" concept, or even the now-omnipresent "quick-casual" sandwich factories like Panera. That once-hot dining segment is so yesterday. In fact, Quantified Marketing Group, a restaurant consultant and trend tracker, noted back in January that it's change or die in the fast-growing chain business.
To survive, the sit-down chains must make their menus stand out from the crowd by emphasizing their culinary uniqueness, add an inviting flair to their interiors that'll bring in families from the coveted $50,000-and-over income bracket and, in general, create a more sumptuous dining experience.
Clearly, upscale chains feel at home in the new, parking-lot-fronted Middleton of lifestyle malls and low-rise office parks. But I suspect the chains are so far removed from that older, friendlier Middleton dining scene that they exist in a space utterly removed from the "soup, salad and smile" eating you expect from a well-preserved small city or town.
To find out if I was just trapped in the prejudice of aging boomer nostalgia or really on to something, I made an entirely unscientific comparison of three locally owned restaurants just off Parmenter, Middleton's traditional main street, and three of the corporate places west of the Beltline. It was a waistline-expanding - and intermittently palate-pleasing - trip through the yin and the yang of Middleton dining.
My first stop was Claddagh Irish Pub, based in Solon, Ohio. In the past, my wife and I went there for two reasons: a) Claddagh was open in the late afternoon, when many mom-and-pop places are closed, and b) the restaurant offers outdoor seating - a definite plus in the warm months, even if your table overlooks Greenway Station's parking lot.
Don't get me wrong. I was happy the bar offered Guinness, Harp lager and Smithwick's ale on draft, and other beverages that are regularly available at pubs in Ireland. But convenience and the chance to commune with the sun were always the main draw.
This time around, we dined inside, and I was immediately struck by how many bits and pieces of Ireland are crammed in the dark wood and mostly faux stone interior. There are Celtic designs on the ceiling. Examples of Guinness' famous toucan advertisements are attached to the walls, willy-nilly. A small, private dining room in the back is fashioned to look like a stone chapel, replete with safely secular stained glass. And Irish pop and traditional music play non-stop on Claddagh's demure sound system.
No wonder the Dane County Shamrock Club Inc. holds meetings here. Claddagh contains far more Irish signifiers than half the slicked-up modern pubs that line the streets of Dublin. Toss in determinedly friendly managers who circulate through the dining rooms every 10 minutes to ask how your Claddagh experience is progressing, and you feel like a churl complaining that the place is about as authentic and substantial as a movie set.
Similarly, the food mostly suggests Irish fare rather than re-creating it. A few dishes - bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, Irish beef stew with Guinness - will probably transport more suggestible types to the Emerald Isle. However, I'm quite certain that a real Irishman would be just as baffled as I was by my "corned beef and cabbage rolls": heavy meat, cheese- and potato-stuffed wanton skins crisped to a dun-colored brown in the deep fryer.
My Monaghan meatloaf melt sandwich was more appealing (here the omnipresent Guinness serves as a basting sauce), but the oil used to toast the bread on the grill lingered on the tongue far too long. To me at least, it tasted like quintessential American chain food.
And no, that's not an endorsement.
On the night we visited, Claddagh did hit some high notes. My wife and I were impressed by the freshness of the large, crisp filet of cod featured in the pub's version of fish and chips. A sweet, spicy shamrock chicken sandwich was also fine. Unsurprisingly, both of my cool Smithwick's enhanced the dining experience.
But when the check for two tops out at over $40 without dessert and excluding drinks, Claddagh ought to do a lot more to warrant the big crowd that builds from happy hour to dinnertime.
Fifteen minutes into our late lunch at P.F. Chang's China Bistro in the rapidly developing Discovery Springs neighborhood, I realized that it's possible to drive between the knot of upscale chain restaurants at Greenway Station and the other grouping of new casual-plus places in Discovery Springs without ever driving through downtown Middleton.
Families and expense-account professionals and folks on Match.com-initiated dates - all could drive from faux Ireland to faux China to faux Mexico and completely bypass the city's quaint old train station, and the tidy Victorians draped with red-white-and-blue bunting for the Fourth of July. They'd opted out of small-town Wisconsin life for something you could find in the better parking lots of Naperville and Scarsdale and greater San Diego. And globe-hopping chains like Chang's, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., had taken them there.
As we ate our underspiced spareribs and rather ordinary kung pao shrimp, I wondered if my doppelgänger was sitting in the P.F. Chang's at the Boca Raton Galleria, noshing on the very same meal and also thinking: "You know, the black ceiling, the round, white light covers attached to it and the fake stone walls here add a touch of elegance. Plus, the mural over the semi-open kitchen is a nice touch for a chain. But I know at least one Chinese restaurant in this town that has it all over this kitchen.
"And, you know, it's mostly staffed by actual Chinese people."
I haven't had an emptier culinary experience in a long time, and Chang's quasi-sophisticated decor made it seem that much stranger.
What are people coming here for? The parking? A simulation of a China that doesn't exist?
The casual-plus experience was taking a lot out of me. And judging from the bathroom scale, pumping up the volume with hidden calories. We decided it was time to check out one of the established restaurants in downtown Middleton and recharge on some of that "Hometown U.S.A." feeling.
What better place to start than Bavaria Cafe? A decade old and a favorite of seniors and young families alike, Bavaria isn't a country café exactly. But a small cold-case full of pies and cakes greets you as you come in the door, and with everything from schnitzels to pastas to salads, the menu troops well beyond small-town standards like mashed potatoes heaped with your choice of meat and gravy.
It's more compact and far less sleek than the neo-retro Hubbard Avenue Diner a block away, but there's a certain Midwestern reality to it. Naturally, every entree includes a choice between soup and salad.
I ordered the beef tenderloin kebab special with yogurt dill sauce, and my wife went for a chicken sandwich dressed up with balsamic vinegar, Parmesan and fresh shredded basil. I expected the perfunctory waiter to ask me how I'd like the meat done, but he wasn't forthcoming on that point. I figured I'd see how the cook normally deals with a decent cut of meat. My wife really didn't want soup or salad, but that was too confusing. So she decided on salad.
On the upside, our meals came quickly, the salads featured some very sweet cherry tomatoes, and the cook understood perfectly that tenderloin doesn't stay that way if it's broiled to a crunchy brown. But Bavaria failed to be as homey and friendly as I'd hoped it would be.
Maybe it's that it overlooks a bank parking lot. Or maybe it's that the same commercial pop and country that cycles on the restaurant's sound system also blasts inside quick oil change shops and Perkins restaurants all over Dane County. In any case, the quaint downtown location wasn't enough to make the meal an essential Middleton dining experience.
Our meal was low-key and inexpensive, and the food was fresh enough. We had evening-strolled a couple blocks to Bavaria's entrance, something no one ever seems to do out in Discovery Springs. But something was lacking. Maybe if I'd been a local. Maybe if someone had walked by and waved hello. Maybe that would have made the difference.
I don't know. Something was missing.
A hundred feet down from P.F. Chang's on Discovery Springs' emerging restaurant row, Lubbock, Texas-based Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy dispenses with any pretense of sedate stone-and-wood elegance. The pan-Mexican eatery wants you to think you're eating under the arches of a white, stuccoed colonial courtyard. Maybe the concept's kitschy (e.g., fake palm trees growing up to a painted cerulean sky that means to emulate an interior design quirk apparently embraced by restaurants in Mexico). On the other hand, it's also kind of fun.
I'd have thought twice about the Rivera-inspired mural on the back wall that manages to touch on the country's troubled history of severe socioeconomic inequality without embracing a political position. But, hey, that's just me.
When we entered Abuelo's, my wife noted that a plaque in the colorful vestibule indicated that the restaurant's flan had won "best dessert" at the 2005 edition of Taste of Madison. That seemed a good sign, and so did the fact the complimentary salsa brought to the table by our friendly waiter didn't betray the unctuous mouth-feel of a half dozen preservatives and stabilizers.
Since Abuelo's menu picks and chooses items from different regions of Mexico, we didn't expect anything to be exceptional and, in fact, nothing was. I ordered chiles rellenos, one filled with cheese and one with beef. My wife had the special "Pechuga Con Calabaza Lunch," which consisted of a chicken breast and an assortment of vegetables (red peppers, corn) smothered in a cream sauce.
Generous portions of rice, refried beans and Abuelo's signature side, the moderately spicy potato dish "papas con chile," accompanied the meals. We also ordered sangría, which was sufficiently fruity and clearly not from a mix.
Presentation is not the kitchen's strong suit, and both of our meals spread over the plate in one heavily sauced mass. That wasn't a big surprise, though. What was surprising was that despite Abuelo's insistence that everything is made fresh every day, the various sauces that covered our entrees tasted suspiciously like they'd come from a can or the freezer. The unnecessary queso sauce that wilted the deep-fried coating of my already cheese-filled chile relleno was particularly disappointing.
That said, the food was no better or worse than a lot of Americanized Mexican fare. Which meant, of course, that it was overshadowed completely by Abuelo's entertaining mock-hacienda decor. Was it a "Stepford" experience? Not completely. But that "I could be anywhere" vibe never went away.
Fortunately, a return to downtown Middleton was all it took to banish sad culinary memories of that final trip into the unreality of casual-plus. We chose the country Italian-focused Vin Santo, partly because I've always marveled at the preserved loaves of bread that decorate its interior, and partly because, as it turns out, Italian places are colonizing this part of the city.
There's a branch of Roman Candle on Parmenter, and a pizza and gelato restaurant called Villa Dolce - run by the same people who own Bavaria - is there, too. A branch of Trattoria Tutto Pasta occupies a large space in Randy Alexander's recent redevelopment of a faded industrial portion of the downtown. (It replaced another Italian restaurant.) Apparently nothing comforts the hometown folks like a plate of pasta or a pizza pie.
To its credit, Vin Santo (which is named after a sweet dessert wine) is definitely a very comforting place. Mama's not working in the kitchen, but the menu overflows with all manner of pasta, and if you're pining for the impossibly blue water of the Mediterranean, Vin Santo offers just enough seafood to rekindle memories of your own personal immersion in la dolce vita.
Though the food's Italian, the decor is a friendly hodge-podge of mismatched chairs, hand-painted tables, the odd Italian poster and, of course, those wonderful petrified loaves.
And more than anything else, the DIY approach to decoration makes the restaurant feel utterly local. So you're not surprised when diners coming through the door greet neighbors and friends who've already settled into their meals. You expect it.
The food underscores Vin Santo's homey feel, too. I started with a big bowl of calamari nestled in red sauce that was so hearty, I feared that I wouldn't be able to take bite one of the cheese-filled spinach manicotti shells I'd ordered as an entree. The sauce had some kick to it, too, thanks to a generous sprinkling of hot peppers. And unlike my experiences on the other side of the Beltline, I found myself concentrating on the food in front of me rather than the restaurant's decor.
The entrees were fine, too. But, boy, were they big. If Vin Santo has a weakness, it's the cook's predilection for filling each plate and bowl to capacity. My wife's Portobello Ripieno con Pollo (mushroom caps filled with chicken breast, pesto and spinach and then topped with cheese) could have been half the size it was. You could almost hear a stereotypical Italian "mama" from the movies pleading with us to "Eat! Eat!" when I put down my fork, defeated. I guess Vin Santo fortifies with abundance.
I hoped I'd saved the best for last when I called Louisianne's Etc. for a reservation on a blistering Thursday night. I had pleasant memories of rich crawfish dishes and steaks shot through with Creole flavors from other visits years ago, and acquaintances had indicated that the food still upheld a high standard.
One thing that hadn't changed much was Louisianne's attractive vaulted ceiling and separate grotto-like dining rooms. The bar area was louder than I remember and so was the piano player working his way through jazz standards and Crescent City repertoire. But that just lent the evening an unforced conviviality that was very welcome.
I wouldn't say Louisianne's food emphasizes the small-town ambience of old Middleton. Pastas bathed in cream sauces and meat dishes stuffed and/or dressed with seafood - these aren't farm café fare. You tuck in at Louisianne's when you're celebrating and don't care much about the size of the check when you've popped the final complimentary mint.
All diners are offered a choice between soup and salad, but this isn't just a tip of the chef's toque to dining conventions of the past. Here our soup was an African pork stew roused with cumin and cinnamon. Culinary matters matter at Louisianne's.
Needless to say, we were satisfied with our meals. An appetizer of zesty barbecue shrimp, airy crab puffs and earthy stuffed mushroom caps made the palate sing. Then it was on to a shrimp and crawfish étouffée (a helpful waitress suggested brightly that I mix the two crustaceans) that featured a smooth, almost buttery tomato sauce dotted with crisp green pepper and fresh scallions. A chicken dish made with Creole mustard sauce sounded one strong note, but its brashness was welcome after all those hours spent eating toned-down Americanized ethnic offerings.
More than anything else, I guess what I really wanted out of our tour of the local dining spots was food that was more than just "good enough" and didn't employ the kind of culinary shortcuts that come out of a mix or a can. The most colorful, market-tested, ethnic-themed decor can't mask food that is assembled according to a corporate recipe, and that's what you get at casual-plus restaurants.
I can understand why the new Middleton might want a few of those places. They're big and flashy and convenient. And the food is often "good enough." But they have no real personality, and certainly no soul. Downtown Middleton still has both, and so do many of its restaurants.
Here's hoping the city's residences and visitors keep patronizing them. They're a strong bulwark against the parking-lot-fronted sameness that keeps marching across America.