12 things you might not know about Madison Restaurant Week

Check out these tips to have a successful week

Ah, Restaurant Week. It’s that time of year when you can justify going out to eat multiple times in one week. And not just to any restaurants–some of Madison’s best. Summer Restaurant Week will take place July 22-27, with 50 participating restaurants to choose from. (Click here to browse this year’s menus.) In Madison Magazine’s 12th year of hosting Restaurant Week, we thought we’d offer 12 things you might not know about its history, as well as a few tips for this year.

1. Madison Magazine staff first had the idea for Restaurant Week after attending a conference in San Diego. The idea to bring Restaurant Week to Madison was first pitched in the summer of 2006 after Mike Kornemann, Madison Magazine’s former publisher, and Tiffany Kenney attended the City Regional Magazine Association conference in San Diego, where the concept was discussed among publishing and marketing attendees. Kornemann and Kenney joined forced with Craig Kuenning, owner of Quivey’s Grove; Marsha Castro, a partner in The Old Fashioned; and Barbara Wright, who was president of Madison Originals at the time, to bring the event to life. And while Madison is small compared to San Diego, Kornemann believes the event still measures up to larger cities. “Madison measures up to larger cities because we offer a great variety,” says Kornemann. “We have ethnic foods, steakhouses and fusion restaurants participating.”

2. Restaurant Week is a global event–and Madison has two per year. (Lucky us, right?) Let’s rewind back to the very first Restaurant Week in the U.S. When Democrats flocked to New York City for the 1992 Democratic Convention, restaurant owner Joe Baum partnered with Tim Zagat–founder and publisher of Zagat, a famous restaurant guide–and convinced restaurants to serve prix-fixe menus to hungry delegates. Fast forward 26 years and the concept has been picked up by cities all around the world. From London to Hong Kong to our very own Madison, Wisconsin, Restaurant Week is a global phenomenon. Though week dates differ per city, the idea is the same–delicious meals and a chance to sample restaurants’ cuisines at a lower cost point. In Madison, there are two Restaurant Weeks a year–one in the summer and one in the winter.
12 things you might not know about Madison Restaurant Week

3. Restaurant Week started off with 15 participating restaurants, but the list has since grown to 50. Since the start of Madison Restaurant Week, the list of eateries has almost doubled in size. What once was a list of 15 participating restaurants has now grown to 50, and some restaurants have been involved since the first year, which includes Harvest, Captain Bill’s, Lombardino’s, The Mariner’s Inn and Quivey’s Grove Stone House. Tavernakaya is a veteran participant and this year, it’s offering breaded pork shoulder with coconut red curry, Asian slaw and rice along with a green tea and red bean panna cotta this year. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar as well as Ruth’s Chris Steak House also have been serving beef for dinner for many Restaurant Weeks, and this year is no exception. Osteria Papavero also makes the list of long-time Restaurant Week participants serving affordable, mouth-watering dishes.

4. Seven of the original 15 participating restaurants are no longer in business–and we miss them! Gone but not forgotten are a little less than half of the original 15 from 2007. Cafe Continental, owned by Nick Shiavo, closed its doors on 108 King Street in September 2010. The Casbah also closed at 119 E. Main St., current home to The Rigby pub and grill. Cocoliquot, a French-inspired eatery, operated from 2005-2008 at 225 King St. Blue Marlin, a beloved seafood restaurant, closed after 29 years on one of the Square’s corners. The Dardanelles closed the doors of its Mediterranean outfit located at 1851 Monroe St. in 2010. Fyfe’s Corner Bistro, a steakhouse at 1344 E. Washington Ave., closed at the end of 2007. Monte’s Grill of Verona is also no longer–it is now It’s Time Grill & Pub at 608 W. Verona Ave.

5. Many of the meals have stayed the same price since 2007. The amount of food for your dollar has largely stayed the same, with lunches remaining at $15 since the start and more than 70 percent of restaurants still offering a prix-fixe menu at the original price of $25.

6. We welcome five new restaurants to the list this year. The Thirsty Goat is also new to the list this year, serving duck breast and a more casual companion of cheese curds. North of the Bayou and Mad Seafood Boiler bring you different seafood options including everything from crab enchiladas to a salmon poke bowl. Two other restaurants new to the list–and new to Madison–are Jardin, where meat is definitely on the menu, and Fuego Steak·Tapas·Vegan, offering both vegan lunch and dinner options.

7. It gives chefs the opportunity to be creative and try new recipes. Restaurant goers are not the only ones trying new food during Restaurant Week. Chefs have the opportunity to create a menu that differs from their usual offerings. That’s right–a lot of what you find on prix-fixe menus are new dishes. During the summer, chefs might experiment with farmers’ market fresh ingredients. Harvest, which frequently features seasonal ingredients, is featuring a salad of heirloom tomatoes with a black pepper-parmesan tuile and lovage vinaigrette and a pan seared haddock with a tomato-fennel broth, grilled bâtard bread and rouille sauce. If a recipe is a success, it’s not uncommon that it make its way onto a restaurant’s regular menu.

8. We have four restaurants on the list that have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. The James Beard Awards recognize excellence in cuisine, and for chefs, it is the highest culinary honor to receive. This year, Restaurant Week includes four restaurants headed by chefs who have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Dan Fox of the Heritage Tavern was a 2015, 2016 and 2017 semifinalist for Best Chef. This year for Restaurant Week, his menu offers tamarind glazed mahi mahi as well as a roast beef tenderloin and braised short-rib. Francesco Mangano of Osteria Papavero was a 2016 semifinalist joining Harvest chef semifinalists Tami Lax (2008) and Derek Rowe (2009) as well as Sardine‘s John Gadau (2013) and Phillip Hurley (2013).

9. You have a chance to win free meals. Did someone say free? Yes, yes we did. Share a photo of your dining experience on social media for a chance to win two free $25 vouchers to our Winter Restaurant Week. Simply post your photo on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook using #RWMadison. You can also give us a shout out on Instagram by using the handles @madisonrestaurantweek or @madisonmagazine. We want to see your favorite dishes!

10. Dessert after lunch is a must. For a lot of food lovers, a meal isn’t complete without a little something sweet. You’re familiar with the dessert after dinner tradition, but Restaurant Week gives you more than just a once-a-day treat. Each restaurant offering $15 prix-fixe lunch menus has three different desserts to choose from. Avenue Club and The Bubble Up Bar offers a classic cheesecake topped with seasonal berries. Buck & Honey’s is saying “let them eat cake” with two gluten-free options on its menu–salted caramel and flourless chocolate. Let’s not forget about CIRC, which is serving a ginger crème caramel with a blackberry compote and brown butter streusel. So when you’ve finished the last crumb from that tasty lunch entree, remember to put your napkin back on your lap, because during Restaurant Week, lunch dessert is definitely a thing.

11. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Restaurant Week gives Madisonians the opportunity to eat at restaurants that might otherwise be out of your weeknight price range. Not only that, but a lot of restaurants have food items that vary from the traditional menu. As a result, thousands of residents participate over the week, flocking to favorite eateries or trying new ones. It is very important to make reservations in advance. Not only will a reservation guarantee you a table and a meal off the prix-fixe menu, it makes it easier on restaurant workers during a busy week in the summer season.

12. You can give us feedback–good or bad, we want to hear it. After each Restaurant Week, Madison Magazine sends out a survey to subscribers on our email mailing list. Whether you simply want to share with us your favorite dish or disclose a brilliant idea for next year, we welcome all feedback. Not on our email mailing list? We can change that–just click here to subscribe.