Madison’s restaurants are banking on community support, Restaurant Week to pull them through the next few months

Nearly a year into the pandemic, some owners still have their dining rooms closed

MADISON, Wis.– “This may seem kind of obvious, but the word that popped into my head was challenging,” said Matt Van Nest, asked to describe the last year in one word.

Van Nest owns Monroe Street’s Brasserie V and Middleton’s Longtable. Both restaurants have made it through the past year of the pandemic… but just barely.

“We’re used to our restaurants’ revenue coming from people all over the city,” explained Van Nest. “Tourism, too. Not much of that has been happening lately.”

Van Nest is hoping Madison’s first Restaurant Week of 2021 will re-energize locals and expand his customer base. The bi-annual event, organized by our partners at Madison Magazine, showcases the best the city’s food scene has to offer through specially-priced three-course meals. Most lunches cost $15, while dinners range from $25 to $35. The deals run through Saturday, Feb. 27.

What makes this version of the week unique is that many restaurants are offering both dine-in and to-go options. Some owners, like Van Nest, have chosen to remain to-go only.

“It’s all about the safety of our staff,” he said. “Customers can choose to dine at our restaurant. They can choose to take the risk. Our staff can’t.”

For that same reason, Francesco Mangano, chef and owner of Osteria Papavero, has also chosen to keep his dining room closed since March 17.

“I’m going to be optimistic and just say ‘interesting’,” said Mangano, chuckling when asked his word to describe the past year of business.

For 11 months, most Madison-area restaurants, like businesses nationwide, have seen their customer bases decline. Nowadays, most orders come from people living within two miles of Mangano and Van Nest’s restaurants.

“You’re less busy, but you feel like you’re almost more busy because you’re always thinking, ‘What can we do next week to get more business?'” questioned Van Nest. “It’s a never-ending, exhausting cycle.”

Both Longtable and Osteria Papavero are now among the 300 local businesses offering delivery through the Madison-based EatStreet, which has experienced a 33% boost in new clients since March 2020.

Brasserie V has its own online ordering system for carryout orders. Van Nest hopes that will help carry his business through the rest of the pandemic.

Mangano agreed, “It was an interesting year. I just hope I don’t have to go through another one like this.”