Fateful flames: A look back on fires affecting beloved Madison-area eateries

Recent blaze is a solemn reminder of past fires
Fateful flames: A look back on fires affecting beloved Madison-area eateries
State Journal Photo by Richard Sroda
Firefighters scramble as they battle a downtown blaze that occurred on Dec. 12, 1961 at 450 State St. when El-Kismet, an Armenian café, and at least eight other shops succumbed to a raging inferno.

A ruptured gas main triggered a devastating fire in Sun Prairie this past July that destroyed or shut down several bars and restaurants. It got me thinking about other Madison restaurants that have suffered similar fates. Fires are common in the food service industry, where open flames, combustible grease and hot electrical equipment are tools of the trade. Over the years, our city has witnessed many supper clubs, diners and bars reduced to ashes. For some it means the end of their business, while others find new opportunities.

Tragedy struck at the Heidelberg-Hofbrau Restaurant on Dec. 6, 1946. A four-alarm fire threatened to wipe out the Main Street side of the Square, eventually engulfing neighboring Rennebohm’s and Hub Clothing Store. Every time firefighters thought they had the pyre under control, exploding liquor bottles rekindled it. Fire Chief Edward Page claimed that it was one of the most hazardous and serious threats of its kind the city had ever seen. Another major downtown blaze occurred on Dec. 13, 1961, at 450 State St. (Lisa Link Peace Park) when El-Kismet, an Armenian cafe, and at least eight other shops succumbed to a raging inferno.

Not all fires have unhappy endings. On April 4, 1958, the Ace of Clubs, located in a remodeled farmhouse on East Washington Avenue, burned to the ground – after experiencing its fourth fire in three decades. Owner Leo Welch rebuilt on the same property and aptly named his new steakhouse Welch’s Embers. Later it became Prime Quarter Steakhouse, which closed after another fire in 2015. Johnny Hunter and the Underground Food Collective took over the Mifflin Street space vacated by Cafe Montmartre in the fall of 2010. Eight months later, the acclaimed farm-to-table Underground Kitchen was a burnt-out shell. Quickly, the collective picked up the pieces and opened a new restaurant, Forequarter, which was soon followed by Underground Butcher and a catering company.

These conflagrations weren’t always accidents. A fire that captured the city’s attention for months during the summer of 1931 was the torching of Nick Cuccia’s Restaurant at 903 Regent St. At first it was thought an exploding coffee boiler might have been to blame, but while in the hospital with life-threatening burns, 20-year-old Charles Cuccia confessed that Nick Cuccia (no relation) paid him $50 to start the fire. Charles recovered but ended up in the Green Bay reformatory while Nick got off with a $750 fine.

Early on a subzero morning in January 1982, a three-alarm fire broke out at the corner of Broom and Gorham streets, home to a women’s restaurant and bar, Lysistrata, and four other enterprises. The frigid weather hampered firefighters’ efforts and the building was a total loss. A month-long investigation concluded the cause was arson. Investigators pursued several leads, including either a grudge or Lysistrata’s financial woes. Despite identifying a suspect, authorities never charged anyone.

Even if many of these disasters didn’t result in the loss of life, a lot of business plans went up in smoke, to say the least.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.