Flour power: The morning bun

The origin of the fabled Morning Bun
Flour power: The morning bun
Susan Holding
The Morning Bun by the Ovens of Brittany

During the 1970s, our community witnessed riots, rebellion and radical change. Even dining out was turned on its head. Before the arrival of Joanna Guthrie and the opening of Ovens of Brittany, fine dining meant going to one of our city’s many supper clubs. In the 1960s, Guthrie was the charismatic leader of a hippie sect in Chicago known as the Phoenix Academy of Cultural Exploration and Design. She was a guru who preached the improvement and beautification of American culture. In about 1970, Guthrie and some of her followers decided to relocate to Madison and open a restaurant, essentially as a means to support themselves.

Despite their lack of training and experience, they decided to launch a classical French restaurant in the basement of a building at the corner of State and East Johnson streets. It’s difficult to believe now, but our downtown then was remarkable for its excess of boarded up and broken windows. It wasn’t considered by most a desirable spot to start a business–and some considered it downright dangerous. The new bistro had only nine tables but was like nothing Madison had experienced before. The menu was classical French, with a nod to natural and even some local ingredients. I remember going there as a graduate student and being enraptured by dishes like cassoulet, bouillabaisse and its signature Guthrie Bun–a brioche brimming with beef Bourguignon.

It wasn’t long before the Ovens expanded upstairs, adding a two-level cafe that served baked goods and light meals throughout the day. Dubbed the Bakers’ Room, here the focus was an open kitchen where diners could observe chefs crafting glorious pastries–cakes like the Queen of Sheba Torte, croissants and Karen Buns. But most famous of all was the Morning Bun. Baker at the time Nancy Christy says the menus had been decided before the restaurant had even opened, and on that menu was the Morning Bun. Christy recalls former Bakers’ Room manager Odessa Piper experimenting frenetically to come up with a recipe for the pastry. Christy says she recommended that since they already were making croissant dough, that they use it for the Morning Bun. This idea would seem like a no-brainer today, Christy says, but at the time the food revolution was in its infancy and this was an innovation. She says they tried several fillings and shapes before deciding on the homey one with cinnamon and brown sugar. It became so well-liked and so imitated all over the country that the original was renamed the Brittany Bun.

Ovens of Brittany seemed to enjoy endless popularity, and in 1978 a second location began operation on Monroe Street, followed by another in Shorewood Hills, and then one on the east side. Ironically, its success would eventually lead to its demise. By the 1980s, the restaurant scene in Madison had changed dramatically for the better, and in no small part due to Ovens’ influence. Piper and her partner Jim Carey would leave the Ovens to start L’Etoile. Many other alumni would follow, going on to fuel such places as the Wilson Street Grill, the Blue Marlin and Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, to name a few. In 1995, the Ovens of Brittany would close, but its legendary Morning Bun lives on. La Brioche/True Foods claims to possess the archetype recipe, but many others, including Madison Sourdough and Batch Bakehouse, have created their own admirable knockoffs. Truly, no other local restaurant has left such a legacy–one that we still relish today.

Dan Curd is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine. His Relish column appears monthly.