The dining scene is not what it was 10 years ago.
Of course, it’s not even what it was three years ago. The pandemic tipped the restaurant model on its head, challenging current restaurants’ operations and playing backdrop to new opens along with dispiriting closures. Through it all, we’ve witnessed just how passionate the people behind local restaurants are and what lengths they’ll go to in order to keep doing what they love. Many have ushered in a new era of creativity and innovation that makes us excited for what’s ahead and what’s happening right now.
We’ve selected 10 restaurants, new and renewed, that are redefining how we dine in 2023: One celebrates the dinner party, others are putting a fresh spin on fine dining, another brings vegetables to the head of the table (in-house and at home) and a few are taking comfort food to the next level. We’re also spotlighting seven chefs who are changing the industry for the better.
In each of their stories, we’re reminded how important restaurants are in defining a city’s culture. This is a celebration of what they bring to the table for us. –AB
If you’re not on Lady Bird’s already-full waitlist, you’ll have to stand by for its return this spring. But take our word for it — it’s worth it. At first, partners Seanna Whalen and Nick Larke thought they would just barely fill 16 seats for the once-a-week dinner parties hosted at Casetta Kitchen and Counter. Now capacity has expanded to 30-plus guests per week, and the demand for the dinner party only continues to grow, with hopeful Madisonians clamoring to claim their spot for the intimate dining experience.
After closing time most Saturdays, Casetta, a popular sandwich spot on West Washington Avenue, transforms into Lady Bird. Whalen and Larke, who work weekdays at Casetta, met in Chicago at the onset of the pandemic. They began hosting dinner parties in Chicago with Larke’s roommates and, eventually, a rotating series of neighbors. A sense of community and connection over food developed, and when they moved to Madison in 2021, they were inspired to re-create these intimate dinner parties for the public.
With the help of a few friends, Larke creates Lady Bird’s prix fixe courses while Whalen assists in the kitchen and manages the front-of-house experience. “If you’re familiar with Casetta and then you walk into Lady Bird on a Saturday night, it’s changed,” Whalen says. “It’s dim and there are candles, and there is wine on the shelves and wine glasses, and it just feels like a different space. As well as one that you’re already familiar with.” Lady Bird provides a special yet recognizable experience for its guests — much like you would expect at a dinner party hosted in the home of close friends.
For Whalen, it’s all about creating an atmosphere for guests and creating a feeling of belonging. There’s something endearing about the way Whalen talks about the importance of hospitality. “We have always talked about how service has to be better than the food,” she says. “I believe that if someone goes out to dinner and has a bad experience with the food, but the service is wonderful, they’re much more likely to go back to that restaurant.”
That doesn’t mean any part of the cooking is sacrificed for the sake of good service. Larke points out that the prix fixe, family-style menu allows them to focus on seasonality in their dishes, as well as cut waste and make more efficient menu plans. Lady Bird’s menu pulls from “parts of all of the experiences [that Whalen and Larke] have collected” over their years working in food service. The pair shops for ingredients at market each Saturday morning and works with other local farms, using Madison’s unique proximity to producers to help tell those stories. (Staying true to the market season is also a factor in their decision to take downtime in the winter months.) Then, they cook Saturday night’s dishes in the Casetta kitchen and plate courses on thrifted vintage plates that remind Whalen of her grandmother’s dining set. They serve whimsical, colorful courses, like porchetta and local strawberries, painterly market salads, fish swimming in vibrant sauces and handmade breads.
The idea of creating a more approachable experience for both diners and service workers is a foundation of the dinner program. The size of Lady Bird’s weekly guest list, the space-sharing execution, the partnership, the prix fixe menu — all make it possible for Whalen and Larke to share their vision of food and communal dining. “I think it shouldn’t cost a lot of money to open a restaurant,” Larke says, adding that the era of serving on $80 dishware and using the thinnest glassware possible is over. The pair thinks that diners want something different these days, but not necessarily something new. “I don’t think we’re reinventing anything,” Whalen says. “This is what so many people in this industry have been doing on their nights off. Maybe you couldn’t afford to go out to eat at a restaurant because you’re a cook who might not [be] making enough money. Instead, you would have people over to cook together. It’s just something that’s really special.” 222 W. Washington Ave., ladybirdmadison.com –EW
East Johnson Family Restaurant
Kyle Johnson and Gwen Shales initially thought they’d be moving their popular coffee and sandwich shop, Johnson Public House, aka JPH, up the street. Instead, they ended up with a new restaurant baby to nurture alongside their two actual human children. Sometimes that’s how family goes.
But in a very real sense, the addition of Johnson Family Restaurant, shortened to JFR made perfect sense for this husband-and-wife team. JPH was already one of the Johnson Street neighborhood’s beating hearts, and now JFR has added comfort food to the familiar, next-door family vibe, making that heart grow even more than the Grinch’s ever did.
“We wanted it to be food we were passionate about, with a nice, casual, diner-like vibe,” says Johnson. With a down-to-earth menu that features multiple types of burgers and hot dogs as well as a near-perfect version of eggs Benedict served at brunch on weekends, this is a family we’re only too happy to join. 824 E. Johnson St., eastjohnsonfam.com –ARC
Les Délices de Awa
For Awa Sibi, Les Délices de Awa feels like her destiny. Sibi, who first came to the U.S. from the Ivory Coast to finish her college degree, says, “[Les Délices de Awa] would have always happened regardless, but I didn’t know that it would happen this way.” Les Délices de Awa, a catering business, is really a story of faith and adaptation — much like Sibi’s immigration journey. In the limbo of green card processing, Sibi started cooking the meals of her West African homeland — like Ivorian staple attieke and fish, as well as thieboudienne, a rich fried rice-like dish from Senegal — to provide for her son and fill a void in access to West African foods and flavors in Madison. In 2018, she started as a vendor at Africa Fest and eventually found connections and a home kitchen in the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center that allowed her to continue cooking for home delivery and pickup. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted her business model to catering and manufacturing, and put a hold on the planned launch of Les Délices de Awa’s food truck. Despite a series of pivots, Sibi can always find the opportunities that let her stay faithful to her vision and her affinity for cooking. “I’m very sure that it’s in my genes,” Sibi says about cooking. “It’s a thing that my fingers have. It’s impossible not to use.” lesdelicesdeawa.com –EW
The Harvey House
The New York Times confirmed what Madisonians already knew — The Harvey House is something special. When the supper club-inspired restaurant that was built in a historic train depot on West Washington Avenue landed on the newspaper’s 2022 Restaurant List, owners Shaina Robbins Papach and Joe Papach were completely surprised — and touched. “It’s very personal to Joe and I because both of us religiously read the Wednesday food section of The New York Times and have [done so] since we were both in our early 20s or younger,” Robbins Papach says. The culinary duo is settling into year two of The Harvey House, and it’s clear how passionate they are about continuing to set the bar higher and higher for themselves. Every night of service is a practice in perfecting hospitality, from the shrimp cocktail course to the Superior walleye main dish to the elegant meal-ending pavlova. “We are super proud of where we are and we also have a really long way to go,” Robbins Papach says. 644 W. Washington Ave., theharveyhouse.com –AB
The Ready Set
With a menu featuring a tasty array of Wisco-centric pizzas, burgers and pasta, The Ready Set has settled comfortably into the heart of downtown Oregon in the location that once housed the venerable Charlie’s on Main. You might even say it’s become a local fixture, even though it only just opened in February 2022.
The suburban restaurant’s four owners? They were all born and raised in Madison. Three now live in Madison, one in Verona.
Former Promega culinary director Nate Herndon; Matthew Stebbins (who also owns Brothers Three and co-owns Nattspil); marketing director Jessi Pacetti; and chief hospitality officer Noelle Tarpey (former manager of The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. and Monty’s Blue Plate Diner) teamed up on the project.
“It was just the sense of a need in some of these outlying areas that have to drive to get a Madison-type aesthetic,” says Tarpey, speaking on behalf of her and her longtime friends and Madison West High School grads.
Given that the pandemic forced most of us to eat out much closer to home — a trend that’s still going strong — the strategy seems especially savvy. Tarpey credits Stebbins as the group’s mastermind and touts The Ready Set’s home-away-from-home vibe as one of the reasons it’s won over a growing group of Oregon regulars. “People are hungry for this feeling of reconnecting to something. And we’ve all drunk the geeky hospitality Kool-Aid,” jokes Tarpey.
People are also apparently hungry for The Ready Set’s menu, which, thanks to Herndon’s knack for presenting eclectic entrees and elevating local produce, includes a wild mushroom and spinach pizza held together with a Sarvecchio white sauce, and a fettuccine dish that leads with sweet potatoes and spinach. An app menu that includes hand-breaded Farmer John’s cheese curds sure doesn’t hurt, either.
The Ready Set isn’t the group’s only Madison-adjacent project: They also recently opened Good Co., a golf-themed but more-than-a-clubhouse restaurant next to the new Pioneer Pointe Golf Course in Verona. 113 S. Main St., Oregon,thereadysetoregon.com –ARC
Those gorgeous, almost edible colors adorning the walls? They’re deliberate. So are the gorgeous and entirely edible colors of the food on the plates at Tucumã, the Brazilian restaurant chef Lorraine Chiapim recently opened in Middleton. It’s all tied to the Amazon forest berry for which the place is named — a palm berry with thin, yellowish skin and a bright-orange, black-and-white interior.
“I think we eat first with our eyes,” says Chiapim. “All of this was meant to be beautiful.”
Intentions realized, and then some. Just try not to gasp at the cake in a jar, a multilayered dessert made with brownies, bright white cream and thinly sliced strawberries. Or at the signature picanha sandwich, with its fatty steak on toasted ciabatta, contrasted with greens and a yellow tucumã aioli. Everything on this menu is a kaleidoscope of color just crying out to be ’grammed. 3301 Parmenter St., tucumafood.com –ARC
Turn Key is the cool kid on Madison’s dining map. Every city needs one: a new-to-the-scene restaurant that’s still flying under the radar, doesn’t take itself too seriously and masterfully straddles the line between effortless and trendy. Turn Key is that place, an eatery that avoids a label, because labels are too defining and very uncool. Get a plate of fries, or be more adventurous with the gyro tartare. Make it a full meal and order the crispy lake whitefish while saving room for a mint sundae. It’s like someone decided they were only going to put the stuff they like best on the menu, fancy or not (but most often fancy-leaning), and that’s perfectly fine, because they’re not trying to prove themselves to anyone. The eatery was open before you barely even knew it was going into the building that formerly housed a Pasqual’s Cantina location on East Washington Avenue. The owners — Brian Bartels, Ryan Huber and Sam Parker — made fast but effective changes to the interior that transformed the space. Now it’s a spot to play a game of shuffleboard before you order a craft cocktail at the bar, just hoping you might be lucky enough to achieve status as a regular down the line. 1344 E. Washington Ave., turnkeymadison.com –AB
Ollie’s & St. Charles Station
Last September, David Heide closed the doors on his 15-year-old restaurant Liliana’s. Originally the namesake of Heide’s first child, who now goes by Ollie and uses they/them pronouns, Heide felt compelled to reimagine the space into two new concepts.
Ollie’s, open now, is a casual spot with a menu curated from Heide family favorites like Detroit-style pizzas, burgers and pasta. St. Charles Station, opening in early 2023, will pay homage to New Orleans-style cuisine like Liliana’s did, but with nearly 100% Wisconsin products on the menu from late May through December, “showcasing the ingredients at their height,” Heide says.
There are fruit trees and raised garden beds just outside the building, and Heide sources cuts of meat that farmers have a hard time selling. “Sustainability is not just about buying local, but thinking about the full life span of the product you’re using,” says Heide. “Not because it’s trendy but because it actually tastes better and it’s better for the environment.” 2951 Triverton Pike Drive, Fitchburg, olliesmadison.com –CW
Born in the pandemic, Ahan has been one of the most enjoyable restaurants to watch come into its own. From a takeout-only spot to a restaurant that now sees a 50/50 split between to-go and dine-in options on some nights, Ahan is a restaurant success story that makes you grateful for proprietors like owners Jamie Hoang and Chuckie Brown. It’s easy to forget about the behind-the-scenes hardships and COVID-19’s massive industry disruption when you see the joyful, distinctive, Asian-inspired food being created at this eatery, which is connected to The Bur Oak, an event venue at 2262 Winnebago St. Every new menu item seems more exceptional than the last, bursting with color and flavor courtesy of local ingredients. Lemongrass fried chicken sandwiches drip with house ranch, hot sauce and the like, and noodle dishes like ho fun and khao soi are so artistic that makes you feel a bit guilty for digging in.
Hoang says she draws a lot of inspiration from her Asian-American upbringing. “[My mom] has so much knowledge on Lao/Southeast Asian cuisine and is constantly teaching me something new,” Hoang says. “She is the best chef and we’re so lucky to learn from her.” Hoang’s talent as a chef and the influence of her mom’s guidance combine to present thoughtful, upscale comfort food that’s just getting better and better. We’re also a bit giddy about the new(ish) soft serve addition to the menu. It’s a fun second life for a beloved Sujeo staple — Hoang was offered the soft serve machine from the now-closed Sujeo (where she was executive sous chef) and couldn’t turn it down. Madison is richer with more sprinkle-dotted dole whips, bowls of pho, laap and dumplings, thanks to Ahan. 2262 Winnebago St., ahanmadison.com –AB
The Green Owl Café
Adapting to changes brought on by the pandemic, The Green Owl Café renovated its space this past fall not to accommodate more sit-down customers, but to increase kitchen and prep space. “We have just been so busy and our kitchen is so small,” says Green Owl owner Erick Fruehling. “There is a big demand for vegetarian food and vegan food and we can only really cook so much, so we are trying to expand and utilize our space, because I love where we are and don’t want to move.”
Green Owl suspended indoor dining in the early days of the pandemic after the restaurant, located on Atwood Avenue in Schenk’s Corners, turned its focus to carry-out orders. When it reopened for sit-down service, Fruehling took advantage of the city’s Streatery Program by expanding the patio, but he kept the restaurant closed to indoor dining and instead converted part of the dining room into a commercial prep kitchen. With its expanded kitchen space, Green Owl is offering grab-and-go items like wraps and bowls along with packaged retail items including marinated tempeh, seitan, walnut chorizo, cashew cheez sauce and hard-to-find vegan ranch. “We try really hard to make everything in-house … we go the extra step to make a grain-based patty that is standard on our burger; we make all of our sauces in-house, all proteins in-house,” Fruehling says. “We put a lot of emphasis into prep and the quality of our food, and that is why this prep space is going to help us continue to do that with our limited space.” With the renovation complete, Green Owl reopened to indoor dining in October 2022 for the first time in over two years, but to-go and retail options now play a much bigger role in the cafe’s business than ever before. “It’s trying to please our customers in a lot of different ways,” Fruehling says. 1970 Atwood Ave., greenowlcafe.com –EK
Aaron R. Conklin digs into State Street’s dining scene, which is still a heavy hitter in our fair city. But it feels trapped at a sort of existential crossroads, with strong pockets of success surrounded by reminders of what used to be. Read the story here.
Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine. Emma Waldinger is associate editor at Madison Magazine. Erica Krug, Aaron R. Conklin and Candice Wagener are contributing writers at Madison Magazine.
COPYRIGHT 2022 BY MADISON MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.