The restaurant business is a tough racket. A recent study by Perry Group International found that more than half of all independent restaurants close in the first year, and at least 70 percent of the remainder close by year five. Other studies say the first-year failure rate is as high as 90 percent.
So there is a lot to be said for just sticking around. Restaurants don’t stay in business unless they are good, and the eateries on this list have been in business for decades—long enough to have reached the status of local institution.
Still, as culinary trends come and go, these restaurants often find themselves watching from the sidelines as newer, hotter restaurants get all the ink and buzz. Maybe that is as it should be, but it is still worth taking a look around and remembering why we love these places we too often take for granted.
Bahn Thai once had more outlets than just its current Williamson Street location, and newer Southeast Asian restaurants such as Sa-Bai Thong and Ha Long Bay command attention for their inventive menus and understated use of fusion. But let us not forget that generations of Madisonians experienced their first pad Thai, poh tak and panang under the care of Bahn Thai’s exacting chefs and patient wait staff. They gently warned us when they had reason to believe the dish we were about to order was too hot for us to handle. Bahn Thai planted roots on University Avenue in 1984 and opened its Willy Street spot in 1988, when Willy Street was not exactly a culinary destination. We didn’t just grow up with Bahn Thai, we grew a little bit more because Bahn Thai was here, encouraging us to try something new. 944 Williamson St. $$
Ella’s was born on State Street in 1963, in the spot now occupied by Hawk’s, to Ella and Harry Hirschfeld. The East Washington Avenue Ella’s—the one we know and love, the one with the carousel and the tables with toys inside of them and the one-of-a-kind superhero-on-a-wire zip line decorations—opened in 1976 after the Hirschfelds sold the business to Ken Balkin. The carousel came along in 1982 and was one of fewer than a hundred operating nationwide at the time. With all of this nostalgia on Ella’s side, the food at Ella’s wouldn’t even have to be good for us to love the place, but it’s good anyway. Egg creams, vanilla Cokes, Chicago-style hotdogs, bagels and lox and corned beef sandwiches were once hard to find in Madison, but Ella’s always had them and has done them right. The pound cake sundae has not been and will not be duplicated or exceeded. The news of the iconic Madison restaurant going up for sale shocked many, but Katie West, the realtor selling the Ella’s building, says the aim is for it to remain Ella’s forever, just under new ownership. 2902 E. Washington Ave. $ BOM
Krishna Pradhan’s Himal Chuli was a food cart when food carts weren’t cool on Library Mall in the early 1980s. In 1985, the Nepalese restaurant acquired a permanent address on the 300 block of State Street, where it still stands. The space is tiny, but Himal Chuli seems to like it. We wouldn’t want them to change. There are many great things on the Himal Chuli menu, but many of us never get past the daily rotating versions of takari, roti and dal. Takari is a vegetable stew simmered interminably with turmeric, coriander, cumin, garlic and ginger. Roti is a traditional flat bread and dal is the extra-fresh bean soup that some diners choose to pour over the takari. Being a meat eater at Himal Chuli is kind of like being a vegetarian everywhere else—there is meat on the menu; you just have to look a little harder for it. The chili chicken is a cold salad with super-spicy, super-good strips of chicken. Momo are house-made steamed dumplings filled with chicken, onions, celery and Nepali herbs. 318 State St. $$ BOM
Madison claims Imperial Garden as its own because the restaurant has been getting it done since 1984, long before it left its Mifflin Street location, just off Capitol Square, and relocated to University Avenue and Allen Boulevard in Middleton. Imperial Garden is consistently ranked as the city’s favorite Chinese restaurant in the Madison Magazine Best of Madison reader’s poll, and just about everybody else’s poll, for that matter. Imperial Garden does it right with its fragrant shrimp, governor’s chicken, pepper steak, lo mein and fried rice. They also surprise us every once in a while with little touches, such as steamed ginger trout, crispy sea bass and a vegetarian menu with more than a dozen items. Altogether, there are more than a hundred dishes to choose from on the Imperial Garden menu, and this breadth does nothing to reduce the quality. 2039 Allen Blvd., Middleton $$ BOM
The late Bill and Betty Von Rutenberg opened Mariner’s Inn on the northern shores of Lake Mendota in 1966. Madison has gone through a lot of changes since then, but Mariner’s Inn, still in the family, keeps serving up delicious steak, salmon, walleye and enormous breaded, deep-fried shrimp. They do a great Friday night fish fry, but they leave the white tablecloths on and don’t let you forget where you are. The servers still come by and scrape up your crumbs. They boast a “World Famous Clam Chowder.” Whether or not that is true, it is very good, with the cream, clams and potatoes maintaining their distinct flavors and textures without degenerating into mere soup. 5339 Lighthouse Bay Drive $$$$
Monty’s Blue Plate Diner
This is where it all started. Named after owner Monty Schiro, the Blue Plate is the oldest eatery in the Food Fight Restaurant Group, whose holdings currently number 20. The Blue Plate, on Atwood Avenue, has been around since 1990 but keeps up with the culinary times when it is not ahead of the curve. While you can find diner standards like scrambled eggs, pancakes, hamburgers, milkshakes and (delicious) fried chicken with mashed potatoes, Monty’s is also a great place for vegetarians and the more adventurous. The Tofu Scrambler, the Sheldon sandwich and the Heathen Vegan Shoplifter’s Delight—Portobello mushrooms, fried Bandung tempeh, red onions, avocado and lemon-tahini dressing on a baguette—fit both bills. Meatloaf of the Gods is made with pork sausage, ground beef and red wine gravy, and the G.B.L.T sandwich puts guacamole, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes and cumin-chipotle mayonnaise on Silly Yak Bakery jalapeño cheddar bread to great effect. 2089 Atwood Ave. $ BOM
Otto’s Restaurant & Bar
Otto’s opened in 1987 but somehow feels like it has always been here. It is named after the German immigrant Otto Toepfer, who built the farmhouse adjacent to the restaurant after arriving in Madison in the 1870s. But don’t come here looking for wiener schnitzel and knockwurst—the dishes at Otto’s are Mediterranean influenced. What you will find is grilled salmon in grape leaves with toasted pine nuts and a lemon-currant glaze, New Zealand lamb chops with Otto’s own almond-mint pesto, roasted Chilean sea bass and three cuts of steak. The Strawberry Napoleon, the house dessert, puts vanilla custard, toasted almonds and sliced strawberries between layers of phyllo dough. The Otto’s Martini is another favorite, made with Ketel One, Midori and Cointreau. 6405 Mineral Point Road $$$$
Technically, Norske Nook is relatively new to Dane County, but it has been churning out irresistible pie, lefse, smelt and pie in Osseo and points north since 1973. The latest and southernmost Norske Nook is in downtown DeForest and seems to be going strong. Lefse is a traditional Norwegian flatbread similar to a tortilla that Norske Nook serves 10 different ways, including wrapped around roast beef or turkey, covered with gravy and paired with mashed potatoes. Did I mention the pie? Norske Nook has won 45 blue ribbons in the last 10 years at the National Pie Championships in Florida. Some of the winning entries include pies named Jamberry, Northwoods Root Beer Float, Pecan Fudge, Orange Dreamsicle, Baked Strawberry Peach, Blueberry Pecan Stout, Chocolate Mint, Snickers Caramel, Lingonberry Apple Cream Cheese and Kaffe Mocha. 100 East Holum St., DeForest $
Nick’s is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. But you really should look for it if you are ever on State Street and want some good Greek-influenced diner food in a space that seems not to have changed since Sinatra was selling out Madison Square Garden. It has been in the same location, on the 200 block, since 1959, with, it would seem, the same high-backed, extra-dark leather-cushioned booths. The Mediterranean steak sandwich and feta-stuffed chicken breast remind you that Nick is, indeed, Greek. The relatively high number of vegetarian options, including the vegetarian gyro, signal that Nick’s understands where it is even if it wants to take you back to the ’50s. 226 State St. $$
Quivey’s Grove has been confusing us—and making us delicious food—since 1980. For instance, no one associated with Quivey’s Grove is named “Quivey.” That was the former name of a nearby inn. Then there is the two restaurant thing. Quivey’s Grove consists of the great Stone House, which is only open for dinner, and the less formal but still rather great Stable Grill, which is open for lunch and dinner. Consistency, as they say, is the hobgoblin of small minds. Both serve the same amazing fish fry on Fridays. Both also serve the otherworldly fried pretzel crusted perch. If you like lamb, the lamb sirloin (Doty Lamb) at the Stone House is some of the best you will have in Madison. 6261 Nesbitt Road $$$ BOM
Smoky’s has been doing a great job of not getting too fancy since 1953. It calls itself a supper club, and yes, there is a relish tray, but that does not stop several steakhouse-rating publications and organizations from calling Smoky’s one of the best steakhouses in the city, the state, the Midwest and the nation. The steaks have extra sizzle because they arrive at your table on metal plates that have been heated to 500 degrees. The steaks are not necessarily larger than other steaks, but they are cut thicker. There are at least 14 items on the ice cream drink menu, including the not-at-all-fancy lemon cake, made with cake vodka, Limoncello, whipped cream and graham crackers. 3005 University Ave. $$$$ BOM
Wasabi was not the first sushi bar in Madison. But with the recent closing of the west side Ginza, it is now the longest standing. Its location has been on the second floor of a tiny concrete mini-mall where Gilman and State streets meet since the early ’90s. The raw fish is mouth-meltingly fresh, as sushi, sashimi and nigiri should be. The Lambeau Roll finds a way to combine salmon, cucumber, tobiko, avocado, mango and spicy mayonnaise. The Spicy Ken Roll is tuna, shrimp tempura, avocado, green onion, fish eggs and eel sauce. The space is too small to accommodate a hibachi grill everyone can sit around, but the hibachi steak, chicken and shrimp dishes are just as good as they are at showier Japanese restaurants. 449 State St. $$
Wonder Bar Steakhouse
The Wonder Bar traces its colorful history in Madison back to 1929 and Chicago Prohibition-era mobster Roger “The Terrible” Touhy and his brother Eddie. Eddie’s Wonder Bar sold illicit beer and liquor along with steaks and seafood in the early 1930s and kept going long after spirits could again be sold legally. The space underwent a series of ownership and name changes in the 1990s and 2000s, at one point even serving as a cigar bar. The Wonder Bar name and style were resurrected in 2009, and the place does a good job representing Madison’s past while serving up Kansas City strip steaks, 23-ounce rib eyes, lobster, crab legs, Chilean sea bass and pan-fried walleye. The signature steak is the 10- or 14-ounce “striploin,” cut from the heart of the New York strip. 222 E. Olin Ave. $$$$
Dustin Beilke is a Madison-based freelance writer.