Madison restaurants have gambled on change throughout the years

All bets are off when it comes to success
Madison restaurants have gambled on change throughout the years

Restaurants come and go, often at the same location. Where some fail, others prosper. There are addresses around town where nothing seems to work for long – Mexican one day, sushi the next. But a new venture can improve on the reputation of its predecessor, or shrink in its shadow. There are no guaranteed rules for success.

Remodeling one’s premises can be essential. Take, for example, the recent dramatic makeover of the Stamm House in Middleton. Its only charm had been its history. Ridding it of dated paneling and faded wallpaper revealed a space that was wondrous to behold. Then again, rehabilitating a restaurant’s image isn’t always about changing its look. Lombardino’s was a spot with pasta and red sauce offerings that were uninspired, to put it mildly. Patrick O’Halloran and Marcia Castro purchased the restaurant in 2000, and the physical changes they made were subtle – a good washing without scrubbing away character. Their modern Italian cooking, however, was on a level heretofore unknown in town and today remains reliable and sometimes brilliant.

For more than 50 years, Crandall’s was an esteemed downtown supper club. In the early 1990s it relocated to the gorgeously renovated Milwaukee Road Depot. It turned out be a bad move, since its slick new venue soon shuttered. Meanwhile, Henry Doane occupied its old quarters, altered virtually nothing but the name and added a nostalgic menu to match its decor. Tornado Room Steak House is now one of the city’s premier steakhouses. Venerable L’Etoile managed to finesse a move from its dated upstairs digs on Capitol Square to a sleek new home in the glass bank just down the street – without sacrificing its chef-d’oeuvre, the view of the Capitol.

Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. Chris Berge opened Magnus in a former mortuary. Lush and sophisticated, it featured South American-inspired food. For several years it was the hip go-to destination for dinner and cocktails. A sudden switch to modern Scandinavian fare fell flat. Its demise led to the birth of Doane’s prosperous Tempest Restaurant and Oyster Bar.

Persistence can pay off. When the Opera House unexpectedly closed, Food Fight Restaurant Group took it over. However, it soon relaunched as the Ocean Grill. When that didn’t click, it became DLUX, an upscale hamburger joint that has found its niche.

An ongoing game of restaurant roulette has played out at 2827 Atwood Ave. since before I was born. For many years it housed Leske’s Steak House, a no-frills affair. In the ’60s, Leske’s moved into a fancier, custom-built structure on Monona Drive and did well there until 2001. A parade of eateries followed at its old place. Some of the ones I can recall are Sole Sapori, a pizzeria; Art House Cafe, a neighborhood rendezvous; Bunky’s Cafe, a Mediterranean mainstay (that still does catering up the street); and the current tenant, Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery.

It’s a sure bet that during the coming year Madison’s dining scene will experience much change. Let’s hope for the best in 2019.

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