‘Seventy-Ate: Dan Curd looks back on Madison’s dining scene in the ’70s

Restaurants from fond memories
‘Seventy-Ate: Dan Curd looks back on Madison’s dining scene in the ’70s
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

I remember 1978 well. It was the year I returned to Madison to stay after two previous stints here during the late 1950s and early ’70s. I had a mustache, wore platform shoes and favored a baby blue polyester suit. As has been my lifelong penchant, I ate out a lot.

The restaurant scene was very different then. Though supper clubs still propped up fine dining, that was changing. The Simon House had already closed. The Hoffman House had abandoned its original downtown digs for two suburban locations. Rohde’s Steakhouse, a power-lunch rendezvous since 1949, was nearing the end of its run. Some of the city’s other seminal eateries were Crandall’s, Cuba Club, Leske’s, Minnick’s Top Hat and Joe Namio’s.

Newcomers became the trendsetters. The Ovens of Brittany, launched earlier in the decade, radicalized local perceptions of gourmet fare. In 1976, Odessa Piper left Ovens to open her own French restaurant, L’Etoile, in the building used today as an annex to The Old Fashioned. The Fess Hotel had debuted a year earlier. With its Mediterranean decor and continental menu, Tio Pepe’s, run by Tomas Ballesta, was the chicest and priciest destination in town. Bittersweet on State Street deserves recognition as one of the first fern bars. Appearing in 1977 was something never seen before or since: a feminist cooperative cafe and bar, Lysistrata. An arsonist razed it in 1982.

Ethnic choices were few and far between. Plenty of spaghetti houses and pizza parlors prospered – more American than authentic Italian, to be sure. The city boasted a slew of Greek restaurateurs, but only three places served Greek dishes. There were a handful of Chinese joints, but most still specialized in chop suey and chow mein. There were exactly three Mexican options, all of dubious provenance.

Then as now, the hospitality industry was a hard way to make a living. Taste is fickle. Amazing perhaps are those businesses that have survived, in continuous operation at the same spot since 1978, including Delaney’s Steak | Seafood | Wine, Esquire Club, Mariner’s Inn, Nick’s Restaurant, Nitty Gritty, Porta Bella, Smoky’s Club and Toby’s Supper Club.

Thirty years ago I didn’t worry about terrorism, global warming or my cell phone being hacked – just keeping food out of my ‘stache. But it was not the golden age of restaurants. Recalling the past may be more comforting than contemplating the future, but affords none of the excitement that comes with anticipation. I can only guess what will be on my plate 30 years from now, if I am to be dining out on my 100th birthday.

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

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