Simon House: a destination for the notable

Former fine dining spot hosted many big names
Simon House: a destination for the notable
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

For most of the 1950s and ’60s, it reigned as Madison’s finest dining destination. Simon House wasn’t just another supper club; it stood apart with its refined decor, service and food. Year after year it garnered prestigious Travel Holiday Dining awards as one of the outstanding restaurants in North America. Its location at the corner of South Butler and East Main streets had previously been the Simon Hotel, opened in 1883 by German immigrant John Simon.

For more than 50 years, the hotel’s dining room was much beloved by travelers, students and locals alike. In 1952, Deane Adams and Maurice Combs leased the space for an elegant new restaurant. They named it Simon House, hoping to capitalize on the old inn’s prestige. It soon became the place to dine for our city’s movers and shakers, society matrons and visiting notables. The future for this venture had never looked brighter when on Feb. 10, 1955, fire gutted the historic building.

But Adams and Combs were not to be deterred. Less than a year later, a new, even more luxurious Simon House returned. Seemingly, they made great business partners. Adams was a genteel host who decorated the restaurant’s walls with original local artwork. Combs was a talented chef who wowed customers with his continental fare.

The lengthy menu included all the predictable entrees, including steak, prime rib and lobster tail. However, specialties like beef stroganoff and shrimp Creole prepared tableside in a chafing dish couldn’t be found anywhere else in town. My mother’s favorite was chicken Maurice, a coq au vin of sorts served over wild rice. She spent many years trying to duplicate this creation. My own penchant was for lobster chunks sauteed in butter and schaum torte–a meringue filled with ice cream and strawberries and smothered beneath clouds of whipped cream.

In 1962, the new Simon House Pastry Shop opened next door. Here, patrons could purchase all sorts of breads and desserts crafted by German-born chefs Rolf Muenn and Helmut Richter, as well as Combs’ famous fudge-bottom pie. Unfortunately, the magic didn’t last. Before the end of the decade, Adams died and Combs departed. James Lyman and Joe Troia stepped in and tried to run the place.

In 1971, the IRS shuttered the Simon House for unpaid taxes. A couple of months later, Anthony and Maxine Sanna, owners of the French Quarter on East Washington Avenue, reopened it, hoping to restore its former reputation. By then, however, its dated continental cuisine and shabby fittings seemed a relic of the past. In 1973, bankrupt, the Simon House closed for good. A funky supper club called Blue Max, run by four Air National Guard pilots, briefly followed. Today, the building is home to a daycare center.

A story told by late Wisconsin State Journal reporter John Wyngaard best sums up what the Simon House once was. He tells of an up-and-coming politician who would visit the restaurant every night at 10 p.m., yet never ordered a drink or anything to eat. He was there to see who was in town.

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