Every so often you'll read a "Whatever happened to..." column about some bygone notable. Whatever happened to 2007 Madison mayoral candidate Will Sandstrom? Or those plans for several bicycle-centric restaurants? This is our version of that for ourselves: Whatever happened to Eating in Madison A to Z?
But first, the backstory. In 2004, food-loving Nichole finished grad school and wanted to try more and better restaurants. Her husband, JM, whose idea of fine dining was mixing all of the non-brown fountain sodas together, pitched the project of eating at every place in town, in order from A to Z, as a way to remove the decision part of the "where to go out to eat" decision.
This was documented on our blog, Eating in Madison A to Z (madisonatoz.com) and, despite the high mortality rate of such projects, we did indeed accomplish what we set out to do. We were even selected by Isthmus readers as Madison's Favorite blog in 2009.
We reached the end of the list -- Zuzu Cafe -- in early February 2012 (Zuzu Cafe is great, by the way) after a sprint through the last few dozen restaurants.
Then we took a few months off from blogging. Soon thereafter, we saw that there were about 10 new places on the Isthmus list of restaurants we hadn't tried, with many more continuing to pop up. Since we had to keep eating anyway, despite our self-proclaimed retirement, we found it wouldn't be too much trouble to keep going with the blog.
Our old ideas didn't serve quite as well as they had when we started, as young marrieds. Rather than stick to our original self-imposed rules, we now go out and post less frequently -- though we still keep to an alphabetical order. We've also expanded our territory to all of Dane County. That offers plenty of material.
What have we found?
Holy man, are there a lot of small bars with modest grills and those backlit Pepsi-branded changeable letterboard menus! Our travels have sent us into tiny towns like Token Creek, Ashton, Bristol, Martinsville and Hope.
Every little crossroads has its little crossroads bar, and the burgers available range from the pretty good (for instance, the J&M Bar at 127 W. Main St. in Belleville, where in August they were growing their own tomatoes) to the nightmarishly pedestrian. Sadly, the ratio is 2:1 in favor of not-so-hot. Hotel restaurants are also plentiful -- and mostly sad.
We call ahead a lot, both to verify a restaurant's continued existence and, in the case of bars, that they actually serve food (though we pass on frozen-pizza-only spots).
We expect to be back in the Z's sometime in 2018.
On this second tour, we've had the chance to visit some new places in Madison that are noteworthy: Forequarter, Grampa's Pizzeria and Heritage Tavern, for example, which are all wonderful, and weren't open yet when we finished the alphabet the first time.
Other recent or semi-hidden gems abound. There's Chocolaterian, the cafe on Atwood Avenue and at the Madison Central Library. We liked bakeries El Bolillo on Monona Drive, 4 & 20 near East High School, and Humble, near West High. We visited well-known bars for burgers, like Antler's (on Broadway, in Monona) and the Caribou on East Johnson. La Taguara for Venezuelan and Latin American food, Las Islas del Mar for Mexican, Haveli for Indian, and Hong Kong Station for Chinese were all worthy of repeat visits. We visited Stoughton sweet spots Cinema Cafe and the Koffee Kup and Verona specialty shops Edelweiss Cheese Shop and the Jordandal Cookhouse.
Others we made it to are already gone, like the Hazelnut Cafe in Blue Mounds (closed by fire last December), Hanson's in Dane (changed ownership) and Capital Creamery in Oregon (turned into a Papa Murphy's).
We're also excited to share that we're writing a book. Watch for our short history of restaurants in Madison later this year from History Press. It's been great fun working on it, from One Minute Lunch (where Madison's now stands), to the invention of morning buns at the Ovens of Brittany, to the escapades of maverick attorney Eddie Ben Elson -- both his fight for hot dog vendors' rights and the cosmic stunt that inspired a restaurant's name.
You can, of course, continue to visit our blog -- where we are steadily approaching our one-thousandth restaurant.