Back before the baby boomer generation ('hippies') freed us from the enforced boredom of Eisenhower-era cuisine, there were only a handful of menu items. These were often assigned to specific days of the week. We were an orderly nation. Chicken, pork chops, meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, and fish were standards; sometimes hot dogs and macaroni and cheese would get shuffled into the rotation, especially if there were small children in the house.
Although there's been a revolution in household kitchens, incorporating more stir-fries, international dishes and, yes, prepared foods, many old-fashioned standards still populate the daily specials menus of area restaurants.
Nearly every restaurant features a specials board, but those choices change every day according to the chef's desires. A daily special comes around the same every week, just as sure as Monday is washday.
A walk through the daily specials week finds agreement on the proper entrees for Friday, Saturday and Sunday ' fish fry, prime rib and chicken, respectively. But the rest of the week is up for grabs. While there are other dishes that crop up frequently, they're not firmly handcuffed to any particular day of the week. So if you wanted to eat, say, liver and onions at a different restaurant every day, you probably could figure out a way to do that. But there's a world of other opportunities too.
It's the day that says 'chicken dinner with the whole family.'
Sunday's association with a homemade meal of fried or baked chicken, mashed potatoes and multiple vegetables (green beans, carrots, corn, peas) goes back a long way. Sunday dinner functions like a mini-holiday dinner in part because Sunday in the Christian tradition was the day of rest ' so Mom or Grandma would have time to make the whole thing (not needing, of course, any rest herself).
These days you may find yourself hankering for an old-fashioned chicken dinner after spending a busy Sunday doing fun things that you don't have time for during the week, like strolling through the galleries at MMoCA or the Chazen, catching a matinee performance at the Overture Center or the Bartell Theater, going to the Wisconsin Historical Museum or the Veteran's Museum or just shopping.
If you're downtown and looking for a wholesome sit-down Sunday dinner, The Old Fashioned knows how to both satisfy that craving and transform the meal into something far from humdrum. Its Scandinavian Style Chicken Dinner ($14) stars a pretty half-chicken, roasted with spices of cinnamon, juniper and cardamom. It comes with hearty mashed red bliss potatoes (with skin); sausage and currant dressing, and roasted carrots and parsnips.
The potatoes are moist and garlicky, with a little juicy gravy drizzled on top; the dressing's payoff is the spicy sausage juxtaposed against the sweetness of the currants, which also go with the sweet cinnamon blend on the chicken. The chicken itself is top-notch ' tender, flavorful, not greasy. But even so, the unhung heroes of the plate are the roasted parsnips. I didn't even think I liked parsnips, but the sweet root veggie (related to the carrot) is an excellent complement to the bird.
If you came from a family that traditionally opted for roast beef, pork roast or baked ham for Sunday dinner, the Avenue Bar will help you out, for these too are on its Sunday menu (along with chicken, all $9).
Monday is not traditionally a big day for dining out, the presumption being either you just had a big meal on Sunday and you are not yet hungry, or, having just had a jam-packed weekend of fun, you no longer have any money. Assuming that neither of those things is true, Monday can be a very good day for restaurant dining. You'll avoid crowds. And you'll be able to partake of the roast duck special at the Avenue Bar ($13.75).
Roast duck is easy to wreck. Bad duck is rubbery and fatty. Trendy duck is served rare and sliced on the diagonal and tastes like beefsteak, which is okay if that's what you're looking for. The Avenue does a traditional roast duck and does it very well.
The duck meat tastes like a richer, finer version of dark meat chicken, and although there's plenty of fat under the taut, salty, crispy skin, the meat itself isn't overly greasy. (Skin lovers rejoice; this stuff is good.) The Avenue's dinner comes with a homemade orange sauce, which I would ask for on the side, just because I like it sparingly. The generous side of wild rice pilaf is studded with sausage and rich with juices. The dinner comes with a choice of soup, salad or coleslaw; I chose the Avenue's peppery vinegar-lemon slaw.
I had just about given up ordering duck, one of my lifelong favorites, because I'd been disappointed too many times. This daily special restores my faith.
The Old Fashioned features two-for-one burgers as its special on Mondays. You can't beat that.
Since before Betty Crocker started coloring her hair, Tuesday has been meatloaf day. Stroll down State Street and pop into Nick's for the meatloaf special. Nick's has always served great home-cooked food in a lounge-like atmosphere, but now that the whole place is smoke-free, it's a more natural spot to relax and enjoy dinner.
The meatloaf is sliced thick, studded with bits of onion and red pepper, and topped with tangy barbecue-style ketchup before being covered in gravy, alongside a scoop of fluffy mashed potatoes. The meatloaf comes as a dinner (with a cup of soup, $8.25) or as a sandwich (with plenty of gravy, $6.25). Either way, the humble loaf is elevated to well-deserved top billing.
Possibly because meatloaf does strike people as being a little too reminiscent of the Eisenhower administration, the second day of the workweek is also gaining a reputation as 'Taco Tuesday.' The Old Fashioned features chicken, pork or fish tacos on Tuesdays.
If you're looking for a deal on Tuesday, twirl some long strands of pasta around your fork at the all-you- can-eat spaghetti dinner at Angelo's in Monona.
The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink suggests that the recipe for Yankee Pot Roast is a 19th-century development stemming from the colonial New England boiled dinner. Both involve beef slow-cooked with vegetables, and both are hearty and thrifty. To my mind, Yankee Pot Roast is an improvement because it is generally made with a brisket or chuck (rather than corned beef). If you're not familiar with this New England classic, not commonly found on menus in these parts, rest assured that the Wednesday YPR special at the State Bar and Grill more than holds its own against stalwarts like the pot roast served at Boston's storied Durgin-Park restaurant. Yankee Pot Roast features beef slow-roasted in juices (its own, and sometimes augmented with wine, cider or broth) until it is rich and fall-apart tender, with veggies added to the mix halfway through the cooking time.
Vegetables cooked in this fashion do tend to be unfashionably on the soft side; at State Bar, carrots, red pepper, parsnips and the somewhat unconventional choice of broccoli accompany the mashed red potatoes (boiled with the skins on, then mashed, with a hint of garlic). Firmer vegetables like carrots and parsnips soak up the juices, so they're sweet and savory. There's no 'brown gravy' per se, but the cooking juices function as a lighter equivalent. And the roast itself! It's a generous helping of fall-apart-tender brisket, and even the fatty bits (and there weren't many) are worth eating.
In some quarters Wednesday has become another Friday, with fish populating the specials menu. With the lengthy waits at many local Friday fries, it's nice to have another option where maybe you don't have to stand in line for quite so long a time.
If you go to the Friday fish fry at the Green Lantern in McFarland, you'll have your choice of cod or salmon. If you want their excellent fried walleye ($12.75), you need to show up on Thursday.
The big fillet stretches across the plate; the light, crispy batter doesn't overwhelm the white, flavorful, flaky fish. Sides are hash browns, ranch fries, french fries, baked potato or rice; salad, cottage cheese or coleslaw. I got the ranch fries ' what I would call home fries ' and the coleslaw.
The Green Lantern is half bar, but the dining room, on a converted porch, overlooks Lake Waubesa (although there's a boat launch parking lot between diners and the lake).
This is Wisconsin, where the Friday special is a fish fry. Even the Italian restaurants serve fried fish on Friday. I even saw an Indian restaurant resort to this, although they seem to have given it up.
This revered tradition merits another whole article, so I am not going to start recommending one place over the other. It might be more of a service to point out restaurants that offer something besides fish on Fridays. But that sounds like something restaurants would do in...Illinois.
We close out the week with prime rib. This is almost a universal Saturday special, although a restaurant will sometimes offer barbecued ribs as well, for those who do not like prime rib. (Vegetarians, as you may have noticed, are pretty much left out in the cold when it comes to daily specials, with the exception of fish ' if they're fish-eaters.) For the classic supper club experience, try the Black Angus prime rib at Halverson's Supper Club in Stoughton (petite $14, queen $18, king $20). Add crab legs for $7. This includes a trip to the salad bar, home-baked bread and a choice of potato that includes baked, fries, hash browns or sweet potato ' a nice touch ' or rice pilaf.
If you do not like prime rib so very much, look into these alternatives. Green Lantern has an all-you-can-eat BBQ pork ribs and baked chicken special ($9.45). At the Village Green in Middleton, it's the double cheeseburger special with fries ($6.25). At BrouxNellies in Oregon, it's Mexican night (chef's choice), and at the Roxbury Tavern, it's Cajun night. Nick's has a penne pasta with vodka sauce on the menu. Or if you're interested in eating everything ' everything!' head to Fitzgerald's in Middleton for the Saturday Prime Rib Buffet ($19.50), with prime rib, chicken, shrimp, ham, sides, soups and salad bar, plus a surprise or two. It's a week's worth of specials in one fell swoop.