In the ’70s, while I was still in college, my dad used to drive over from Milwaukee every once in a while and take me to dinner. He liked a good steak and a dry martini, served in a place that hummed with the sort of big-city energy most Madison restaurants lacked in those days. We would end up at places like Smoky’s Club, the Left Guard, or even, if he was up for a splurge, the Top of the Park.
On one visit, I suggested we try a new place on State Street. I described the French-inspired cuisine and gentle ambience of the original Ovens of Brittany, adding that it was quiet enough to enjoy a conversation without shouting. You could even hear yourself think, I said.
“Why,” my father wondered aloud, “would you go to a restaurant to hear yourself think?” And off we went, back to the Left Guard.
Madison’s restaurant scene has tilted decidedly in Dad’s favor in the years since we had that conversation. There are so many lovely restaurants now, in which to eat often truly great food. Yet the predominant style — lots of sound-reflective hard surfaces in large open spaces — creates that buzzy, celebratory and, yes, noisy energy my father so appreciated on a night out.
I’m not here to say there is anything wrong with that, only to point out that also, on occasion, many of us would prefer to dine in an environment where the peaceful calm of a quiet conversation is possible,
and where we don’t have to strain to hear what our dinner companions are saying. A number of Madison restaurants do offer quiet dining rooms along with a delicious meal. Here are a few of our favorites.
Our go-to place in the white tablecloth category is Otto’s Restaurant. Set in a vintage brick farmhouse on the west side, Otto’s manages to be both elegant and casual, with excellent and unpretentious service. The menu, a variety of moderately expensive Mediterranean specialties, seafood and steaks, has never disappointed. On a recent Saturday night, we could hear jazz standards played at low volume, and the hum of people around us, though we were always able to converse in normal tones. Otto’s makes a great date night restaurant, or a good place to meet friends to catch up over dinner and a glass or two of wine. Reservations are advisable on the weekend.
The new kid in this category, Estrellón, offers a beautifully appointed dining room and an exceptional staff, with a menu inspired by the cuisines of Spain. With many smaller plates that can be shared and combined, you may eat as big or as small as you like. The soundtrack, played at low volume, was Latin and techno on the night we visited and soft enough in the dining room to be unnoticeable. In the tapas bar, the surfaces are a bit harder, the music played at a somewhat louder volume, and still our party was able to enjoy a comfortable, unstrained conversation along with our hors d’oeuvres and a particularly wonderful Monastrell. Be sure to make reservations for the dining room. The tapas bar is first come, first served.
With its high ceilings, wooden tables and tall storefront windows, it seems counterintuitive that Osteria Papavero should feel warm and intimate even when the place is packed. And yet it has become one of our favorite date night restaurants. With a menu of regional Italian specialties that changes daily and according to what is seasonally available, there is always something new and revelatory to try. An unrushed quality to the service encourages conversation while lingering over each course. On a recent visit we noticed standards from the ’40s and ’50s playing from somewhere near the bar at a volume that was entirely unobtrusive. Papavero takes reservations for special events only.
At Estrellón, the soundtrack is low and slow.
Another among our favorites is Lombardino’s. The atmosphere is relaxed and casual, the décor Mediterranean kitsch, the menu Italian and beautifully prepared. The food is so good, in fact, that the house is almost always full. In spite of this, Lombardino’s never seems loud. With several booths and a few nooks and crannies, it is possible at some tables to feel almost entirely alone with your dinner partners. Reservations are a good idea, but every once in a while we take our chances and try for dinner in the bar room, a smaller, brighter space, the seating more tightly packed, and yet, still quietly conversable.
Among the calmest of dining rooms in town would be Taste of India. Tucked away in a corner of Knickerbocker Place on Monroe Street, its menu of both North and South Indian dishes is extensive and includes many vegetarian options, as well as tempting specialties from its tandoor ovens. The wait staff is uniformly soft-spoken and courteous and the music never played loudly. Reservations are not necessary, though the place gets busy on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Beautifully presented Moroccan cuisine is on offer in a very quiet dining environment at Marrakesh Restaurant. Start with Moroccan mint tea, ceremoniously poured into a glass from a traditional ornate metal pot, and don’t skip the classic Moroccan vegetarian soup called harira. Take your time over kebabs, couscous dishes or tagines (Moroccan stew) cooked and served in traditional earthenware pots. Nothing fancy or upscale about the décor, and yet this is a restaurant that invites you to savor wonderful flavors at a leisurely pace. They do play Moroccan music, but so softly it never intrudes.
Our most recent discovery in quiet dining would more properly be characterized as a wine bar, but Barolo justifies its place on our list with a short menu of very lovely food to enjoy along with your glass of wine. The atmosphere is intimate with mid-century charm in the high, upholstered booth backs and a long bar. The offerings were more generous than small plates, but not quite enough for a full meal.
The house was full on a recent Friday night, mostly couples, their heads close together in earnest conversation, and still it felt almost hushed. We talked and talked. And sometimes we stopped to hear ourselves think.