Some years ago my sisters and I, wanting to give our mother a memorable 70th birthday, decided to take her to L'Etoile. In our minds it was the perfect choice: beautiful food served in small portions, charming atmosphere, not too noisy for our hard-of-hearing mama. What we forgot to consider was the steep, rickety stairway up to the restaurant (in its former location). My mother had been living with congestive heart failure, and it took 15 harrowing minutes to get her to the top.
I have no doubt our food that night was excellent, not that I can remember it. What I remember is my mother wheezing through the whole meal, her face turning vaguely blue. I worried that her birthday celebration would end with an ambulance ride to the hospital. Defying her prognosis, my mother went on to live seven more years, but I doubt that night provided the happy memories we'd hoped to make for her.
There are lots of good reasons to have celebrations of all kinds in restaurants: Someone else cooks, someone else cleans up afterwards, and if you choose wisely, you'll find an ambience that is hard to replicate at home. It's the choosing wisely part that causes most of the trouble.
One of our most successful restaurant celebrations took place at the former (and badly missed) Wilson Street Grill. It was a graduation party of about 15 guests, both friends and family. We were given a table in a semi-private space just a few steps up from, but still open to, the main dining area, so that while we could hear the pleasant hum of a successful restaurant, we could also converse with each other in normal tones. That the service was great and we all felt satisfied with our food made it possible to relax and enjoy each other's company and the occasion.
We were not as lucky a few years ago, when we found ourselves alone on Thanksgiving and decided to make reservations for our dinner at a restaurant that normally serves excellent food. Our mistake, I guess, was in choosing a later seating time because when we arrived, turkey was conspicuously absent from the buffet, and the lovely green beans and Brussels sprouts were dwindling fast. We learned from our waiter that the kitchen team had not prepared for so many diners showing up early. He promised that more turkey and vegetables were on the way. When it came out, the turkey was undercooked, and we never saw another of those Brussels sprouts I'd been coveting.
Simply loving a restaurant does not necessarily make it a good candidate for a celebration. My favorite place to eat in all of Madison is Mediterranean Café, but lacking table service and a large enough dining area, it would be a hard place in which to make a party. Over the years we've figured out a number of places that work for our various occasions. The list is by no means all-inclusive.
With larger groups the trick is always to find a place where you don't have to worry about people being able to get their drinks, order and be served in a timely manner. One place where this works without a hitch is Samba Brazilian Grill. The atmosphere is always festive at Samba, with costumed gauchos traveling the room carrying their skewered haunches of delectable meats. Your party can order their mojitos and head directly for the lavish salad bar (a boon to any vegetarians in the crowd), and quickly enough, the gauchos begin arriving at the table to slice tidbits onto their plates.
A friend recently raved about an office party he attended in one of the upstairs dining rooms at Brick House BBQ. For a party of over 40 people there was ample space to talk and move around and easy access to the bar. And while not all food stands up well to chafing dish service, he thought the Memphis-style barbecue entrees came out tender and delicious.
If you prefer a casual pub atmosphere for your larger party, both Genna's and Brocach have well-appointed upstairs rooms. Genna's famously serves an array of old-school cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, while Brocach offers an Irish pub menu with its fine selection of beer and ales.
And then there are those semi-impromptu sorts of occasions - you know, somebody gets a promotion, a new job, sells the condo. Eldorado Grill, with its warm, unpretentious décor and outstanding margarita menu, makes a terrific place to celebrate with a group of friends or coworkers. The Tex-Mex
cuisine is equally unpretentious, and the offerings are varied enough to satisfy a wide variety of palates.
We also like Liliana's for a gathering of friends or coworkers, with group-friendly seating in both the bar and the restaurant. The hors d'oeuvres list includes such delights as crab cakes, barbecue prawns and shucked oysters, as well as a very good cheese plate and bruschetta. The cocktail menu is extensive and unique particularly for its selection of absinthes, available in flights for sharing.
Graze is the place for a similar sort of celebration in a more downtown, urban setting. Think high ceilings, the tinkle of glassware, hushed echoes of diners in conversation. That combined with a unique offering of hors d'oeuvres and superb sandwiches makes it a sophisticated venue for fun with friends.
My family is divided between the adventurous and the picky eaters, and though it is usually a challenge to get us all together for a restaurant celebration, everyone can agree on Chinese. Imperial Garden-West provides a great solution for just such a quirky bunch with its big round tables. Everyone can order their own (mildly) adventurous or unadventurous choice from the lengthy menu, or the whole crowd can opt for one of the banquet menus that offer an appetizer platter, a choice of five entrees and hot tea.
Quivey's Grove serves the comfort food - pork chops, short ribs, baked trout - that brings the whole family together. Its stone farmhouse ambience makes Quivey's the sort of place in which family of all ages feel comfortable and celebratory.
Our go-to place for smaller celebrations is Harvest. The atmosphere is ever serene, the locavore menu never disappoints, and the service is always impeccably professional. Harvest has seen us through a lot of good news over the years. For an even more intimate setting, with a menu that emphasizes seafood, the Blue Marlin makes a fine impression on a first date or an anniversary.
No article about celebrating in Madison's restaurants could be complete without mentioning the Nitty Gritty, which also bills itself as Madison's official birthday place. You may not want to make this a yearly event, but every Madisonian needs at least once to celebrate with friends at the Gritty. The birthday boy or girl receives all the beer or soda they'd like all day long, in their own memento Nitty Gritty mug. Gritty Burgers, a Madison classic, are a required (and tasty) part of the fun.
Keep in mind when planning your celebration in any restaurants that it pays to call ahead. Most places that don't take reservations will often make an exception for larger parties. Even for impromptu parties you should know how busy your chosen venue will be and how long you might have to wait for accommodations. Let them know ahead if you have people with special needs. And finally, whether or not the gratuity is automatically added to your tab, you should be generous.
And thankful that you're not the one cleaning up after this party.