A slew of new restaurants is headed to the Square and just off it. For those of you who have not been keeping score at home, here's a rundown:
- Graft, a wine bar/small plate bistro at 18 N. Carroll St.
- Tavernakaya, an izakaya (i.e., a Japanese-style gastropub) at 33 E. Main St., with sake, sochu, Japanese whiskies and small plates, to be operated by Michael Ding, one of the owners of Umami
- Rudy's, a "classic Wisconsin sports bar" at 15 N. Pinckney St., from the owners of Chasers Bar & Grille
- Gooseberry on the Square in the U.S. Bank building, a breakfast and lunch spot from the owners of Heritage Bakery and Cafe
- The Atrium Cafe at 111 King St., from Ben Altschul, owner of the Tip Top Tavern.
This is on the heels of last year's openings of Rare, a spacious steakhouse at 14 W. Mifflin St., and Cento, an Italian restaurant one block off the Square at 122 W. Mifflin. The only half-block of the Square that will remain restaurant-free is East Mifflin between Wisconsin Avenue and Hamilton Street.
Another new spot slated to open one block off the Square at 119 State St. is Red Elephant Chocolate, to feature chocolates and other candy (truffles, sea salt caramels), chocolate and coffee drinks, and wine and cheese plates. The original Red Elephant Chocolate Cafe has been doing business in Milwaukee's Third Ward for two years. The anticipated opening date is early February.
Including the eateries in triangle buildings that touch the Square at its four corners, there are 20 restaurants or bars in place now; that number will grow to 24 when the current projects open. Plus there are noontime food carts and at least 22 more eateries located in the first blocks off the Square.
And additional Square dining options are likely, with a plan to create restaurant space in the current Anchor Bank lobby at 25 W. Main St. still in play and possibly beginning as early as this June. How many more restaurants can the area sustain?
Michael Ding, who's opening Tavernakaya, says that all the development downtown is adding plenty of residents. "We felt now was a good time to get a foothold on the Square," says Ding. "It's in the midst of a boom period." And, he notes, Tavernakaya's offerings will be different from what's currently available in this market.
Some Madison residents lament the loss of clothing stores and other more utilitarian shopping options downtown. But Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., doubts the viability of such stores. She observes that the businesses on the Square "reflect its users, and they always have."
To her, the influx of restaurants responds to who's in the area: "You'd be hard-pressed to find the millennials who are living downtown eating at home," says Schmitz.
People here "love good food," adds Schmitz, and treat going out for casual but well-made meals as entertainment. "You see it in the types of restaurants," she says, noting the prevalence of tapas, appetizers and "eating at the bar."
Is there saturation? Schmitz doesn't believe that's necessarily the case. "Maybe some [restaurants] won't make it," she says, but overall, with more people living downtown, Overture drawing attendees from all over the state and Monona Terrace bringing in visitors, "People are seeing downtown as a place to come to."