Madison loves new restaurants. Open a dining spot anywhere in town, and the place will be jumping for the first month.
Unfortunately, a shiny new penny loses its luster pretty quickly. A new restaurant has to depend on satisfying its customers on a regular basis, or else join the roughly 60% that fail within three years.
Despite the high mortality rate, Madison is full of restaurants that have been around for 40, 50, 60 years or more. How do they do it?
Just for fun, I made a list of Madison restaurants that have been open for 30 years or more. The first thing that jumped out was that not one was a chain. Every one was independent and nearly all were run by the same family for the entire time, often for generations.
I concluded, then, that one factor in restaurant longevity is presence ' specifically, the presence of the owner actually working in the restaurant. When you go to the Mariner's Inn for a great steak or a stuffed lobster tail, you are almost sure to see a von Rutenberg there. Forty years ago, it was Bill and Betty. Today it's the new generation ' Bill, Jack and Robert. Pleasing the customer is essential to their business survival.
Another factor is consistency. Lack of consistency kills a lot of restaurants. The first few months are new and exciting, and the staff is working hard to build up a loyal customer base. Then little things begin to slip. Service is slow. The pasta isn't well drained. That's when customers begin to look for a new restaurant.
Consistency also applies to food quality. Fresh ingredients and good recipes carefully executed. Good service, fair prices, a pleasant atmosphere, and a food style appropriate to the area all play into the mix for excellence and longevity.
Here are just a few of my favorite oldies, all serving for 30 years or more:
Smoky's Club (3005 University Ave., 233-2120). Midwest Living magazine once named it the best steakhouse in the Midwest, and it still deserves its reputation. The recent steakhouse trend has finally caught up with the Schmock family, which has been doing it right since 1953.
Nitty Gritty (223 N. Frances St., 251-2521). Marsh Shapiro has operated on the same principle since 1968 in his campus location: Serve good student fare, at reasonable prices ' and make it lots of fun.
Nick's (226 State St., 255-5450). I don't know how long Nick's has been around. Judging by the decor, I'd say it must be around the time the second state capitol was built. But Nick's serves both good Greek specialties and a full American menu. Almost everything is made from scratch, in house, and they still cook whole turkeys for their turkey sandwiches.
Dotty Dumpling's Dowry (317 N. Frances St., 259-0000). Jeff Stanley's burger palace has been knocked around from location to location for more than 30 years, but through it all has maintained a reputation for the best burgers in town.
Lombardino's (2500 University Ave., 238-1922). The restaurant dates back to 1952, and the decor is still full of original kitsch, but the menu was upgraded considerably when the O'Hallorans bought the place in 2000, and now it is one of the best restaurants in town. Easily the best Italian food anywhere offered by an Irish family.
Toby's Supper Club (3717 S. Dutch Mill Rd., 222-6913). This restaurant has been on South Dutch Mill Road since Prohibition, yet most Madisonians don't even know about it. Toby's is as close to a quintessential Wisconsin supper club as any you are likely to find. And its fried lake perch is simply outstanding.
Stamm House (6625 Century Ave., 831-5835). You want old? The Stamm House has been around, in various guises, for 150 years. A stagecoach stop, a hotel, a speakeasy and, for many years now, a supper club, where you can get good corned beef and cabbage, Friday night fish, and chicken and dumplings on Sunday.
Avenue Bar (1128 E. Washington Ave., 257-6877). The Avenue dates back to 1956. Skip Zach bought the place in 1970, when it was just a tavern, and built it into a first-class restaurant, a favorite hangout of Wisconsin governors, judges, lawyers, and UW athletes and fans. Skip is gone, but son Paul and family have kept up the tradition with great nightly specials and one of the friendliest bars in town.
Delaney's Charcoal Steaks (449 Grand Canyon Dr., 833-7337). Through all the dining fads of the past 34 years, Jim Delaney has clung to one basic principle: Serve great steaks, and they will come. Jim does, and they do. All steaks are cut in house, and the onion rings are a treasure.
I could go on and on. I haven't mentioned the Kollege Klub (1953), Mickies Dairy Bar (1947), Peppino's (1974), the Esquire Club (1947), Ella's Deli (1976) and others. But perhaps another time. I feel sure they'll still be around.