Soooo, the new University Square food court is open. The highly designed area is not on the ground floor, but a flight up, with large windows overlooking Vilas Hall. The eating area is furnished with bright green, IKEA-style plastic chairs, retro mid-20th century modern lighting, flat screen televisions, and four fast food franchises: Sbarro, Quiznos, Nori Japan and Stir Fry 88.
Of the ubiquitous Sbarro and Quiznos, little needs to be said. Nori Japan and Stir Fry 88 are both franchises operated by the Innovated Restaurant Group. Stir Fry 88 is fast Chinese food; Nori Japan features some sushi, tempura, sesame chicken, and teriyaki.
These stands are in distinct contrast with the singular locally owned and operated restaurants that populated the University Square site in its previous incarnation -- a one-story mall that included a U.S. post office as well as a four-screen movie theater.
From the beginning, the first University Square was the home to the much loved Paisan's (now located on West Wilson Street). In the early years, Uncle Stanley's cranked out sandwiches on unique crusty bread and the Chocolate Shoppe served ice cream. Other tenants over the years have included: Shanghai Minnie's, the Mango Grill (also a music venue), Caspian Cafe (now on University Avenue), Baker's Too (now morphed into Copper Gable Cafe, on Gorham Street), Beijing Restaurant, Rising Sons Deli (now on State Street), the bubble tea place, a place that (if I'm recalling correctly) served only turkey, Sita's Kitchen, Chautara (now an institution on State Street), Curry n' Hurry (now Curry in the Box, in Fitchburg), and the list goes on.
The original University Square almost functioned as an incubator development for fledgling kitchens. While some were hits and others were misses, the adventure of the new was always there.
Here's hoping the new class of incoming students can find their way to State Street and South Park Street and start sampling the fare at Madison's home-grown eateries.