How to even start?
I’ve been writing year-end wrap-ups of the Madison restaurant scene for more than a decade. I usually begin by latching onto an obvious trend: It was the year of street tacos, it was the year of poke, it was the year of the East Washington corridor. That sort of thing.
The year 2020 is without trend. Takeout wasn’t a trend; it was a necessity, a life preserver amid closures and capacity restrictions during COVID-19. It is a life preserver that may or may not save the life of restaurants over the course of this winter.
Oddly enough, when I looked at the running list I keep of restaurants opening and closing, it looked pretty much like a normal year. In a normal year, there are debuts and farewells. It is the way of the restaurant world.
The difference this year was feeling that so many restaurants that hadn’t closed their doors were on the verge of needing to. These were the normally packed eateries that were now open for takeout only, or serving reduced hours, fewer days of the week, in tents, or closed temporarily due to COVID outbreaks, or temporarily — maybe — for the winter.
This is a list of the known knowns — who opened, who closed. But, and maybe this is a Rumsfeldian moment, looking right now at the future of restaurants, “there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” What will happen over the course of 2021 is far from clear. But, back to what we know.
Way back last spring
Ru Yi Hand Pulled Noodle opened in the former Crandall’s spot on State Street, serving a focused menu of hand-pulled noodles in the style of Gansu province. Sunny Pho opened at 602 S. Park St., a site that’s been a series of short-lived Asian spots since Inka Heritage closed.
DarkHorse by Sal’s opened in February in the former Sujeo space on North Livingston Street and East Washington Avenue, but over the course of the year, owners rebranded it as a straight-up Salvatore’s, albeit with a more expansive menu. And another new Salvatore’s opened on Monona Drive in the former Pizza Oven, bringing the total (including the original Sun Prairie location and the East Johnson Street site) to four.
The highly-anticipated Fairchild, a restaurant by former L’Etoile chef de cuisine Itaru Nagano in the old Jac’s on Monroe Street, opened in early March and was one of the first higher-end restaurants to execute “the pivot” to takeout, simplifying the menu and creating family dinner feasts.
People who had new restaurants in the works pre-pandemic plowed ahead, coping with unanticipated delays with everything from ingredient supplies to furnishings. Some folks, even from within the pandemic, found opportunities they couldn’t refuse.
The Muskellounge and Sporting Club, aka The Muskie, a new bar from Sean Pfarr (Mint Mark) and Chad Vogel (The Robin Room), opened in the Lake Edge Shopping Center on Monona Drive, while The Robin Room remained closed due to its small confines.
Ahan launched in the newly renamed Bur Oak on Winnebago Street as a takeout-only Lao/Thai spot from Jamie Hoang, former sous chef at Sujeo. Also new on the east side is The International, David Rodriguez’s “drive-up restaurant” out of a vintage bus parked in the lot of his catering kitchen at 709 Atlas Ave.
Young Blood Beer Co., a small brewpub, opened at 112 King St., along with its upstairs neighbor at 110 King St., cocktail bar Plain Spoke Cocktail Co. Nearby, The Settle Down Tavern opened at 117 S. Pinckney St., formerly home to Ritual Barbers and Si Cafe.
Feast Artisan Dumpling and Tea House opened in the former Fuego’s on Williamson Street and Ragin’ Cajun in a former Ginza of Tokyo near East Towne. J-Petal, a Japanese crepe and Thai ice cream shop, opened on State Street in what most recently had been Frutta Bowls. The short-lived Pho King Good in the old Wah Kee site at the Gateway Mall transformed into Mr. Seafood — like Ragin Cajun, it specializes in serving big platters of boiled seafood. Luchador Tequila and Taco Bar opened on State Street in the former Roast Public House.
It’s not American southern barbecue — Kaharis & BBQ became Madison’s only dedicated Pakistani restaurant; it opened in the former Chaat Cafe, 705 S. Gammon Road.
A spacious new Hop Haus brewery and taproom opened in Fitchburg. Twisted Grounds, a new coffee shop, opened on the far east side.
And a new concept — for Madison — got off the ground when Global Market and Food Hall near East Towne finally launched, housing many new Asian vendors (and providing a new home for Zen Zen Taste, which had been located near Woodman’s-west).
University Avenue! Hilldale!
Crave Coffee & Donuts took over what had been Estacion Inka. Estacion Inka moved down the block to 616 University Ave., formerly Village Pizza, and Village Pizza moved farther west to 2825 University Ave., formerly Itzza Pizza, which closed. Scooter’s Coffee opened in the old Chicken Run at 6401 University Ave., and LeanFeast, a chain focusing on healthy meals to-go in various sizes (seemingly designed for pandemic dining) opened an outlet at 2911 University Ave. Everyday Kitchen, a farm-to-table-style restaurant that’s part of the Lodgic coworking space on University Avenue (technically, the address is 2801 Marshall Court), opened this fall.
Chains, local and national, and a bit of a scandal
Shake Shack, one of the best known high-end burger and shake chains, opened at Hilldale this fall. Two new barbecue chains launched this year: Mission BBQ, a nationwide chain with stores in 16 states, opened an outlet near East Towne, and Liberty Station American Tavern and Smokehouse, a much smaller chain with two other restaurants in Arizona, opened near the Alliant Energy Center.
Helbachs Coffee Roasters + Kitchen in Middleton gained notoriety in becoming the only area restaurant to close due to refusing to follow masking guidelines. After the owners received three citations for failing to mask up, the shop’s landlord refused to renew the lease. The Helbachs coffee shop on Madison’s west side also closed. The 1824 Parmenter St. site is now a location for Grace Coffee, which also opened an outlet in Sun Prairie at 1261 Cabela Drive in 2020 — a rapid expansion from its first two locations (State Street and East Washington Avenue) in 2019.
Ancora will open a new storefront in the former Manna Cafe on North Sherman Avenue; Manna closed due to COVID-related losses. Another local chain that keeps on growing is Buck & Honey’s, which is adding a third location in Waunakee in a former Boston’s at 1370 Water Wheel Drive.
Garver Events, the house cafe at Garver Feed Mill, did some serving outside this summer on a big patio that sometimes held live music events, but folks could also sit in the same patio space and eat Ian’s Pizza and Calliope Ice Cream from inside Garver. Bandit launched as a taco pop-up within Porter, the coffee shop at the West Washington train depot (both are now closed for the winter). Midcoast Wings and Taco Royale launched as “virtual restaurants,” that is, delivery-only through EatStreet, but using the kitchens at all the Great Dane locations. Miller Family Meat and Three is a southern-style family meal takeout concept from Tory Miller run out of his kitchen at Estrellón.
We’ll miss you all
Finally, there were the closings. To the best of our knowledge, these are permanent closings and not temporary winter- and COVID-19-related temporary shutdowns. We said goodbye to Angelo’s-Monona, Captain Bill’s, Charlie’s on Main, Common Ground, the Common Pasta food cart, Doolittle’s Woodfire Grill, Dragon I, the Good Food Low-Carb Cafe and its food carts (though catering is still operating), El Poblano, HopCat, Hungry Badger, Lalo’s Mexican Restaurant, Martin O’Grady’s, La Nopalera, Original Pancake House-Monona, Pizza Brutta-Middleton, Pizza di Roma-State Street, Rockhound Brewing Co., Plaka Taverna, Sunroom Cafe, The Tin Fox (and the Angry Rooster, its Monday pop-up) and Vientiane Palace.