“It sounds kinda creepy,” I said, eyebrows raised.
“It is!” the waitress advised, honestly, which I appreciated.
She did, however, wisely suggest that we order a sampler of local Wisconsin beers, which were refreshing with my “local grass-fed burger, grilled over a live fire and topped with Wisconsin cheddar cheese, olive oil mayonnaise.”
I also loved the signature drink — yes, the old-fashioned, which I felt compelled to try. In true Wisconsin tradition, it’s made with super-sweet Korbel brandy. The menu offers other versions of the old-fashioned — one made with gin and described as “sacrilegious but tasty,” and one with bourbon, for “non-natives.”
There’s also plenty of Wisconsin comfort food on the menu, like the $15.95 group appetizer platter called the “Lazy Susan No. 6,” which — gird yourself — includes Miesfeld’s Market’s holiday garlic salami, Bavaria Sausage Kitchen’s braunschweiger, smoked lake trout, creamed herring, Dusseldorf mustard, dill pickles, deviled eggs, Widmer’s Brick Spread, Vern’s sharp cheddar spread, crackers and rye bread.
“It’s really the pull of nostalgia,” said Janelle Engel, the 28-year-old manager of the Old Fashioned, explaining that the place opened in 2005 to revive the dying supper club model and was so popular that it recently doubled its space with a roomy upstairs. “I feel like I’m on the go a lot, like many people in our generation, and I don’t get home-cooked meals. But someplace like this, it all takes me back to the days when my grandparents would take me out for a Friday fish fry or Saturday prime rib and we would spend time together.”
That weekend, my husband and I spent some old-fashioned time together. We enjoyed dripping ice cream cones along the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Terrace, which overlooks Lake Mendota. We poked around several dusty independent bookstores, and we even visited the National Mustard Museum, a place that’s no joke and is located in the charming neighboring town of Middleton. The museum claims to be home to the world’s largest collection of prepared mustards — including those from India, Egypt and England — and lots of old mustard memorabilia, including advertising.
The place is like a quirky roadside attraction, and it’s apparently listed in all the guidebooks. We totally randomly ran into an old journalist friend from our time in Nairobi. She was doing a cross-country trip. We hugged, happily sampled mustard together and met up for old-fashioned cocktails the next day. How Madison!
Later in our trip, my husband and I headed for a romantic dinner at the sexy, dimly lit Tornado Steakhouse. With its neon sign and tables draped in starched linen, it’s an old-school homage to the supper clubs of the past and has a wonderful menu that includes relish trays, hand-cut steaks and venison in red wine sauce.
Beyond the supper clubs, one highlight of our trip that surprised me was the epic Saturday Dane County farmers market, which stretches for blocks around the capitol. It’s said to be the largest producers-only farmers market — meaning that all items must be produced locally — in the country.
On any given market day, Tory Miller, who won the James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Midwest award, can be seen pulling his big red wagon among the stands, the sous-chefs from his farm-to-table restaurants L’Etoile and Graze following behind as they pick ingredients and share recipes with merchants.
It didn’t surprise me at all. Nor did an adorable sign we spotted at one farmer’s stand: “We are out of cheese curds. Sorry,” it said, completely without irony.
The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Madison, Wis.