I’m always searching for the “authentic America,” especially after nine years of living abroad and returning home to find what my husband calls the cookie-cutter “kit that rolls out” in every town: a PetSmart, an Old Navy, a Bed Bath & Beyond and maybe a Barnes & Noble, if it hasn’t already gone out of business.
So I was excited when my husband’s job sent him to a Wisconsin town not far from Madison this summer. We’d always heard about that mythically quirky place called Madison, a free-spirited land with far fewer chain stores and BlackBerry addicts than Washington. A friend even informed me that although Madison is extremely tech-savvy, it nurses a healthy backlash against the Internet and social media. Needing a break from Facebook and Skype, I decided to take a quick flight out to visit my husband in person.
We took off through the rolling green farms, expecting to arrive at the Austin of the Midwest. We certainly found a progressive city, with lots of stray demonstrators still shouting “Walker must go!” — days after the results of the election that failed to recall Gov. Scott Walker — on the steps beneath the city’s magnificent capitol dome.
But we also discovered something very different, which we jokingly came to call Mad Men Madison. We practically expected Don Draper, seductively smoking a Lucky Strike, to belly up to one of the many dark wood supper clubs that have popped up in recent years around Madison and its outskirts, reclaiming the glory of America in the 1950s, when the country was hopeful and growing and there were always endless gimlets, sidecars and Gibsons, served with a pearl onion, to drink.
The supper clubs of the past were the underground speakeasies of the Prohibition years, filled with flappers and men in suits, and later the dinner-and-dancing venues of the Big Band era. Today, Wisconsin’s supper clubs generally serve only supper — largely hearty fare such as prime rib, fish fry and lobster — and are family-owned, with the family often living above the restaurant so that a member is always on hand to cook the food.
Filmmaker Ron Faiola, who made a 2011 documentary called “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience,” said that the clubs are generally frequented by regulars, and if they don’t show up, “the owners might call” to see whether everything’s okay.
“It’s just a more personalized service and more friendly, versus a person at Applebee’s who just earns a wage and goes home,” Faiola said. “It’s traditional, it’s comfort, the places are usually located with a scenic view of the lake.”
That kind of nostalgia all sounds very hipsterish. But in Madison, it somehow exists without all the irony and snark.
My husband and I decided to hit the aptly named Old Fashioned, which lured us in with a retro poster of its namesake: an old-fashioned, pierced with an orange and topped with a cherry. Plus it’s supposed to have “the best cheese curds in Wisconsin,” according to a reviewer on Yelp.
I’m a native New Yorker, and my husband’s a Texan, so we weren’t totally clear on how to tell a good cheese curd from a really great one. But we ordered a basket of deep-fried curds and they tasted . . . really, really fried!
But we loved the mood of the place. It’s in the shadow of the state Capitol, nestled along downtown’s majestic square. The wait staff was the opposite of pretentious. Our waitress chatted with us patiently as I asked about a half-dozen menu items that I was interested in sampling. For example, I inquired about something called “beer cheese soup.”
“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.