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A Madison year in food: 2016 in ramen, veggies and speakeasy cocktails

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Marilyn Matt (left) bartender at Underground Food Collective, Jacki Walzack (center) bartender at Lucille and DJ Lolo (right) gather at Merchant to bartend.

Thank social media and Madison’s culinary entrepreneurs for making 2016 a year of delicious new trends, from ramen and poké bowls to avocado toast.

Pizza crusts got thinner, their cooking times ever faster. The cocktail scene continued to grow at craft bars like Robin Room and a hidden speakeasy at Charlie’s on Main in Oregon. There were more pop-ups, more inventive food carts.

But after the boom of 2015, this year brought several closings, some surprising. In January, the Verona Road supper club Feiler’s closed after 50 years.

The Spot on East Johnson closed and made way for a new location of the Venezuelan restaurant La Taguara. The Peruvian restaurant Inka Heritage on South Park Street became Angkor Wat, a Thai/Chinese fusion spot.

The owners of The Bayou closed that Butler Street restaurant to focus on Lagartos, a Mexican restaurant and club on the east side.

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Chad Vogel (right) opened his cocktail bar, Robin Room, on East Johnson Street in Februrary 2016. 

The most recent closing was an ambitious East Washington Avenue development called Robinia. A Southern restaurant called Julep, the wine bar Barolo and a coffee shop in the front opened just over a year ago. (The café may remain open into the new year.)

There were a fair number of openings, too, from Ramen Kid in January to Morris Ramen a few weeks ago, replacing 43 North.

Among new restaurants, I fell hard for the sweet potato falafel (batata!) at Banzo Shuk. Steel pan nachos and daiquiri shooters won me over at Lucille, a lively new pizzeria from the owners of Merchant.

The sushi was simply fantastic at the swanky new location of RED on West Washington Avenue. I dream about the dosas at OM Indian Fusion.

And after a somewhat underwhelming revamp of the Avenue last year, I can’t get enough of Food Fight’s latest concept: the vegetable-forward Everly, where even the lowly Brussels sprouts were stars.

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I'm not over avocado toast, especially Everly's, made with Madison Sourdough miche, cured salmon, Fresno chilies and red onion. 

Here, in case you missed them, is a sampling of some of our food coverage in 2016.

They built it, but not enough people came. Growth was slower than expected at this north side incubator kitchen, a hub for hot sauce makers, bakeries with a social justice mission, personal chefs and food carts. We took a look at why, and what management planned to do about it.

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Sesame Ramen at Ramen Station is one of 11 on the menu. Ramen Station was one of several new noodle spots to open in 2016. 

Photographers Michelle Stocker and Saiyna Bashir teamed up on this steamy gallery of mostly new places to find ramen noodles, including Ramen Kid, Ramen Station, Sujeo, Tavernakaya and Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar.

At this chaotic but happy event at Goodman Community Center, teenagers were charged with taking our names at the host stand, preparing the tacos, sides and desserts, taking individual orders and serving food hot to nearly 140 people.

Like the Off the Block Pizza initiative later in the summer, this was one way food can help students plant seeds for their future careers. Look for more brunches and other events from Goodman Community Center in 2017.


In 2016, students in the Mentoring Positives and PEOPLE programs developed a frozen pizza prototype to be marketed as Off the Block pizza.

This summer, the iconic restaurant L’Etoile celebrated 40 years on the Capitol Square. Founding chef Odessa Piper recalled how she and others had to marshall the power of the Chicago restaurant scene to make small scale local farming viable and accessible to a small restaurant like hers. She’s been thrilled at where Tory Miller has taken the restaurant, calling her James Beard Award for him her “most sincere vote.”

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Chef Desiree Nudd is an alumna of restaurants in Chicago, including The Lobby and Boka. She is now the executive sous chef at Estrellón. 

If I could ask every food-lover in Madison to read one story of mine from this past year, it would be this one.

For this piece, I talked to women like Molly Maciejewski at Madison Sourdough and Candy Flowers at Sweet Tea, both of whom have been working in male-dominated kitchens for decades. I learned how tough as nails 20-somethings like Desiree Nudd (Estrellon) and Kate Magee (Brocach on the Square) are making their kitchens their own.

This tied into a later piece on Spirited Women, a relatively new group of bar and restaurant industry women led by people like Mariah Renz (Julep) and Liz Henry (J. Henry Bourbon). I’m excited to see how our restaurant scene will grow and change because of these women.

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Attendees at the 2016 James Beard Foundation Food Conference in New York City explored the makings of a food movement.

A trip to New York City for the James Beard Foundation’s annual food conference was an eye-opening experience. In a room with policy makers, activists, educators, chefs and fellow journalists, I got a glimpse into which national trends Madison leads on — and where Wisconsin is falling behind. A keynote from “Project Runway” host Tim Gunn illuminated some of the connections between food and fashion, while “student of movements” Ashindi Maxton illuminated the ingredients for ongoing social change.  

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The Ugly Apple Cafe food cart uses unattractive produce to make fritters, breakfast sandwiches and egg dishes. Owner Laurel Burleson parks her cart on the Capitol Square or at University Research Park. 

New food carts: Nov. 9 “Get uncommonly good pasta and more at Common Pasta” by Gwendolyn Rice

Young chefs and culinary entrepreneurs are consistently turning to things like pop-up dinners and food carts to innovate and launch new ideas.

A great example of this in 2016 was the Common Pasta food cart, which Gwen Rice raved about (“no better bargain, or better tasting lunch, on campus). On a cold winter morning at Ugly Apple Café, Kat Cisar discovered that unloved produce can make fantastic fritters, scrambles and breakfast sandwiches.

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