My dad was a savvy businessman — clearly some traits aren’t passed along — and one of his favorite sayings was, “If it happens in the building, take credit for it.”
Alas, I don’t see how I can take credit for the online “throwback gallery” of old Madison-area restaurants that has delighted readers of this newspaper’s website since its debut last month. “Delighted” might be an understatement. It has drawn more than 1 million page views, prompting a second gallery of still more shuttered Madison restaurants, bringing the total close to 100. (See both galleries at go.madison.com/closed.)
My only contribution was to suggest a few restaurants for inclusion. If I had really been paying attention, I could have predicted the feature’s success, because as soon as I started thinking about favorite old Madison places, now gone, I spent much of the day happily lost in memory.
Seeing the images of the restaurants and the accompanying brief text — in some cases simply an address — had me summoning absent friends, departed dishes, colorful conversations, fun fragments of my life across a half-century. For those new to Madison, the galleries offer a glimpse of the changing face of the city.
Everyone’s memories will differ, of course. The exterior photo of Namio’s on South Park Street, which closed in 1992, actually took me back to the day in 1999 when I visited Joe Namio at his Fitchburg home. Joe was 82 and still missed the restaurant. His wife, Caroline, said she didn’t miss the blisters she got preparing so much Spiedini.
Joe talked about the mix of people who came to his supper club: politicians, athletes, reporters and neighborhood folks. Like most great restaurants and bars, the mix was part of the draw. Young couples came, too. Longtime Capital Times editor Dave Zweifel and his wife, Sandy, had their first date at Namio’s.
“We had the best clientele there ever was in this town,” Joe said. “After Rohde’s, at least. They all came over here.”
Rohde’s, a steakhouse on West Main Street, drew a similarly eclectic crowd during its heyday in the 1960s. My dad loved it. There was a regular, Marion Roberts, who picked up dinner checks, chartered planes, brought celebrities (including Mickey Mantle) to town, all without any visible means of support. “Want to fly to Australia?” Roberts asked my dad one night in Rohde’s. “When?” “Tomorrow.” Roberts proved to be a con man abusing a line of credit on a bank in Oklahoma. He served time in federal prison in Minnesota and died young in his native Texas.
Rohde’s — which closed in 1982 — was a favorite of the sporting set. Butch Strickler’s bologna bash was launched at Rohde’s, circa 1970, the end of a dark era in Badgers football. At a booster meeting at the restaurant, the new coach, John Jardine, suggested Strickler pass a hat. They netted $40. Eventually Butch raised $3 million for UW athletics.
A somewhat different sporting crowd gathered at the Golden Dragon, just off the Capitol Square. The gallery photo shows the proprietor, Suey Wong, who loved horse racing, poker and smart talk. You could bet on anything in the Golden Dragon, including which fish would go belly up next in the aquarium. The woman who held it all together was Suey’s mom, a great lady we all called Bot Mo, for “honorable mother.” She cried when I gave her a hug the night in 1999 when the Dragon closed.
I don’t know if anyone cried when the Fess Hotel restaurant closed in 1994, but it was the end of an era, certainly. The Fess was on East Doty Street, across the Square from the Golden Dragon. Its two-decade run began in the 1970s, and for many of those years the restaurant’s bar was the most hopping place downtown.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and his wife, Sara, had their first date at the Fess. I was sitting with Gene Parks at the Fess bar the evening in 1988 when he was fired by messenger — a registered letter — from his job as the city’s affirmative action officer. Gene didn’t take it well. He set out for city hall to try to confront Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, with Joel DeSpain and a WISC-TV camera crew in hot pursuit.
Both Dr. Bop and Ben Sidran played the night the Fess closed. Regulars predicted doom for the incoming establishment. How could any place replace the Fess? Turns out the Great Dane brew pub has done pretty well.
Which is another way of saying life goes on. Still, remembering is fun. All the restaurants above were in the first throwback gallery. In the second, you will find places like Kosta’s, operated on State Street until 2000 by the irrepressible Gus Paraskevoulakos. When anyone did something Gus didn’t like, he’d shake his head and say, “Some people’s kids.” Prior to Kosta’s on upper State, there was Paco’s, one of the city’s first Mexican restaurants. Its tiny bar was where I first met the colorful attorney Jack Van Metre, who counted noted prankster Eddie Ben Elson among his clients. Jack recalled the time Eddie painted his McFarland house a hideous purple. When the neighbors complained, Eddie started mowing his lawn in the nude.
In 1999, when I visited Joe Namio at his home, he took me out in his yard, a garden actually. Joe died in 2006. The day I visited, he showed me how he tied his tomato plants with women’s nylons. He said people were still after him to open another restaurant. He shrugged. “Those days are gone,” he said.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.