Friday, August 1, 2008

Out on the Street

When it comes to eating outdoors, American habits are closely tied to technology. It was the invention of the automobile that popularized leisure travel. The romance of camping and cooking over an open fire became all the rage. Ironically, it was car man Henry Ford, an avid camper, who invented the charcoal briquette which in turn literally fired backyard barbecues.

For many years, the options in this country for eating outside at a restaurant were very limited to say the least. Communities with large German populations often had beer gardens for summer drinking prior to the invention of air conditioning. New Orleans has a distinguished history of courtyard restaurants. In mild climates such as California and Florida there is a tradition of patio restaurants. There was even a long-running French restaurant in Chicago, Jacque’s, probably best known for its open air dining.

But the European concept of the sidewalk café – actually eating out on the pavement in an urban area – has only taken hold here during the past couple of decades. Madison with its lakes has always had a love affair with summer. If you ever want to take out-of-town guests to one place where they can instantly savor what life here is all about, take them to the Memorial Union Terrace. Not surprisingly, once all the barriers to restaurants setting up tables on the sidewalk were eliminated – concerns about public health, sanitation, accessibility and liability – sidewalk cafés here as elsewhere were an instant hit.

Today, sidewalk cafes are so popular that there is a website exclusively devoted to rating them in various cities. As of yet, they haven’t included Madison on their list, so here are my suggestions of where to go when and for what:

Best Sidewalk Café for Upscale Dining: Harvest, 21 N. Pinckney Street. The view of the capitol is as spectacular as the cooking. This is prime real estate for Concerts on the Square.

Best Sidewalk Café for Casual Dining: Brocach, 7 W. Main Street. Its authentic Irish façade add real European flavor to the Concourse.

Best Sidewalk Café for Brunch: Café Continental, 108 King Street. On a sunny Saturday or Sunday a stop here is reason enough to get up and get out, not to mention the Farmers’ Market.

Best Sidewalk Café for Fish Fry: Orpheum, 216 State Street. All-you-can-eat bluegill and all State Street has to offer at for one price.

Best Sidewalk Café for Drinking (Booze): Genna’s, 105 W. Main Street. Yuppies and Xsters yuck it up as they watch the world go by.

Best Sidewalk Café for Coffee: Steep n’ Brew, 544 State Street.
There’s usually an interesting and eclectic clientele here and a busker or two nearby to entertain you.

Best Sidewalk Café for People Watching: Hawk’s, 425 State Street. The largest of the State Street sidewalk cafes, it’s always got a buzz on.

Best Lakeside Dining and Drinking, Mendota: Nau-ti-gal, 5360 Westport Road. Whether you come by boat, SUV or on a tandem bike, the party atmosphere can’t be beat.

Best Lakeside Dining and Drinking, Monona: Paisan’s, 131 W. Wilson Street. A big terrace with a big view and “when the moon hits your eye …”

Best Suburban Restaurant Patio: The Continental, 2784 S. Fish Hatchery Road, Fitchburg. Sidewalks can be in short supply in the suburbs but The Continental’s commodious piazza has well-spaced dining tables plus a cozy area for drinks with comfortable seating surrounding a fire pit.

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