The Old Fashioned, Madison, Wis.
I’ll be honest, the capital of the Badger State might be the most surprising big city in the country to me. I think it has something to do with growing up in the East, but before getting out to the Midwest, I always thought of Wisconsin as Milwaukee, Green Bay and little else. Sure, Madison is the state capital and is home to the University of Wisconsin, but as city sizes go, I was expecting something closer to Annapolis, not Columbus or Austin.
Needless to say, I found out I was wrong as soon as I got on I-94 in Madison and discovered metered ramps, which only exist in big cities as a laughable defense against traffic. OK, so Madison’s a pretty big city on its own, and Wisconsin is much more than what’s along the eastern coastline of the state. With that discovery, however, came a revelation. If there is a big city, there must also be at least one great restaurant.
That theory has never let me down yet, and Madison certainly wasn’t going to throw another surprise my way. In the shadow of the state capitol building sits The Old Fashioned, which is dedicated to serving fresh, Wisconsin based dishes. For those of you who are not from the Badger State, it might surprise you to know that goes beyond the trio of bratwurst, beer and dairy products.
All of those are indeed famous in Wisconsin, but The Old Fashioned’s style is not to specialize in those, although they do show up on the menu. Instead, their “Wisconsin is King” slogan means they use ingredients from Wisconsin and provide the freshest taste possible. It’s a thought I first developed while living in Idaho and taken by Short’s in Iowa City, and it’s consistently been proven correct. The less distance food has to go, the fresher it is and the better it tastes.
With pretty much everything on the menu coming from within a four-hour drive, that leaves everything on the menu coming in fresh and ready to be paired with its number. Yes, I said number. The Old Fashioned is very different from most restaurants in the fact that it assigns no names to its dishes, and your service depends on the time of day that you order. As far as the menu goes, that part isn’t hard to figure out. Each dish is given a number, and you simply give the number when it comes time to order. For example, a No. 8 gets you a sampler platter of Wisconsin bratwurst. A No. 16 means an order of state favorite beer cheese soup, and the Old Fashioned burger is No. 30. Oddly enough, the numbering doesn’t apply to breakfast. This place is weird.
Where The Old Fashioned really gets strange (OK, more strange) is the actual process of ordering, which can be very confusing if you’ve never visited before. This is the only restaurant I’ve ever been in where the ordering process changes depending on when you’re visiting. If you’re going for dinner, it’s exactly as if you’re attending a sit-down restaurant. Go for lunch, however, and you order as if you’re at a take-out place, putting in the order and paying for it before having it brought out to you. I have no idea why that’s the system, but that’s the way it’s done here.
What can’t be disputed is the quality of the meals here. I opted for a No. 35 and a No. 17 with a water. In Old Fashioned speak, that means a cup of the soup of the day and a grilled eggplant sandwich with several other vegetables. I’m being vague on the sandwich for now because I want to focus on the soup first. On this visit, the soup of the day was a spring onion soup, which is basically a fancy term for a creamy green onion soup.
This was outstanding. Unless it’s a broth-based soup, a good soup should always be hot, creamy and flavorful, and this fit all three qualities. The green onions are mixed in to the point where you get the taste of the onion in every sip without getting the crunch of the onion. Even Amy, who isn’t a fan of onions at all, would be able to enjoy that. And if you want the onion, well, they did sprinkle a few small pieces of the onion on top of the soup.
On to the second part of my meal, which is basically the vegetarian special on The Old Fashioned’s menu. Besides the grilled eggplant, the sandwich also includes portabella mushrooms, roasted red peppers, zucchini, a black olive paste and creamy goat cheese on toasted bread.
There’s not a word in that sentence I didn’t love, and there’s not a bite of the sandwich I didn’t love. Goat cheese’s soft texture makes it perfect on this sandwich, and its bite is a great match to the vegetables. Throw in the fact that I love mushrooms and that portabellas are basically the steak of the mushroom family, and you have the foundation for an outstanding meal. Just because there’s no meat on it doesn’t mean it isn’t heavenly. If you’ve got the right ingredients, it doesn’t matter what they are, they are going to produce something wonderful. Make them fresh, so much the better.
It’s strange for a place to be both non-descript with its menu and different in its style at the same time. But it works for The Old Fashioned, and there’s no real reason for them to change it. When you have high-quality meals available, you don’t need a lot of attention on anything else. Unlike most places in a capital city, here, the results do all the talking.
Time to go: Any time is good, just be prepared for it to be different based on when you go. Breakfast is like a traditional sit-down, dinner includes a numbered menu and lunch makes the service pay at the counter.
Wait during my visit: None. I went in around 11 a.m. for lunch, and most legislators aren’t eating at that time. Be aware, though, if you hit during lunch hour, it could get packed. It is literally across the street from the capitol, making it prime for business.
Location: The Old Fashioned is at 23 North Pinckney Street in Madison, Wis.
Parking: There are garages nearby. That’s as close as you’re getting to this place. Just find one, pay the small fee and go in.
Cost: Most meals are under $10, with soup and salad being a couple extra dollars.
Seating arrangements: Bar and tables
Website: The Old Fashioned
Specialty items: Wisconsin-produced cuisine