A call has recently gone out for Madison webloggers to declare their votes for the most favorite and least favorite overall restaurants in Madison. The question of the least favorite restaurants is more interesting to me, for a reason I'll explain in a moment, so let me just dispatch with the most favorite part of the question quickly.
Jeremy's favorite Madison area restaurants, by category
Upscale, local: (1) L'Etoile (Downtown)*, (2) Ocean Grill (Downtown), (3) Blue Marlin (Downtown) [note: the author of this weblog, slovenly toothpaste-eating philistine that he is, has never been to Harvest, which he considers a mighty gap in his Madison education]
Midrange, local: (1) Maharaja (West Side), (2) Hubbard Avenue Diner (Middleton), (3) Peacemeal (State--their so-earnest manifesto on the front of their menu is so cute it gets them inclusion here)
Cheaper, local: (1) New Orleans Take-Out (Monroe St.; although see cautionary tale below), (2) Amy's Cafe (State St), (3) Simply Soup (Downtown)
Midrange, chain: (1) Macaroni Grill (West Side) (1) Chili's (West Side) [note: the author of this weblog has not been to the Asian Big Bowl on the west side, although he just suggested it to a friend he was to dine with yesterday but to no avail]
Cheaper, chain: (1) Noodles (University Avenue), (2) Red Robin (Monona), 3 Chipotle (State Street)
Pizza: Glass Nickel, although I am not as enthusiastic about it as others. At least they will deliver to the RV, unlike many other potential contenders.
Ok, so the reason I find discussions of least favorite restaurants interesting is that because bad restaurants seem to require more of an explanation. With good restaurants you just have to explain why they are so good, while with bad restaurants, you have to explain both why they are bad and why they haven't been disciplined out of the market. The restaurant business is supposed to be so enormously competitive, so how does any bad restaurant stay in business?
I suspect the restaurants that would make somebody's "least favorite" list could be divided into two kinds. Bad-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder restaurants are bad to the rater and perhaps people of similar tastes/refinement as the rater, but these restaurants do appeal well to some other clientele-segment of the restaurant market. Objectively bad restaurants, on the other hand, may have no obvious rational fan base, and instead manage to stay in business for some other reason.
So, anyway, here's my countdown of my five least favorite restaurants in Madison**, with speculation about how they persist despite my low regard for them:
5. Mickie's Dairy Bar
As many readers know, before I moved into the RV I lived above the barbershop right next door to Mickie's Dairy Bar. I was still at Indiana when I made the arrangements to live there, I was worried when I heard about Mickie's and that it was renowned for its breakfasts. I envisioned myself gaining a couple hundred pounds as I ate breakfast there every morning and bought chocolate malts there every weekend. Instead, I had breakfast there once shortly after moving in, and then only ate there again when I was joining some people who had already arranged to meet there. When I would want breakfast, I would get in my car and drive somewhere rather than go to this place that was thirty feet from my front door. I actually lost ten pounds during the time I lived above Mickie's, or rather I did in the year two years before New Orleans Take-Out took the storefront on the other side of the barbershop, which perhaps more than anything else can be blamed for the Great Weight Gain of 2003. Anyway, one might ask how this place can rank among my least favorites when it is so regularly packed on weekends and does a strong business on weekdays. The apparent answer is that others apparently have more robust stomachs I do. All I know is, my fragile culinary constitution cannot handle a breakfast place that serves up stuff as greasy as Mickie's does. That first time I had breakfast there, I walked around the rest of the day feeling like I had a hundred pounds of coins in my stomach.
4. Sushi Box
Sushi Box wins the award for the Least Congenial Eating Environment For How Much A Meal Costs award. I felt like it had about the same charm as eating at one of those awkward tables set up beside a kiosk selling food at an airport. And, perhaps unfairly, I'm always leery of sushi places that seem like they don't get much traffic, as I can't help but wonder how long their fish has been on-hand. I think Sushi Box is objectively bad and suspect that it won't be in business much longer. If I'm wrong, my guess is that its persistence can be chalked up to the dearth of west-of-campus-but-not-too-west sushi alternatives.
3. Ella's Deli
Ella's Deli is a place on the west side that's kinda famous for having a carousel out front and all kinds of kitschy toys and games and lights and antique-amusements and moving things inside. In this respect, it is much like my office, so you would think that I love it. I've been there a couple of times, and I do get a kick out of all the the stuff they have going on inside. Unfortunately, overall assessment of a restaurant does seem like it should factor in the food, and what they serve up at Ella's Deli is really awful. They offer like nine million things on their menu and seem, from looking around to other tables, to do none of them that well. I presume they stay in business (and perhaps even thrive) because they have so many ways of commanding the attention of its child patrons, who combine notoriously undiscerning palates with abilities to sway parents into going to restaurants that run counter to the parents' own gastronomic interest. Also, they do have status of being a minor Madison tourist attraction, and so they do get traffic that would be one-time-only regardless of quality of food.
This is an Italian restaurant near campus that I have probably eaten at five times (as with Mickie's, only the first time was by my own choice). Every meal I have had there has been bad. Like should-I-send-it-back, no-this-seems-to-be-the-way-they-prepare-it, so-then-five-bites-and-I'm-done bad. And I haven't coveted what the other people were eating as a replacement. It does have a comfortable environment, and one time they even had a song by the beloved late Kirsty MacColl playing. I think the coziness is one reason it's in business: it seems like it should have better food than it does. Another reason it remains in business may be that another (and far superior) Italian restaurant that's nearby, has a sufficiently discreet front that I think they get missed by some people's food radar. And maybe I've just had a spectacular and laws-of-probability-defying run of bad luck there.
1. Ingraham Deli
This is my hands-down winner (loser). It is the university-owned place in Ingraham Hall, which is right across the street from the Social Science Building. I think it manages to not make other people's lists because it's so thoroughly subpar that people don't even count it as an option in this pagaent.*** I think they provoke this bad-place-to-eat-brinksmanship with them: they have this dreary selection of stuff; you are hungry and everything else is far away; you end up buying something; which seems to serve to guarantee that something even more dreary will be offered the next day. The secret of their success is that they have basically a captive audience for anyone in their neck of campus who is pressed for time and doesn't want to go down-and-back-up the hill or eat in the dorms. It evinces every suboptimality that can arise when enterprises are (geographically or otherwise) providing a needed product but protected from competition.**** I don't know how there are grad students who come to Madison being mostly-orthodox-Marxists and don't have every last inclination toward socialism stomped out of them through their experiences with Ingraham Deli.
* Madison's best kept secret! (Kidding; it's the predictable choice; professorial discussions of the best restaurant in town seem either to cite L'Etoile or feel like they have to explain why they are giving something else the nod over L'Etoile. And now it's augmented with Nina Power!
** Chain restaurants omitted. My least favorite chain restaurant in Madison is likely Applebee's, although I've never gone to the Applebee's here in Madison and am just presuming it's like the one in Blooomington. In the lower price range, the dys-trophy goes to the place that proudly advertises burritos as large as one's head.
*** It's not a restaurant, one might say. My reply would be that it's only because it's so lame that we don't credit it as a restaurant. Something could very well exist in that space that served all the same functions (except torture) and would indeed be something that would have whatever consideration as a restaurant one would otherwise accord to a cafe or deli-with-seating.
**** In the Social Science building, the economics graduate students run a business where they go get a bunch of pizza and sandwiches off-campus on weekdays and make a killing re-selling it on the seventh floor, as what they resell is so unambiguously better than what you can get across the street at Ingraham.
Update, 1:10 AM: The above list has been congratulated on NinaNet for its omission of Chautara among its favorite places. While I would like to think that the omission did indeed reflect my "strong moral fiber", etc., I actually really like Chautara and just forgot about it. Meanwhile, Nina seems incredulous that I would express fondness for Hubbard at the same time I would diss Mickie's Dairy Bar. I can note only that (1) I've eaten at Hubbard a few dozen times, and I have never walked around for hours afterward feeling like I've got a stomach filled with spare change and (2) Hubbard is not just a breakfast place, even though I think it is a much better breakfast place than Mickie's; if I was rating just breakfasts, I think I would give highest props to Marigold.