The Hunger Danes: District 17 - Cottage Cafe


Kyle Nabilcy is, among other things, a food writer. Jenni Dye is, among other things, a Dane County Board member. We'll be visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar in each of the county's 37 board districts in a feature we're calling...

The Hunger Danes.

We're drawing these districts at random, but here we are back on the east side, close to Kyle's neighborhood once again -- an area he recently described to a relative as the "uncool east side" (in contrast to the Willy/Atwood area). Conjoined to a laundromat, nestled between a fire station and auto repair shops, Cottage Cafe revels in its uncoolness.

That's not to say it doesn't have its fans and accolades -- including a silver in the Greasy Spoon category of Madison Magazine's 2012 Best Of Madison awards. A visit for breakfast, and the difficulty in finding a parking spot, tells you all you need to know. And let's say that the 50+ demographic on that uncool east side knows all about Cottage Cafe's charms.

Kyle's of the opinion that Madison needs all-night diner options, and Cottage Cafe would be ideal to that end, but its hours are limited to the 6 AM - 2 PM window. For those who aren't retirees, or who work in the area, weekend breakfast/brunch is the best time to experience Cottage Cafe.

That's not lumpy gravy in the background; those are the biscuits under there.

That's not lumpy gravy in the background; those are the biscuits under there.

It's a seat-yourself joint, so we did. A surprising number of tables were open, but staff buzzed around at the same pace as if every table was hankering for a coffee refill. Biscuits and gravy are on the regular menu, but the specials board listed them with a slightly reduced price. Also, it read "Country sausage gravy and biscuits," which turned out to be an important distinction.

The biscuits and gravy came with a side of eggs and American fries, way more food than one person would ever need. The eggs and potatoes were solid American diner staples, nothing fancy, but they got the job done. But those biscuits. They were sah-wimming in gravy. You better like gravy if you order this dish. (The gravy came out a little cooler than Jenni would prefer, but Kyle's biscuit and gravy experience says this is a not-uncommon flaw of the presentation. No fault on Cottage Cafe.) She found the biscuits -- once she did indeed find them -- to be the perfect diner biscuit.

On his previous visits, Kyle had nearly ordered the walleye and eggs, but was steered away by a love of pancakes. On this trip, however, he threw caution (and sound medical advice) to the wind and ordered both, because YOLO, right?

Admittedly, Kyle doesn't have the largest hands. Still.

Admittedly, Kyle doesn't have the largest hands. Still.

Well, the pancake was huge, as diner pancakes always seem to be and as Cottage Cafe's always are. It was not the best pancake I've ever had; it could have been a little fluffier and more buttery, but it was still a pretty good pancake. Any pancake you can do the "hey, they say if your hand is bigger..." trick to is worth giving your best effort on.

If there isn't a lot of color on this plate, there's plenty of flavor and texture.

If there isn't a lot of color on this plate, there's plenty of flavor and texture.

Now, the walleye and eggs: these are the walleye and eggs you've been missing your entire life. If the Cottage Cafe was open for dinner, Kyle would be ordering this walleye for his Friday supper every damn week. The crust was thin and crisp, and buttery in every way the pancake should have been. The fish itself was firm and flaky; the only drawback was that there was only one fillet.

The waitresses at Cottage Cafe are charming, sweet, and kind of perfect for the atmosphere. (Do diners of this stripe only hire female servers? An image to maintain?) Jenni was reminded of breakfast at her grandma's house; there is a certain old-person-basement quality to the decor. She wouldn't make a regular cross-town trip to dine here, but there's no denying its place in the neighborhood -- reliably tasty and remarkably affordable.

If nothing else, this is the place to go if you're feeling nostalgic for a style of dining that just isn't that common anymore.