The Hunger Danes: District 25 - Spring Garden Restaurant

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've witnessed at least one verifiable dining desert in the Hunger Danes so far (District 18), but friend of the column John Kovalic insists that he lives in another -- and by luck, we've drawn his district from the Very Official Brown Paper Bag of Numbers. It's District 25 -- Waunakee, Madison's neighbor to the northwest -- and we've visited the mysterious Spring Garden Restaurant.

Now, John's got global bona fides; he grew up in the UK, he has traveled to Asia, and he used to write food reviews here in Madison. In other words, his complaints carry weight. I've razzed him about his hometown, though, insisting that there's more there than he thinks there is. Certainly, in recent years this has proven to be true: Zoe's Pizzeria and Blowin' Smoke BBQ are serious restaurants doing some strong-to-great food.

Buuuuut as it turns out, he's probably more right than wrong. Other than the two aforementioned restaurants, only Rex's Innkeeper has a reputation for quality outside of the local Waunakee area. So when I was researching the offerings in District 25, and saw an online menu for the Spring Garden Restaurant, my food radar pinged and pinged hard.

Funny thing about all those Korean and Japanese dishes, though: they're not on offer at Spring Garden. There's a lot of food on Spring Garden's menu, but Korean and Japanese could be, like, the only cuisines not present. We spoke to the proprietors about the confusion, and the reaction was a beleaguered sigh. They had no idea how that menu got attached to their restaurant, and insisted that they'd never been an Asian restaurant.

Fixing the light fixtures wouldn't hurt, either.

The decor and name both argue otherwise (very nondenominationally Asian-American restaurant), but the online menu mystery was solved shortly after our visit: there's a Spring Garden Restaurant in Concord, California, and the online menu is identical to the one attached to our Spring Garden here in Waunakee. So Menupix, get on it! Fix the glitch!

Our Spring Garden deserves better than this misrepresentation. (They get calls regularly asking for "Chinese" takeout from confused web searchers.) We weren't completely in love with the food, but some of it was great, and the service and staff are unimpeachable. Plus, it's a bargain.

Spring Garden is an American family restaurant-style operation, with all-day breakfast, chopped steak, pasta, salads, burgers, and club sandwiches. And pie. Great pie. Our party of seven -- which included a Junior Kovalic -- was seated at a big table and ordered a diverse spread off the sprawling menu. There were definitely some winners.

From Jenni's fried shrimp ("lightly battered and delicious") to her husband Ben's spaghetti and meatballs (amply meatballed), from the house-made pies that came with the already-massive meal-deal dinners (Coconut cream! Lemon meringue!) to the fried chicken that blew John's wife Judith and everyone else who tried it away. (John: "Excellent. I'd go back in a heartbeat for that.") The little one even got a Mickey Mouse-shaped pancake that she immediately gave a syrup smiley face. She is, after all, the child of a cartoonist.

My pancakes, and a view down the very full table.

The pancakes weren't particularly impressive to yours truly, though; I'm fairly certain they were made with a mix, which is tasty enough but not what I go to a diner for. John's Reuben lived up to the "rue" in its misspelled menu listing. "I'm comfortably sure that was not Swiss cheese on it," John said. "I'd be hard pressed to recognize what it was."

We were the only customers at Spring Garden for most of the night, but I'd venture a guess that the staff would be as sweet and fun as they were for us even if the place was bustling. And I bet there are times when the crowd is much greater than it was on our visit; the post-church shift has to be bonkers.

"It's delightful," John commented, "having a nice, honest little place with ridiculously affordable prices and friendly-as-the-day-is-long staff to take your daughter to for Mickey Mouse pancakes." Jenni agreed, saying "The highlight really was finding somewhere to enjoy a meal with a relatively large group of friends (including kids) without trouble being seated, without being rushed to order, and with plenty of time to chat after the meal before paying a bill. More of that everywhere, please."

If the owners of Spring Garden Restaurant just snuck "Family" into the name after "Garden," I suspect people would be a lot less confused, and a lot more likely to stop in. People definitely should; there's plenty of room, plenty of parking, plenty of food, and plenty of charm.