Peripatetic Palate

“Peripatetic” means walking or traveling about. Eating is one of the most essential pleasures of life. The “Peripatetic Palate” will take a look at area restaurants and food producers and explore the world of taste.

By Peter Schmalz
One of the great joys of my work as a high school teacher was to design and teach a course called “Arts and Ideas,” which explored visual arts, architecture, literature, drama and music chronologically. All the arts were seen as being driven by philosophical ideas of the time. Starting with the ancient Greeks, we moved forward in Western history as far as we could in an academic year, usually into the 18th century. One of our most pleasant and educational activities was a series of dinners for the class at my home. Ancient Greek recipes are difficult to find, so we started with food of the Roman Empire. Other dinners included a medieval feast, a renaissance Italian repast and food of 17th-century Holland. I adjusted recipes because some historic ingredients were hard to find. These meals were a challenge to me as a cook, and a revelation to the students, some of whom thought Taco John’s was exotic.
If you are attracted to very old approaches to cooking and eating, I must regretfully inform you that, to my knowledge, there are no restaurants in the Driftless Area serving “Goose in Sauce Madame” or “Liver Oxyrhynchus.” If you want to sample such exotic fare I encourage you to peruse the considerable historic cookbook literature or search that indefatigable source, the Internet. The next steps are assembling the ingredients, mustering courage and then actually cooking. It can be a challenging endeavor. My brother-in-law, no foodie, says that a medieval dinner party he attended was the single worst meal he has ever eaten. Don’t let this dissuade you; historic food, both cooking it and eating it, can be a life-changing experience.
Since we don’t have medieval dining halls complete with horned helmets and broadswords in the neighborhood, let’s consider what we do have in abundance: small town cafés. Obviously, none of these restaurants produces historic food in the sense of recreating ancient Roman dishes, but some of the cafes originated 60 or more years ago, and still provide an untainted dining experience that your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents would recognize. All the cafes profiled below are owner-operated. All are located in historic buildings in downtown locations, and have been serving café fare for decades. Mercifully, none has a TV, and only one plays music in the dining area. All the cooks do “from scratch” cooking and are proud of it. They all produce historic food in the historic style of the last 60 years or so.

Owl Cafe, Platteville

80 N. 2nd St., Platteville, (608) 348-4416. Breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday; lunch Monday-Friday. No credit cards; not wheelchair accessible.
Nestled in the middle of Platteville’s “Saloon Strip,” the Owl Café seems out of place until you realize that it predates many of the bars on 2nd Street. Since its open hours do not match the taverns’ evening celebratory rituals, there is not a conflict with bar patrons, or difficulty finding a parking space. The narrow and inconspicuous front has one door that opens into a cozy and tightly packed dining area. There is also a rear door allowing entrance from the parking lot behind. The new diner here is immediately impressed by the easy camaraderie among the patrons. On a recent visit, my wife and I took the only available seating, at the counter, and were soon approached by a diner occupying only one seat of a table for two. She suggested we change places, a generous gesture completely at home in a small town café. I wanted to stay at the counter, however, since it reminded me — to the finest detail — of lunch counter experiences I had as a boy many years ago. The interior of the Owl has changed very little in its more than 60 years of operation. Originally, it was a Mom and Pop, then taken over by their daughter Peggy, who does the baking, and now owned by their grandson Tommy, who does the cooking. So you could say that the Owl is now a Mom and Son. Their personal touch is apparent, especially in relationships with customers. The food, also, has probably changed little over the years, and is focused around soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees and daily specials. Breakfast items include eggs, meats, omelets, pancakes, French toast and breakfast sandwiches. A specialty of the house, and worth trying, is the Wundo Omelet, seasoned with the Wun-Doe-Mus spice blend made in Platteville. Everything I have eaten at the Owl has been good, some of it surprisingly good. To my taste the Philly sandwich could be improved by using fresh mushrooms and real, flavorful cheese. But then, it would no longer be a satisfying historic experience, circa 1960.

Red Rooster Cafe, Mineral Point

158 High St., Mineral Point, (608) 987-9936. Breakfast and lunch every day.
Historical awareness is heightened approaching the Red Rooster, since you have to walk up (or down) Mineral Point’s High Street, which presents one of the finest collections of turn-of-the-century commercial buildings in the Midwest. A plaque beside the door informs you that the building was built to be used as a bank in 1892. The Rooster is the latest of several restaurants occupying this space since the beginning of the 20th century. Inside, the impression is a bit more modern, but remains essentially the same as it was in 1972, when the Rooster was established. The menu, too, has been changed only slightly since then, and includes the usual café fare, with dinners of roast beef, ham, steak and chicken. Appetizers, salads, sandwiches, soups, pies, ice cream and malts also make their appearance. The real draw here, however, is the Cornish cuisine. The pasty as a food preparation shows up in surprising places around the country, usually with some connection to immigrant settlement patterns. It’s an all-in-one meal that assembles potatoes (and possibly other root vegetables), onions and cubes of beef, all wrapped in pastry, which completely seals the ingredients in a crust. The origin of this concoction is found in Cornwall, the peninsula forming the extreme southwest part of England. Adverse economic conditions there in the early 19th century drove many Cornish settlers to America. Because many of them were miners, they were attracted to the potential of the emerging lead mining opportunities in southwest Wisconsin. Since the pasty completely encloses its few ingredients, it was the ideal lunch for miners. The budding food historian is encouraged to try this ethnic dish, and Patti makes a fine pasty at Red Rooster. She also makes a non-traditional version called pan pasty, which eliminates some of the crust. I find this the better alternative, since a typical problem with pasty is dryness because of excessive crust. The Rooster will also give you chili sauce or beef gravy on the side. I suggest the gravy to moisten the dish and give it a more appealing mouthfeel. Two Cornish desserts are available, Figgy Hobbin (raisins, nuts, sugar and cinnamon rolled in a sweet pastry) and bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream. I find the Figgy Hobbin, despite its endearing name, too sweet, and the bread pudding just right.

Schubert’s Diner & Bakery, Mount Horeb

SCHUBERT’S Diner & Bakery
128 E. Main St., Mount Horeb, (608) 437-3393. Open everyday except Monday for breakfast and lunch. Not wheelchair accessible.
Restaurants, with various owners and names, have occupied this space since 1911. The present owner (and chief cook) Antonio purchased the business four years ago and followed Jerry Schubert’s advice to make changes slowly. He has retained most menu items, and continued the bakery part of the business. You can buy house-made breads, pastries, pies, cookies and donuts to take home; all menu items using baked goods benefit from Antonio’s sure hand with dough and oven. His 20 years of experience in professional kitchens have resulted in his imaginatively tweaked standard café dishes. Especially noteworthy is the treatment of vegetables, which in some small town cafes present a soggy, if colorful, assemblage. At Schubert’s, vegetables are bright and crisp, often touched with a simple sauce, the result of using only fresh produce, cut and (gently) cooked in the kitchen. A vegetarian can eat well here. All the breakfast items I have tried have been first-rate, including blueberry pancakes with crusty edges, veggie hash and a burrito wrapped in lefse (the Norwegian crepe) rather than a flour tortilla. The lunch menu includes some unusual sandwiches: the Cuban and a Reuben on a soft pumpernickel pretzel, in addition to many others of more typical preparation. Sandwiches include the choice of a side. The soups offered as a side option are always excellent, but also tempting are real mashed potatoes, lumps and all. I recommend the Norwegian meatballs, which come with those tasty potatoes, lightly sautéed vegetables and a fine Swedish rye bread. A pasty (which I haven’t tried yet) is also on the menu; this one comes with coleslaw and beef gravy. Music from the ’50’s and ’60’s plays in the dining room, complementing the historic soda fountain, which serves up phosphates, malts, shakes and ice cream, a real historic treat. The building is old, and it is an adventure to climb the many steps to the second-floor restrooms. But then, that’s all part of the experience of historic dining.

Peter Schmalz is a retired high school teacher with interests in classical music, philosophy, history, literature, visual arts, model railroading and cooking. He lives in Mineral Point and invites readers to share their own food enthusiasms by contacting him at phoebuspub@yahoo.com.