It's a long way to Yummy Buffet
This article appeared in Isthmus Dining, April 2005 under the headline: "It's a long way to Yummy Buffet: Young couple eats their way through Madison A-Z (and lives to blog about it)".
We have lived in Madison for all our young married lives. While we're like most couples in many ways, we do have our quirks. JonMichael (JM) likes to make elaborate rules regarding what movies we watch and Nichole insists that everything be in alphabetical (or, failing that, rainbow) order. In short, we were made for each other. But long before our wedding day, an enduring and basic conflict emerged: what’s for dinner?
JM eats to live: He sees eating food as chore, a necessary physical requirement and not much more. Cooking doesn’t interest him in the slightest. He’s always the first to finish a meal, eating as though he’d been raised in a family of 12. In contrast, Nichole lives to eat: she chews each bite at least 10 times. She’d gladly spend hours each day cooking, shopping for, and reading about food.
Once we were living together, we engaged in a gentle tug of war over how we were going to eat. We experimented with individual food allowances; Nichole's headed to the Dane County Farmers’ Market and JM's found its way to Burger King. We went through several iterations of meal planning. Hitting rock bottom, we made a numbered list of items we were both willing to eat and then used a random number generator to make our weekly Woodman’s list (seriously).
In late spring of 2004, however, we hit on an idea. Isthmus helped. Flush with her impending freedom from grad school, Nichole was paging through the Annual Manual’s listing of Madison restaurants, asking JM which he’d be willing to try. His aforementioned love of lists asserted itself, and he proposed we eat our way through the whole list. While Nichole was somewhat alarmed by the obsessiveness JM's invitation, she also realized that this would the only way to get him to eat at certain restaurants that she wanted to try.
We needed a methodology. We decided to print the complete list of restaurants off the Isthmus Web site and go to each place in order, starting with A8 China. (Astute observers might point out that on the Web site, the 24 Carrot Café appears before A8, but “Eating in Madison 24 to Z” makes no sense.)
When we finish a letter, we check for any new listings in the previous letters. We go to chain restaurants, but only visit one location.
We’ve been at it since May 10, 2004. We try to visit one restaurant per week. There are hundreds of restaurants on the “Eats” database, so we figure we can actually complete the list before 2012 (our stated goal). Our biggest challenge so far has been the incredibly fast turnover in the Madison restaurant scene. We can hardly go out without seeing new places pop up, and it inevitably feels as if they open just after we’ve passed their spot in the alphabet.
The project lends itself well to a Web log, so “Eating in Madison A to Z” was born. (What else is the Web for, if not obsessive projects with limited audiences?) Now when we've been to a restaurant, we take notes and post a write-up on the blog. Not that we're expert reviewers, nor presume to be; our site is less a tool for searching for restaurants and more a snapshot of the meals we've eaten -- essentially, a food diary.
There are benefits to this project besides increasing marital harmony and broadening our culinary horizons. We now have an instant conversation starter. Since everybody eats, everybody seems to want to know where we are on the list. (This was a little embarrassing during the two months it took us to finish the A’s.) We’ve found small but appreciative audiences in friends and strangers, and JM's co-workers like to be informed when new reports are posted. It all adds up to people sharing their restaurant and food stories with us, which is gratifying.
We’ve also discovered that we aren't the first to attempt such a project. Another Madison resident known on-line as Swickape maintains a list of hundreds of Madison restaurants at which he’s eaten, although he did so with a less rigid method. And we respect him for it.
We do not, however, wonder how he got a table. It seems that the majority of Madison restaurants are empty even during prime meal times. Though many U.S. cities claim the distinction of having the most restaurants per capita, we’re now nearly willing to believe that Madison would win that title hands down when pitted against a San Francisco or Addison, Texas (town motto: The most restaurants per capita west of the Mississippi).
We do still allow ourselves to eat at restaurants that are not on the list, as it would be masochistic to go eight years only eating Glass Nickel Pizza once. Since we started the A to Z project, however, we have never uttered the dreaded, “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” This has been quite liberating. Now we can move on to more important questions, like whose turn it is to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway. And JonMichael would be before Nichole in the alphabet.