If you dine with any frequency in Madison, WI — a city sometimes reputed to have the most restaurants per capita of any in the United States — you soon become used to the constant churn of restaurants. It’s a constant storm, driven by a massively and rapidly changing population of undergrads at the UW-Madison and a lively business and government community always on the lookout for the next hip place to eat.
Take pity, then, on Nichole Fromm and JonMichael Rasmus, the proprietors of the restaurant review blog Eating in Madison A to Z. The two (who are married) are determined to eat at every single restaurant in the city of Madison, a task that has brought them to more than 450 different eateries — and up to the “O” section of the alphabet. They also won recognition this week — hitting the top of the annual Best Local Blogger category in the Isthmus.
The site got its start in a marital spat.
“Basically, Nichole and I have a fundamental disagreement about food in our marriage,” says Rasmus, who works as a game designer for the Wisconsin Lottery. “And it turns out that you eat a lot of meals with your spouse. And I’m sort of a… I don’t really care about my food too much, I just kind of eat so that I won’t be hungry anymore. Nichole’s much more the stereotypical foodie…”
“Stereotypical!” she exclaims, quietly but firmly.
“You know! You’re more like the… nevermind,” he trails off. “Anyway, this caused a great deal of consternation in our young marriage.”
“I would spend a whole lot of points to get him to go out to a place, and the pressure to pick the right place was overwhelming,” Fromm says.
After graduating with a masters in library science in 2004, Fromm picked Harvest for her graduation dinner. “I didn’t want that to be the last time I could go to a nice restaurant,” she says. They turned to an exhaustive restaurant guide put out by the Isthmus, Madison’s venerable alt weekly.
“So she just opened up the book and was like: ‘Would you eat here? Would you eat here? Would you eat here?'” says Rasmus. “And I said: ‘You know, we should just do them all. We should just go through the book.'”
An interest in information technology spurred by Nichole’s studies was all that was needed to catapult the idea into a blog.
Now, dining on their own dime and going back to eat at newly opened restaurants in letters they’ve already “finished,” Fromm and Rasmus have eaten their way up to the letter O, earning this year’s Best Local Blogger honor and past #2 and #3 slots in the Isthmus “Best Local Blog” category along the way. They’ve dined with local celebrities aplenty (other than the mayor, local journalist Melanie Conklin, law professor and blogger Ann Althouse, cartoonist John Kovalic, and legendary former mayor Paul Soglin have come along on reviews) and filed unpretentious dispatches chronicling hundreds of experiences in a city with hundreds more yet to offer. They’ve also dined with this article’s distinctly non-celebrity author.
The pair take an almost police-blotter approach to even the most scathing reviews, such as this D-/F grade piece assessing the Grid Iron:
4 October 2006: Nichole and JM, finding Grid Iron open erratic hours, decide to go on Homecoming Saturday. Despite signs for $3 brat-and-chips, there’s no food to be had. Plenty of shot girls and Badger fans, though.
As Nichole crosses the back patio, a barrel-chested woman walks up and shoves her with both hands, then staggers off. Given the drinks menu (heavy on the lite beer) JM and Nichole pay $4 for 2 cans of soda, one of which needs to be washed off before it is safe to drink from, and beat a hasty retreat.
Even rhapsodizing about an A/A- place is pleasantly in check and understated, as in this review of the excellent Brasserie V:
The waitstaff was pleasant and very knowledgeable. We thought her recommendations for beer and food were quite good. We’d come back, especially on a weeknight when a table would be easier to get. From the looks of it, Brasserie V stands for victory.
There’s an end in sight for two, kind of: “Right now if we did 6 places a month and nothing new opened, we’d be done in 2011,” says Rasmus. “Nichole was recently asked what we’re going to do when we get to Z and she said, ‘I think we’re going to keep eating.'”