After our visit to the Madison Farmers Market one Saturday earlier this past summer, Cindy announced she was hungry and wanted to get something to eat before we took off for The Flower Factory south of Madison. One place that I wanted to try for quite sometime but never had the chance to before was the Nitty Gritty in Madison. Located near the Kohl Center and the University of Wisconsin campus, I've been told that the Nitty Gritty had a burger that was on par with such venerable places as Dotty Dumpling's and the Blue Moon, two Madison establishments that both received high honorable mentions in my most recent Top 10 Burger list.
For over 40 years, the Nitty Gritty has been known as not only a great gathering place for fans before and after U of Wisconsin football or basketball games, but they also pride themselves as being THE destination in Madison for birthdays and other celebrations.
The Nitty Gritty was founded by Marsh Shapiro (right), a Madison native who was also a local television personality. The Nitty Gritty first started out as a little neighborhood bar with picnic tables for seating. In the early 70's, Shapiro began to book musical acts into his little place - primarily blues acts such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Bonnie Raitt. The Nitty Gritty would continue to showcase a number of national acts until 1974.
The Nitty Gritty was also infamous as being a place in which the counter-culture crowd would hang out. Numerous protests against the Vietnam War were staged outside the Nitty Gritty with tear gas cannisters sometimes popping against the side of the building.
However, the Nitty Gritty is part of an even more sinister footnote in history. On August 24, 1970, a large bomb was detonated on the University of Wisconsin campus damaging dozens of buildings and killing a U of W professor. It was at the Nitty Gritty that the four conspirators planned the bombing of Sterling Hall - a research facility on campus targeted because of the ongoing research work toward the war effort going on inside. The bombing literally ended all radical anti-war movements in the U.S. and many of the Vietnam War demonstrations in Madison lost their emotional momentum after the blast.
In the mid 80's, Shapiro sensed a change in attitudes of patrons and students at the U of Wisconsin and re-invented the Nitty Gritty as "Madison's Official Birthday Bar." Shapiro claims there have been over 400,000 birthdays celebrated at the Nitty Gritty over the past 25 years. In fact, when we stopped in to the Nitty Gritty just before noon that one Saturday, we were asked by the hostess if we were part of the birthday party going on up stairs.
A few years ago, Shapiro and his wife, Susan, opened a second Nitty Gritty location in suburban Middleton (see map). In 2009, Shapiro semi-retired from the business and turned over ownership and day-to-day operations of the Madison location to his son-in-law, Lee Pier, and Nitty Gritty assistant manager Eric Suemnicht. Shapiro, his wife, Pier and Suemnicht all own the Middleton location, however, Shapiro is looking to sell that to Pier and Suemnicht at some point in the near future.
We had parked down the street and walked up to the corner of Frances and Johnson to the Nitty Gritty (see map). There are two dining areas on the main level of the Nitty Gritty. We decided to sit in the bar area with a number of dark wood booths lining the walls and a large square shaped bar in the middle. A number of flat panel televisions were tuned to the World Cup. We were given menus and decided that it wasn't too early to get a beer. To my delight, the Nitty Gritty had Capital Supper Club beer - suddenly my favorite summertime beer. Cindy got her old stand-by, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
The walls of the Nitty Gritty are lined with picture upon picture of Marsh Shapiro with politicians, sports figures, broadcasters and other celebrities. It reminded me somewhat of the pictures on the walls around Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. Cindy said, "This guy must be pretty proud of himself.
Each day at the Nitty Gritty they feature a burger normally not found on their regular menu. That day they featured a natural, dry-aged grass-fed burger grown from beef from a Wisconsin farm - Fountain Prairie Farms. Other burgers that are featured include a "Pepper and Egg Burger" - a green pepper and egg top that one; the "Corny Burger" - topped with a corn salsa and pepper jack cheese; the "Parisian" - a burger topped with bleu cheese crumbles, a marinated red onion and served on a crossaint; and the "Wisconsin Brandy Burger" - topped with Wisconsin cheddar cheese, brandy marinated onions and a homemade mayonaisse. The Nitty Gritty features over 20 different burgers on their "Burger of the Day" list each month. However, the Fountain Priaire Farms burger is always featured on Saturday.
In addition to their featured burgers, the Nitty Gritty has their famous "Gritty burger" - a 6 oz burger topped with their homemade "Gritty" super-secret sauce what has been described as being a sour cream base. They also have a Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese burger, a "Pretzel Bender" burger that is served on a pretzel bun with pretzel mustard and onion rings on top, and something called the "Four Alarm Burger" - a burger topped with pepper jack cheese, jalapenos, hot sauce and jalapeno pepper bacon. I almost went with that, but remembered that we were traveling.
Also, the Nitty Gritty features a number of other items such as salads, veggie and salmon burgers, a number of variations of grilled chicken sandwiches, other sandwiches including a reuben and an Italian melt sandwich that sounded great, as well as the usual bar fare appetizers.
Cindy asked our waitress about the featured burger, the grass-fed beef burger. She said, "The beef is really lean, but it's very flavorful. I like it a lot." She said it was topped with their onion straws. Cindy ordered up one of those. She also ordered a side of fries to go with the burger. The girl said, "Our burgers are usually cooked medium-well, unless you specify." Cindy said that was fine with her. "Gritty sauce" also comes on the side with the french fries.
I hemmed and hawed for a moment going back and forth between the featured burger, the "Four Alarm Burger" and the "Roasted Garlic Burger" - topped with roasted garlic and onion straws. I finally decided upon the featured burger, medium. I decided against the fries or any of the other sides they had to offer.
After a while, our burgers came out and I had fries in my basket. When I reminded the waitress that I hadn't ordered fries she said, "Oh, that's right. Well, we won't charge you for them." (They'll take two bucks off the price of the burger without a side.)
I could immediately see they were severely overcooked. My "medium" burger were more well-done than anything. The life had been cooked completely out of both of them. I wondered if it was because of the natural beef having less fat content in it than a regular "Gritty burger". But it was charred and lifeless with no discernable taste whatsoever.
As I was trying to gag down my burger, I felt something funny in my mouth. I knew it was something wrong. I reached into my mouth - yes, I know, bad manners at a public restaurant - and pulled out a long hair with a piece of beef dangling from it. Cindy about lost it on the spot. She went, "Eee-yew!! Yuck!!"
I called the waitress over and I pulled up the hair with the dangling piece of beef. She said, "Oh, my God! I'm so sorry. Let me get you another burger right away."
I said, "Hey, tell the cook to make it medium-rare this time. And without the hair, if he could."
She said, "I'll see to it."
I ate some of Cindy's fries as I waited for my burger. Honestly, I was losing my appetite the more I sat there and thought about pulling a long hair out of my mouth with a piece of overcooked hamburger dangling at the end. But I will say the "Gritty sauce" was a nice condiment to dip the fries in.
When the waitress brought out my second burger, she told me, "We're not going to charge you for the burger, sir." Then she stopped and winced and said, "Oh, and he gave you fries again! I'm sorry!"
I'll bet if I pitched a fit, I probably wouldn't have had to pay for either of our burgers or fries.
And I probably should have - this burger was as equally overcooked as the first one and Cindy's. I had a couple bites and gave up. The waitress came over to check on us and I said, "Quite honestly, you can take this away. This was a horrible burger and I've clearly lost my appetite." She wordlessly picked up the baskets and took them away.
The waitress brought back the bill and she had, indeed, taken off the one burger. I paid in cash and still gave her a five dollar tip because she was pretty attentive and did take care of us when we needed another beer.
The Nitty Gritty's natural burger was just horrible. One of the worst burgers I've ever tried in a restaurant. Now, I may have to go back there and try just a regular "Gritty burger" to see if it was an anomoly. I'm hoping that it was, but there was just something sort of schlocky about the whole place. It sort of reminded me of a harder-edged Happy Joe's with a horrible burger instead of a horrible pizza. But I will say my first experience at Nitty Gritty was not very good. But I'm willing to give them a second chance at some point.
(Update - I've been back. Got a Swiss cheese burger. Thankfully, no hair in the burger this time and it still wasn't all that great.)