10 years ago today I had an entry on Dotty Dumpling's Dowry on my fledgling blog. (Click here if you want to see that entry, as badly written that it was.) This was well before I had a voice or a clear concept of what I wanted my blog to be. Plus it was only the second entry on a restaurant that I had published. (The long closed Town Pump in Clear Lake, IA was the first. Click here to see that entry.) I first found Dotty Dumpling's Dowry in the mid-90's through a good friend who took me there when we were in Madison for the Great Taste of the Midwest Beer Festival. It became one of my all-time favorite places to get a burger. As the 10 year anniversary of my first attempt to capture the essence of what Dotty's is all about is upon us, I thought it would be fitting to go back to Dotty's and do something a little more in-depth.
The story of Dotty Dumpling's Dowry starts out in Des Moines, IA where Jeff Stanley opened up a funky little gift shop in 1969. He named his place after Dotty Dumpling, a character in a Sir Arthur Conan O'Doyle short story who was the fat lady in a traveling circus. He added the "Dowry" because he liked the flow of the name in conjunction with his gift shop. After selling eclectic jewelry and clothing for about five years, Stanley decided that he needed a change of scenery - both in terms of towns and business.
Stanley moved to the progressive city of Madison in 1974 and opened his first hamburger stand that was housed in a former shoeshine stand, keeping the Dotty Dumplin's Dowry name but selling no jewelry. Stanley referred to his first stand on Monroe Street as a "burger hut" because it was so small, seating only 10 people at a counter. It also confused some people as they thought Dotty's sold dumplings - a problem that continues 41 years later for Dotty-neophytes.
Two years later, Stanley found a larger location for his burger place on Regent Street just across the street from Camp Randall Stadium. It was at this location that business really began to take off. USA Today named Dotty's one of the Top 20 burgers in the nation. But it was also here that Stanley had his first battle with big business and the local government.
Associated Bank owned the land on which Dotty's was located and wanted to tear the place down and put in a retail space. Stanley had a number of years left on the lease and the bank offered him no compensation to move to a new location. It got to the point where the developers began to tear buildings down around Dotty's and soon the only way to get to the burger joint was via a small bridge. Ironically, many of the workers who were working on the development went to Dotty's for lunch. A tenacious Jeff Stanley stood his ground and for his headstrong stance he was rewarded with a settlement from the bank that allowed him to move to a new location.
After 14 years on Regent Street, Stanley moved Dotty's to Fairchild Street, not far from the Wisconsin State Capitol. This is the location that many people remember, not only for the "build-your-own" burgers, the funky antiques and sports memorabilia he had on display, but for another fight Stanley put up to keep his building from being destroyed through urban renewal. The City of Madison had plans for the area around Dotty's for the new Overture Center for the Arts, a state of the art performance hall. The city condemned the building through eminant domain, but Stanley - a battle-hardened veteran of fighting big business - decided to fight back.
As the case against eminent domain ran through the courts, the city began to demolish buildings around Dotty's. While the foundation of the Overture Center was being poured, Dotty Dumpling's Dowry stood like a lone sentinal in the battle against urban renewal. (I had a picture somewhere of the singular Dotty's with a large pit on the three sides around the building.) Stanley eventually lost his fight in court and was forced to close Dotty's in 2001. It stayed closed for two years before Stanley found a new spot on N. Frances St., just down the street from the Kohl Center. (see map)
As Dotty's moved to its new location in 2003, Rachael Stanley joined her father in the family business creating and implementing new business procedures, expanding the food offerings to include lamb, bison, turkey and veggie burgers, and running the day-to-day operations. Rachael Stanley also instituted an annual in-house contest that allowed workers to come up with a new burger concoction and a chance to win a $150 prize. Many of the burgers that Dotty's serves have come from those contests.
During a visit to Madison earlier this summer, I decided to stop in to Dotty's to reconnect with one of my all-time favorite burger places. Quite frankly, I thought on previous visits to the new location the burgers weren't as good as when they were in the Frances Street location. I was told that the grill from Fairchild Street was brought over, so there shouldn't be any difference. Or so one would think.
The "new" Dotty's is definitely more upscale in decor than the previous location and a tad bit larger in seating capacity. The old location had what one would call "character". It wasn't a dump, nor did it have a formulated whimsical-style of decor that I detest. Offbeat and curious would be the terms I'd use for their decor. Actually, they had some pretty interesting things that they had on the walls and hanging from the ceiling of the old place including an old full sized canoe. And many of those items made it to the new location.
The bar at this Dotty's is much nicer with lots of dark wood paneling, antique style desk lamps and the familiar "World Hamburger Headquarters" sign on the back bar. The ceilings are lower at this location than it was over on Fairchild Street making the place a little more cozy. Stained glass windows, antique circus posters, old photographs, early 20th century sports memorabilia, model airplanes and even a small replica of the Hindenburg were part of the decor at Dotty's.
I always liked this antique felt and chenille banner from the old location - "When Better Men are Made - Wisconsin Women Will Make Them." This banner could be close to 100 years old.
Something that is over 100 years old is this tribute to the Wisconsin 1913-14 Big Ten Conference basketball champions. The twelve basketballs feature the scores of the 12 Big Ten conference games they won that year on the way to a 15-0 season record. (They beat the former Parsons College from Fairfield, IA in a non-conference game by an unbelievable score of 50-0!) The names of the 12 Badger players, the team manager and legendary Wisconsin head basketball coach Walter Meanwell are painted on the board. Each time I go into Dotty's I stop to marvel at the display. I'm mesmerized by it, and I don't quite know why.
I took a seat near the bar at a high top table. Over the half wall on the other side are shorter tables and a number of booths along the wall. I could see into the open kitchen, a concept brought over from the Dotty's on Fairchild Street. I remember that you had to order at the counter by the kitchen at the old location and you'd have to pick up your food when your name was called. At this Dotty's location, they have wait staff to take your orders.
Billy was my server that day. He came around with a menu and I ordered up a Bell's Two Hearted Ale. Burgers are the main draw at Dotty's, of course. They source their beef from local Wisconsin farmers and the burger meat is ground in-house each day and never frozen. They have well over a dozen signature burgers including a Black and Blue Burger with a burger patty and topped with Maytag Blue Cheese, Louisiana Hot Sauce and bacon from Jones Dairy Farm; a burger topped with mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, pesto and a house-made roasted red pepper mayo sauce; and a new burger on their menu - the Green & Gold (named after the Green Bay Packers) with a burger that was topped with cheddar cheese, deep fried dill pickles and a bacon mayo sauce. This is one of the burgers that won the employee competition that they have annually at Dotty Dumpling's.
In addition to burgers, Dotty's also features a number of sandwiches including various grilled chicken sandwiches, vegan burgers, turkey and lamb burgers. They also have a deep-fried cod fish sandwich and a grilled salmon sandwich, as well. They also feature salads, soups and they have a killer jambalaya that is made in house.
I decided to build my own burger topped with baby Swiss cheese, sautéed mushrooms, Jones Dairy Farm bacon, red onions and dill pickles. The key to a good burger - I've always said - is the bun. And the bun at Dotty's has always been great. It's a soft, lightly sesame seeded bun that is neither too small nor too big for the burger and toppings.
The burger was thick and juicy with that great flat-grilled taste to it. This seemed to be a better burger than the previous visits I've had to Dotty's "newer" location. The bun held together very well with everything I had on the burger (I added some ketchup and mustard) and it reminded me of how awesome of a burger Dotty's really has.
Dotty Dumpling's Dowry continues to be one of my all-time favorite burger places, not only for the burger and the good selection of eclectic beers, but for the interesting decor that always catches my attention during my visits. This visit reinforced my notion that Dotty's is one of the top burger destinations in the Midwest and beyond. I know there are other good burger places in Madison, but Dotty's has been the gold standard that others have been trying to top for years. And even the competitors would probably admit it would be tough to beat a Dotty's burger.