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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
The Paper

FOOD AND DRINK

The decline of the Memorial Union breakfast
The glory days are long gone in the UW's Rathskeller


Credit:Ryan Wisniewski
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Before the Union's Lakefront Cafe was remodeled in 2000, a friend and I would often visit on Sunday mornings. It was always so crowded that we'd sometimes sit with strangers, which drove her crazy. There we would trade sections of the paper and listen to string quartets from the UW School of Music. I'd talk to strangers. She'd get embarrassed.

No quartets or crowds now. Except for oatmeal at its Peet's Coffee and Tea outlet, the Union offers hot breakfasts only in the Rathskeller - and there's plenty of room.

Why no more breakfast at Lakefront? Staff might say there wasn't enough business. (Managers of the Lakefront and Rathskeller did not respond to requests for comment.) But I suspect the real reason must be management and redesign.

Lakefront's breakfast hours changed with the seasons; you never knew when it would be open. It was not uncommon for the revamped Lakefront to run out of breakfast supplies, even milk. As for toast, you made it yourself and there was no place to put your tray. Ever try one-handed buttering?

Even today, there's no place to park your tray while waiting for Lakefront's great lunchtime burritos to be made.

In my youth, pig roasts and fish boils were featured on the Union Terrace. Such inventive dining is long past, as is even cafeteria-style dining.

The premade "grab-and-go" fare - basically what the Rathskeller featured until 2012 - is gone now, too.

A year ago, the Rathskeller underwent a redesign of its facilities and menu. Gone are cereal and doughnuts, the K.F. Sanchez line of Mexican entrees and the famed (if mediocre) pre-made Badger and Paul Bunyan burgers. They wanted to German the place up, with new Der Kronjuwel Burgers and kartoffel latkes (potato pancakes). You might think that German-style breakfast sausage would be available. You would be wrong.

But you can get omelets and paninis. Nicht sprechen panini.

So complete was the change that, for a while, you could not get a slice of toast. The changes killed off whatever breakfast trade the Rathskeller once had.

There since have been changes, thank Bucky. Eggs and bacon are back on the menu, but business has obviously dropped.

An Oct. 18 press release promised that "Der Rathskeller's menu has been revitalized" and that "we're still one of the quickest, most convenient places to get a delicious lunch," with a guarantee of seven-minute service. People apparently missed grab-and-go. Unfortunately the guarantee does not extend to breakfast.

I've had mixed experiences trying to fall in love again with Memorial mornings.

On a recent Saturday I tried the Rathskeller's Two Egg Breakfast with bacon, hash browns and only white or rye toast ($6). It came within five minutes, and I was pleased that it was fine, if basic. The staff was courteous. My order was served without bacon, but that was brought quickly (though it was precooked and lukewarm). When I left there were just five parties eating, which staff described as "kind of busy."

I came back on Sunday to try the Breakfast Panini: dry white toast with some kind of orange cheese, a layer of scrambled egg, and two slices of sandwich ham ($5), plus the latkes ($3.50) and a 16-ounce bottle of milk (whose sell-by date was that day). There were only six people there, and only three of them were eating.

I stopwatched my order. The cooks didn't discover I'd ordered until nine minutes later; I watched as they belatedly found the chit, electronically delivered to their station by the cashier a few feet away. It then took them just eight minutes to make my breakfast, which was served without the menu's promised applesauce side.

Only one other party ordered during the prime brunch time of 10 to 10:30 a.m. Extra minutes were relieved by eavesdrop-theater presented by five largely idle employees, who started with nuclear theory, segueing to Newtonian physics, literature and exercise.

The panini was okay. As for the latkes, they were not like any you had before. No discernible flour, egg, garlic or onion. Basically, they were the same hash browns as earlier, but with unidentifiable spice including green bits.

Speaking of green, there's the Union's ballyhooed mission to be environmentally friendly, while in the last 15 years getting rid of washable flatware, ceramic plates and mugs, reusable cups and real salt and pepper shakers. No more milk, soda or juice dispensers. Just plastic to recycle.

But some aspects of the Rathskeller remain unchanged. As I left, staff discussion was moving on to drinking games and hangover cures.

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