Madison’s Graze keeps local diners and farmers satisfied

Walk into Graze on South Pinckney Street on the Capitol Square and you’ll see a large topographical map of Wisconsin dotted with the vast assortment of local and state vendors who help the restaurant round out its rotating menu of farm-to-table fare.

It’s a confident declaration of where — exactly — your food is coming from. A frank reckoning that most restaurant chains would be reluctant to replicate. So instead of iceberg lettuce from California, you get artichokes and onions from Spring Green. Instead of grain-fed beef from across the country, you’re served lean, grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef from Fall River, Wis.

“We have a close relationship [with our farmers]. A lot of our farmers deliver to us, so they’re in the restaurant. We talk to them regularly.” — Dianne Christensen, co-proprieter, Graze

There’s something comforting in that, to be sure, and many consumers no doubt appreciate knowing that their dinner came from small local family farms and was sustainably grown. But to Graze co-proprietor Dianne Christensen, the restaurant’s trump card is simply the quality that goes hand in hand with the restaurant’s focus on sustainability.

“It’s important because the food tastes better,” said Christensen. “It supports the community — we want to support local farmers — but the food is better. When you don’t truck things across the country, it’s better. We can work with our chicken breeders to breed certain chickens and certain types of food, so you get the flavor that you want, and so you get a much closer relationship with your farmer, and they’ll grow the produce you want.”

That focus on community — i.e., community agriculture and service to the local consumer — is part of what earned Graze a 2013 Dane County Small Business Award

While consistency is the watchword for many restaurateurs, Graze is banking on the values and sensibilities of consumers who have made buying local not just a popular fad but a way of life. With a few exceptions — like fish, oysters, lemons, and limes, which are difficult or impossible to source locally — everything is Wisconsin-grown.

While that may make the restaurant experience a little less predictable, it hearkens back to a day when there was a tinge of excitement and anticipation associated with each new harvest.

“The menu will change,” said Christensen. “When tomatoes hit the market, people will know — we’re going to have all kinds of tomatoes on the menu. When asparagus hits, we’re going to have asparagus in a number of dishes. And so I think there’s a number of people who look forward to certain produce coming on. Berries coming into season, raspberries coming into season.”

Fun farm-to-table fare

For a restaurant that’s truly rooted in old-fashioned farming traditions, Graze is fairly new to the neighborhood. Christensen and her business partners also operate L’Etoile, a high-end restaurant with a similar farm-to-table philosophy and a much longer history. A few years ago, the group, which includes chef and co-proprietor Tory Miller, determined that they needed to find a way to grow the business.

“We felt at the time that the market for high-end dining was not growing, so we were interested in opening a more casual restaurant with a totally different style,” said Christensen. “Different food, more approachable, more fun, and so we came up with the idea for Graze.”

They moved L’Etoile — which Odessa Piper first opened in 1976, quickly cementing a reputation as a pioneer in the sustainable food movement — from its former Pinckney Street location into the U.S. Bank Building, where it occupied a spot on the Square next to Graze.

Graze opened in 2010 and soon established itself as a downtown Madison favorite.

It’s also a favorite among local farmers, who have found it to be a welcome stopping point. Go to Graze’s website and you’ll see a sampling of the restaurant’s vendors, complete with histories of the farms and photos of the families who run them. Among those farmers, sustainability is paramount, and everything from green leafy vegetables to hearty potatoes to artisan cheeses to Scottish Highland cattle is represented.

“We have a close relationship [with our farmers],” said Christensen. “A lot of our farmers deliver to us, so they’re in the restaurant. We talk to them regularly. Fountain Prairie Farm, we’re out there, they’re in the restaurant, they talk to us. We work with them on how we see their beef and its finishing, so we have conversations with them that I think may be a little different.”

A sustainable mission

While Christensen says Graze is on board with national efforts to curb obesity and encourage healthier eating, that’s not the restaurant’s main focus.

“Supporting local food systems is our primary goal, and the better the food systems, I think the healthier eating is going to follow,” said Christensen.



Of course, eating at Graze may be a great way to support sustainable community agriculture, but for those who want to make it a way of life, there are plenty of other entry points.

“I think going to the farmers’ market is the place to start,” said Christensen. “Going to the farmers’ market or joining a CSA [community-supported agriculture farm]. I think that would be a wonderful place for someone to start.”

Then again, as the summer farmers’ markets and summer CSAs wind down, Graze will remain open. And true to form, the restaurant’s offerings will change with the seasons. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few sweet summer treats left for patrons to enjoy.

“During the winter, there’s a lot of root vegetables that we’ll store,” said Christensen. “Right now, we’re also putting by a lot of things. Our freezers are filled with berries, and so we can make raspberry lemonade in the winter because we have raspberries frozen.”

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