The Old Feed Mill Restaurant: A Culinary and Cultural Treasure

Photo by Eric Tadsen

The Old Feed Mill Restaurant in Mazomanie evokes a sense of a bygone era while diners enjoy tried-and-true comfort food like grandma used to make, and they do so in a working stone buhr mill dating back to 1856. “In addition to my original recipes, I’ve taken recipes from my mother,” says Nancy Viste, who has co-owned the restaurant with her husband, Dan, since 1995. Nancy upped the ante on the recipes to make them taste even better, leading to the restaurant’s reputation for great food. “I call it the open-minded version of mom’s cooking by adding wine or switching up an ingredient or two to take the dish to the next level. Mom wasn’t closed minded, but she never thought to experiment or vary the recipe.”

Tradition has endured at The Old Feed Mill because the restaurant stays true to its rich history. Their bread is an excellent example. The flour is ground fresh in the mill then baked within 78 hours of grinding, allowing the vitamins and minerals of the living plant to be retained. In addition, the wheat for the restaurant’s honey wheat bread and the rye for the Friday night fish fry bread are both grown organically in the Taliesin area of Spring Green.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

The farmhouse menu reflects the Midwestern food Nancy and Dan grew up with, which tastes homemade because it is. All is housemade—cooked from scratch. “People come just to eat our famous pot roast, meatloaf, cider roast chicken, and chicken pot pies served in a round of freshly baked bread,” says Nancy. “The Mushroom Strudel vegetarian dish is so popular, you’d think I put a drug in it because people absolutely love it. We supply fresh produce grown in our own garden to supplement the other locally sourced vegetables served at the restaurant, so diners actually get a part of who we are.”

The bread pudding, carrot cake, Baileys Irish Cream chocolate chip cheesecake, and Irish Car Bomb cupcake, (an infused cupcake with Grand Marnier, Baileys Irish Cream, and Jameson whiskey) are to die for, and it’s hard to pass up their pies and crisps. It’s no wonder the restaurant has been featured in Midwest Living magazine and on the Food Network.

It was the building that caught Dan’s eye and got things rolling for the restaurant. He and Nancy lived a couple of miles out of town on a small farmette raising chickens and sheep and tending a large garden, and Dan would stop at the mill for animal food. As a hydrogeologist for a Madison engineering firm, he fell in love with the building’s stone construction. “A geologist spits on a rock to be able to reveal the rich color and beauty in the grains and to give it more luster. Because it was a building, I thankfully didn’t have to spit on it to see the beauty, I just waited until it rained. The stone combined with water power just made the decision to purchase the building feel good.” Dan is also a history buff, and loves the role the building played in Mazomanie’s history.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

The Village of Mazomanie was founded in 1855, getting a boost in 1856 when the railroad needed water every 40 miles to power the steam engines. Engineers diverted water from Black Earth Creek, just south of the village, into a lake against the bluff to power the mill next to the railroad. This allowed flour to be shipped to the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The building was later expanded, but burned in the early 1900s. While the original mill was built with a 16-foot diameter water wheel with 14-foot buckets to power it, the new mill was built using turbines, and shifted to electric power in the 1950s. At one point, the mill also served as a safe house for the underground railroad.

In the mid-1990s, with their children in elementary school, Nancy was ready to add running a restaurant to her life experience, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Cultural and heritage tourism was on the rise, and the local historical society had a collection of 32 downtown buildings declared a historical district. Geography was also on their side since Mazomanie is in the second-largest tourism region of Wisconsin, which includes the communities of Baraboo, Wisconsin Dells, Madison, Spring Green, and Mineral Point.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

While establishing the restaurant, Nancy and Dan followed their philosophy that everything has to have a purpose or it shouldn’t be there. The dining room seats 75 people around mismatched tables in a historically based décor. Large dark ceiling beams and two-foot-thick rustic whitewashed concrete walls with unpainted window lintels provide the room its interesting aesthetic. Panes of glass separated by muttons in the slender, single-paned windows provide true divided light to complete the look of the farmhouse style. Antique quilts adorn the wall and hang on a clothesline between the beams when privacy is desired for small groups. And diners can browse a small, charming gift shop.

The 10-foot marble bar top when you enter came from an old tavern in Prairie du Sac. Initially, The Old Feed Mill had a soda fountain/bakery theme, but about 10 years ago, Nancy and Dan’s son, Patrick, made the bar conversion. You can also enjoy seasonal outdoor seating under a covered patio, and there’s music on Friday nights.

There are two large rooms upstairs that each seat 75 and are available for receptions and parties. The rooms are banquet style, with linens and lace over the tops of tables for country elegance. For Valentine’s Day, they’re converted to tables for two with roses and candlelight for a more intimate setting.

Everything about The Old Feed Mill—food, ambiance, experience—is worth the trip from wherever you may be coming from.

Lauri Lee is a freelance writer living in Madison.