The 2020 pandemic was a chaotic year for the service industry. Some businesses have closed, others still might, but for Sardine co-owners and chefs Phillip Hurley and John Gadau, 2021 is full of hope.
Phillip and John met in 1997 as neighbors in the same brownstone apartment near Wrigley Field in Chicago. Before teaming up, they worked separately in a number of prestigious restaurants in Chicago and California, like Café Provencal, Cartucci, Citrus, and Zuni Café.
Together, they moved their families to Madison in 2000 and opened Marigold Kitchen, a cozy breakfast and lunch spot off the Capitol Square. Just this year, they sold Marigold Kitchen to their very first employee at the restaurant and her husband, who she met while working at Marigold.
When a space in the historical tobacco/icehouse became available in 2006, the chefs jumped on it and opened Sardine, a French-inspired lakeside bistro. At 15 years old, Sardine is part of an elite club of long-time, classic Madison restaurants.
But the pandemic didn’t make this last year easy. Sardine shut down March 15, 2020, two days before the mandate to close was issued. “Reservations had been steadily dropping, and there were too many unknowns and question marks,” says Phillip. “Is it going to be two weeks? Two months?”
John adds, “And on a personal level, our staff didn’t feel safe. It was easier for everyone to stay home and spend time with their families rather than coming back just for a shift or two. And honest to God, would we still want to be doing this if we’d worked that year? It was a pitiful grind to figure out how to stay open. Now we have so much more momentum. We were lucky to have a thoughtful landlord who worked with us and acted as a partner.”
Even though Sardine was closed, that doesn’t mean the two sat idly. “John and I cooked a ton at home. We experimented, we had fun, tried out new spices, and did a lot of baking and made desserts. We’d take photos of what we were making and eating and text each other all the time.”
And they have taken that energy and momentum into relaunching Sardine, which opened this past summer. Some changes are apparent, but others are behind the scenes. “We’ve settled into a direction of cooking that is truly us, more so than before,” says Phillip. “The rails were going in a different direction, and we wanted to take this opportunity to home in on simplicity, beautiful flavors, and a few less ingredients.”
Streamlining the menu and ingredients per dish was a purposeful move toward regaining simplicity for Sardine. It also helped staffing and cashflow. While Sardine retained most of their front-of-house staff and managers and more than half of their kitchen staff (much better than the average Madison restaurant that fully reopened), there still was not enough staff to reopen at pre-pandemic capacity. In late summer, they were still pumping the brakes on reservations, ensuring everyone who walked through the door received the best service and experience. Being more efficient also allowed Sardine to increase staff wages. Doing more with less was a lesson born out of the pandemic.
Several of the classic Sardine dishes remain on the menu: salmon and lentils, duck confit salad, and a beautiful cheese plate. But diners will see new flavors, like Middle Eastern and North African, which are common in France and make sense to include here. The kitchen is using more olive oil than butter, and crisper, lighter flavors are the focus. The kitchen will stay nimble, and menu items will change more frequently as seasons progress and different produce is available.
“We had lots of time to study our past menus and think about how busy, chaotic, and hard things had gotten,” says John. “It all goes back to the menu and how can we create one that’s tighter, more efficient, hire less people, pay them more, and be more profitable.”
Both chefs agreed things have changed since Sardine opened. Diners are more sophisticated and more knowledgeable about food, and it allows restaurants to push the envelope a bit. John says, “Spaghetti and meatballs used to be exciting, but people are traveling more, exposed to more, and they want more from their restaurant. Expectations are higher, it’s more competitive, and this pushes us and makes us better.”
Phillip added, “And the restaurant landscape has changed. There are a lot more good restaurants. Madison is growing, the population is young, and everyone has more sophisticated palates. … We didn’t want to open the exact same restaurant because everyone’s changed. We’re really proud of the Sardine we’re reopening.”
Going forward, John thinks restaurants will survive, if not thrive. “Things are going to look different; there will be more online stuff, more takeout. Everyone who can have outdoor seating will have a patio and a plan if something similar happens again. … We want to create a place that’s hopeful and generous, and we could not have done it without our staff.”
Phillip and John have no plans to leave anytime soon. Their profound appreciation for those who make their restaurant a success and the community that supports them is evident in the time spent reflecting, rethinking, and reopening their restaurant with fresh changes in classic Sardine style.
Anna Thomas Bates moved to Wisconsin 21 years ago, and after shopping at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and wandering through the Driftless Area, she hasn’t looked back. Co-owner of Landmark Creamery in Paoli, if she isn’t tasting/selling cheese, you’ll find her writing about food, reading a good book, swimming, or hiking with her two boys.
617 Williamson Street
Madison, WI 53703