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Meet the Owner of Elizabeth’s Cafe in Madison

Elizabeth Butler never really meant to open a restaurant. “I was selling life insurance and doing rather well, until a client asked me, ‘Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?’”

Which gave her pause.

No, frankly. It was not. What she really wanted to do was cook for people.

“I put an ad in the paper, saying I’d cater perfect parties, asked my mother if she’d help, and suddenly we were in business, and the name of the business was Perfect Parties. Kind of a stupid name, I guess.”

That was nearly 30 years ago, before anyone thought to use the word “plate” as a verb. “The food industry has changed so much.” Butler takes a minute to think. “Who would have thought there would be movies like Babette’s Feast, or Eat Drink Man Woman, or Julie & Julia? And books on the best seller list about olive oil? It’s become much more than feeding people; it’s an art.”

She started feeding people at parties, but she couldn’t stop there. Now Perfect Parties has to share its kitchen with Elizabeth’s Café in a historic building on tree-lined Main Street in Madison. “I mean, the café just kind of bloomed on its own. First, we put a few tables and chairs outside, and then a tenant in the building moved out, and we occupied that space; and then another tenant left, and we put in benches and finally there was a dining room, and then a bar…

“I learned my love of cooking from my grandmother,” says Butler, whose maiden name is Petrillo, thoroughly Italian. “At our house, it was fresh everything. No shortcuts.” Her love of good, fresh food grew into a commitment. Everything created in Elizabeth’s kitchen, whether for the café or the “perfect parties” Butler’s staff caters, is made from the freshest produce, the finest cheeses, the best cuts of meat. “But even though my background is Italian,” Butler says, “the restaurant is not specifically Italian.”

Peggy Falk defines the cuisine. “It’s eclectic. I’d call it New American.” She is the restaurant and catering manager. She is also in charge of choosing, purchasing, and pricing the wine, which, she is eager to add, is more than just good and attractively priced. “I put together a well-balanced collection from all over the world, always keeping in mind which wines best serve our customers.”

New American, a term coined in the 1980s, refers to a type of fusion cuisine, mixing traditional American and foreign cooking techniques, sauces, and seasonings. “That’s the closest description I can get,” adds Falk. On a given day, the menu could include Butler’s grandmother’s signature spaghetti and meatballs, a richly French beef bourguignon, and an arugula salad with a sweet orange vinaigrette.

Chef Edgar Jara came to join them with a varied and admirable résumé, and his enthusiasm is evident in every dish that comes out of the kitchen. It’s evident that Butler’s commitment to quality isn’t just about the food. “We have the best of what we can find…the chef, the waitstaff, our caterers, everyone who works for Elizabeth’s and Perfect Parties.”

And the flowers. Recently, each table had a single orange rose floating in a small glass bowl. One diner commented on the unusual color, and, she remarked, “The fragrance! Beautiful. It’s hard to find a rose that smells anymore.”

New American notwithstanding, Butler’s foodie heart belongs to Italy. Two years ago, Butler, her cousin, and their husbands went to southern Italy to visit the village where her grandmother grew up. “I wanted to see my grandmother’s house. We stayed in Amalfi—the village was so small that there was no place to stay there—and when we came, the whole village came out and marched up the hill to the house with us.”

Butler brings that history with her, generations of family that eat, not just have meals. For some reason, “Mangia” sounds a whole lot better than “Eat your dinner.”

Zagat-rated and Yelp-beloved, the food and wine would be enough to lure discriminating foodies, but it’s also a great place to spend a couple of hours. Quaint and fetching and all those clichéd adjectives people use to describe a place that oozes tasteful cuteness are just fine for Elizabeth’s Café. The window boxes are crowded with blue hydrangeas and seasonal cascading blossoms. The interior walls and cupboards and floors are evocative of an old farmhouse.

The dollhouse of a building was built in 1793 and still has that old New England charm. “It’s a constant challenge, though,” admits Butler. “You call an electrician for a repair that might cost $500 in another building, it’s $5,000. You learn that anyone who owns an old house knows that it’s a partnership—owner and house.” She pauses. “…and ghost.”

A ghost who lives in the basement and doesn’t like voicemail, apparently. Elizabeth’s Café has had to replace their system four times in two years. The telephone repairman hates the basement. More than once, he’s come upstairs white-faced and shaking his head. “That ghost went right through me,” he told Butler.

The wine is kept downstairs. Falk hesitates only a second when asked if she believes in the ghost, and then she says yes. “Lights go on and off.” She smiles. “And the staff swears they’re not doing it. The baker thinks she saw something.” Is it a man or a woman? “It’s a man,” says Falk, although she cannot say why she thinks so, and she’s comfortable with it. Perhaps he guards the wine.

“I don’t believe in such things,” laughs Butler. “But if he’s really down there, he’s more like Casper than a real ghost.”

Besides, he doesn’t come upstairs. He should, though. For brunch. Which is superlative.

Image Credits: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth's Cafe

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