Ogden’s North Street Diner has the look of a place that someone has been planning for years.
It’s like summer at the marina when you walk along the docks and dream about what you’d name your hypothetical sailboat (mine would be the Goodnight, Irene).
Ogden’s, a charming little spot open since May, is the breakfast cafe version of that sailboat.
“We’ve lived in this neighborhood for 16 years,” said Cari Scott, a co-owner of Ogden’s. “We would drive by and see that spot and think, ‘Gosh, that would be a good size for a tiny restaurant.’”
In 2013, they got the ball rolling, and this spring chef Will Tracy’s restaurant finally became more than a dream. Scott and Tracy live next door to the new Eken Park cafe, named for their nine-year-old dog, Ogden. He is already becoming a celebrity at the dog park.
“Sometimes we’re in the yard and people will recognize him,” Scott said. “He’s getting superstar status. People do recognize him, even at the park.”
With room for about 40 people in the dining room, Ogden’s is open and cheery, with eclectic design elements like a Jenga tile wrapped in a map of Turkey holding down the bill and sea foam green stools that match the doors to the bathrooms.
The feel of the place is cozy without feeling cramped, solicitous but not smothering. Tracy keeps the food simple and classic: scrambles and omelets, grilled cheese, pot pie and chicken salad.
Breakfast may be the main draw. Six days a week, Tracy makes buttery blueberry pancakes the size of dinner plates ($7.50 for two) and serves them late into the afternoon.
“I want to bring what I love to this neighborhood,” Tracy said in an Indiegogo video he made to raise money for the restaurant. “People love breakfast, and I intend to give it to them.”
In many ways Ogden’s is an extension of “Lazy” Jane Capito’s laidback influence on Madison’s neighborhood bars and restaurants. Both Tracy and Scott have been involved in Capito’s businesses, Tracy in the kitchen at Lazy Jane’s Café and Mickey’s Tavern and Scott as a general manager, a position she still holds at Lazy Jane’s.
In 2013, Capito helped Tracy and Scott buy the building at 560 North St., which they took over a few years later.
“I have so much respect for her,” Scott said of Capito. “90 percent of what I do I learned from her. She’s family, not officially, but as good as.”
Lazy Jane’s influence is clear on the breakfast menu, where a tofu scramble ($8.75) with peppers and onions rightly steals some thunder from the eggs, and pancakes and sausage can be found wrapped into pigs in a blanket ($7.50 for two).
In some ways, Ogden’s might even be better. Colectivo roasts the beans for cold brew coffee ($2.25) with a pop of acidity, an improvement I’ve long wished Jane’s would make.
In pride of place at the top of Ogden’s lunch menu is a sandwich Tracy named for his nephew Owen, who dreamed it up 10 years ago when he was 8 years old. The Owen Miles Proulx ($8) mashes up a ham and cheese sandwich with red pepper jelly and potato chips.
It’s kid food and it’s drunk food and it’s kind of great (though it’s worth noting that Ogden’s serves no alcohol and has no plans to change that).
Ogden’s unfussy, familiar fare is basic in the best way. Tracy fries bacon crisp ($3.50) and offers meatloaf as a side dish. Oatmeal ($3.50-$4.75) with toppings like bananas, praline nuts and blueberries should be a hit well into winter.
I fell instantly in love with personal berry pies the size of fresh popovers, with a not-too-sweet blueberry filling and buttery, almost biscuit-like crust. Each pie costs $3.95, plus 75 cents for fresh whipped cream that no one should skip ever, for any reason (hyperbole, but still).
Every time, hashbrowns ($2.75 on the side) were tender on the inside, seared crispy and perfectly golden. A tuna melt ($8) with aged cheddar and tomato got a hard sear on the toast and was, in all ways, just right: not too much mayo, just enough cheese.
As every cook and “Top Chef” viewer knows, simple food gives a chef nothing to hide behind. Rice noodles on the sesame chicken salad ($9) had an odd chewiness, and the meat/veg ratio made it seem more like a bunless riff on a chicken sandwich. Tahini dressing on a side of greens tasted like straight sesame paste.
I’m down for an individual pie, but Ogden’s quiche ($8.50) had too much crust. Give us more fluffy eggs and mix-ins, like bacon and broccoli or spinach, tomato and feta.
Service may also need a tiny tuneup. Diners have a reputation for speed, but Ogden’s breakfast involved a half-hour wait after we placed an order. At lunch, we gave up and went to the hostess to get the bill.
Over just a few months, Ogden’s has already been a boon to the neighborhood, much like the Tip Top Tavern across the street and the new Bear & Bottle pub a few blocks west.
Scott can imagine a partnership in the future with someone who wants to share the Ogden’s space and serve dinner, or possibly have a pop-up for a food cart. Scott and Tracy are friends with Bryan Draves, owner of the Filipino cart Masarap, and have encouraged him to experiment in their space.
“I like this neighborhood,” said Scott, who grew up visiting her grandmother in Eken Park. “I like that it’s diverse. I like that it’s affordable. I want to see this neighborhood continue to feel like it’s on an upswing.
“It’s taking what’s here and making it a little better,” she added, “not trying to be pretentious but just be a part of this neighborhood, which has always been working class.”