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Mickey's Tavern and Jane Capito

Jane Capito, owner of Mickey's Tavern and Lazy Jane's Cafe in Madison, redesigned the tavern on the Yahara River to become one of the near east side's most popular nightspots. 

MICHELLE STOCKER/the capital times

Over the past few decades, one near east side corridor has developed into Madison's restaurant row.

Williamson Street is the home of some of the city's best-known ethnic spots, like Lao Laan-Xang, Ha Long Bay and Jamerica. In less than a mile, diners can choose among the laidback, neighborhood vibe of the Weary Traveler, modern, tapas-style A Pig in a Fur Coat, charming Chez Nanou, and Roman Candle's creative yet family-friendly pizza joint.

Anchoring all of this activity from breakfast to bar time are two beloved establishments: Lazy Jane's Cafe and Bakery and Mickey's Tavern.

Located a block-and-a-half apart, both are owned by restaurateur Jane Capito, a self-effacing, hard working food industry veteran who, almost without meaning to, has helped transform Madison's restaurant scene.

"I want to claim her for the east side, but she was part of these '70s idealists that actually changed how people eat in the city," said Chris Berge, a former employee of Capito's who owns the Weary Traveler and co-owns Natt Spil and Cortadito.

Berge worked for Capito when she managed the east side location of Ovens of Brittany, a collection of local French bistros that still live in Madison restaurant lore.

"These are the people who introduced the croissant to Wisconsin," Berge said. "The folks I grew up with would call it a crescent roll. (Jane) was an inspiration ... she keeps the food honest and real."

Nearly 40 years after she waited her first table in Middleton and 23 years since she opened her first restaurant, Capito's influence continues to grow.

Earlier this month, her former stepson Gilbert Altschul, 30, opened Grampa's Pizzeria in the former Grampa's Gun Shop, two doors down from Lazy Jane's. He honed his grandfather's pizza recipe at Mickey's, where he was the kitchen manager for years.

And Capito's son Ben Altschul, 25, has a new venture too — a renovation and re-imagining of the Tip Top Tavern on the north side. It's tentatively scheduled to open in August.

"We could focus on how she's influenced the east side, but it's all of Madison," said Terese Allen, a local chef and food writer. "The east side is the most markedly changed, but it's really across the city."

Ovens of Brittany origins

A self-described "army brat" who never stayed in one place for too long, Capito is proud of her ability to adapt. Born in 1944 in Salt Lake City, she spent several early years in Germany — her first language was German.

Growing up, Capito and her family lived in the Philippines, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The first inkling that she might want to own a café came to Capito as a teenager in San Francisco.

"I was in my junior year of high school, and I used to go down to Chestnut Street, and there was a little shop on the corner," she said. "I think they had ice cream and food. My girlfriend and I used to go down there and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee.

"I remember sitting there and looking around, and I thought, 'I'm going to do this someday. I'm going to have a place like this.'"

Years later, Capito was working as a social worker in Berkeley, Calif., when she decided to make the leap into food service — but she couldn't imagine doing it out west, where living expenses were high.

Madison sounded "politically up my alley," Capito said, and she had friends there, so she made the move.

"Nobody would hire me," Capito said. "I was 32, and it was, 'You have no experience? Only experience.'"

She eventually found work as a waitress at Middleton Station (now Louisianne's Etc.), where her biceps swelled along with her confidence. Soon she followed a coworker to the Ovens of Brittany on State Street, where she worked at various locations for 14 years.

"The Ovens of Brittany was a huge catalyst for the restaurant renaissance that started to happen in Madison in the mid-'90s and has completely exploded in recent years," said Allen, a friend and former colleague of Capito's.

"When you look at a town the size of Madison, and how vibrant and diverse and really excellent the restaurant scene is here — it's a national story, too," Allen said. "Every time I talk to people from other cities, they're like, how do you do it here in Madison?

"I absolutely believe the Ovens had a key piece to do with that. Janie was a key part of that."

Berge, who waited tables off and on for two-and-a-half years at Ovens, was one of the first to split off. In April 1990, he opened The Blue Marlin on the Capitol Square. (Chuck Taylor has owned the restaurant since 2005).

Food Fight co-founder Monty Schiro's resume also includes a stint at Ovens. 

Capito herself opened Wild Iris (1990-2001) and the Greenbush Bar (1993) with Anna Alberici (Capito is still a part-owner but does not have a say in the running of the business). For seven years, she owned Botticelli's, an Italian restaurant on King Street (1991-97), with her former partner, Dan Altschul.

By the time Botticelli's closed, Capito was looking for a new venture. She had long admired the historic building on the Yahara River that houses Mickey's Tavern when the owner agreed to sell it to her in September 1997.

"I wanted to put in a little café," Capito said. "At the State Street Ovens (of Brittany), the café part was called Baker's Rooms.

"I wanted to put another Baker's Rooms there (in Mickey's back rooms). That was my dream."

But the dusty tavern was going to take more than a coat of paint to become a breakfast and lunch spot. Capito recalls the bar having just four tap beers, vodka but no tonic, and not a wedge of citrus in sight.

After two months of running the bar with one other employee, Capito realized that Mickey's was never going to work for her original plan. So she seized the opportunity when the 1885 house at 1358 Williamson St. became available.

"It had been a series of restaurants and bars and go-go dance places," she said. "There was black wall-to-wall carpeting. All the windows were boarded up. It had many incarnations."

But Capito could see the building had potential.

"I have the ability to see possibilities," she said. "I'm really visual. I was so excited because I thought, this could be a wonderful place."

Renovations took about a year. Capito made Lazy Jane's Cafe a reflection of her own personality, with décor that is quirky and colorful — local paintings and Italian posters, oversize Scrabble tiles for signs and Russian nesting dolls in the windows. 

Capito originally wanted to call Lazy Jane's "Joie de Vivre," but worried that in south central Wisconsin, no one would be able to pronounce it.

In the end, she named the cafe for a Shel Silverstein poem in "Where the Sidewalk Ends." It's 28 words long with one word per line, printed over a girl lying on her back with her mouth open:

"Lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy Jane, she wants a drink of water so she waits and waits and waits and waits and waits for it to rain."

Building restaurants, building community

Though Capito has been in the restaurant business for nearly four decades, at 68, she hasn't slowed down yet.

In 2007, she added food to Mickey's Tavern with the help of her former stepson, Gilbert Altschul. Mickey's now employs about 40 people, compared to Lazy Jane's staff of 24.

"Mickey's has grown a lot over the last five years since we added food," said Cari Scott, who manages both Mickey's and Lazy Jane's. "With Lazy Jane's there are so many regulars. You kind of get it down to a science — this person gets this, this certain way. The cooks can see that person in line and say 'Oh, I know I'm going to have to put this on the grill.'

"Mickey's is's busier every year," Scott said. "It's a thing we're always running after. We seem to be getting so much new business still."

Lazy Jane's scones, like Oven of Brittany's cinnamon-dusted morning buns, have developed a cult following. (If you're still sad that the Brittany-style morning bun is gone, Allen and Nancy Christie both claim Lazy Jane's version is the real deal.)

Riding on the strength of the scones, in August 2010, Lazy Jane's expanded into a bakery annex next door. It helps mitigate out-the-door traffic on weekends. A new remote buzzer system has also helped the cafe's cooks during a rush; on most other days, they still shout diners' names to the second floor.

"I think people feel an ownership of Lazy Jane's," Scott said. "People feel like the space is their own. They can sit wherever they want, they can get up and get what they want."

In 2009, the New York Times included the café in a "36 hours in ..." feature about Madison, praising its "funky-nerdy vibe."

Lazy Jane's "becomes crowded and loud but exudes the coziness that comes with a lazy Sunday poring over the newspaper and catching up with an old friend," wrote Katie Zezima.

"Everyone runs their restaurant in their own way," said Scott, who has known Capito for 22 years — more than half her life. "She's open with her staff, accommodating ... she really tries to take care of the people who work for her. She cares about her community."

But it hasn't always been easy, and some days still aren't. Mickey's has had "growing pains," Scott said, after the smoking ban went into effect and negatively affected business.

Capito herself recalled that when she started running the Ovens on State Street, her management style rubbed some people the wrong way.

"There were people who hated that, hated me," Capito told Allen in a 2003 profile for ANEW Magazine (now BRAVA). "It felt like trucks were running over me. I had to let go of my idea of what I wanted to be seen as. I had to let go and just keep going. ... I outlasted it all."

Capito no longer enters into equal partnerships in business — it's too difficult to make major decisions when parties disagree. She likes positive feedback, but she prefers when people complain, so she can "make it wonderful." 

Capito is also a believer in hands-on management, which her sons have seen in action.

"I stopped into Lazy Jane's last Sunday, and no surprise — there's Ma, behind the bar washing dishes," said Ben Altschul. "She loves being a part of that team. She loves getting right in it with everyone and seeing the systems and looking for efficiencies and artistic embellishments.

"That's really where she gets her inspiration. She'll come home from a day of baking or washing dishes and be like, 'Oh my god, I had the best day ever.' That's what feeds her soul is being in the space, is interacting with people."

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Berge considers his Weary Traveler a counterpoint to Lazy Jane's on the near east side, and in many ways it's an obvious comparison. Both restaurants have the kind of refreshingly random décor that Madisonians love to show visitors. Capito finds furniture and accessories from St. Vincent de Paul, among other places.

Both serve health-conscious comfort food — you could start your day with a seitan scramble at Lazy Jane's and end with ramblin' vegan chili at the Weary. And both have an overall funky, unscripted vibe. 

 "You can't robotically program restaurants. They have to get a little weird around the edges," Berge said. "You can't take conventional business models and apply them to a restaurant. It's too human.

A family affair

When Mickey's added food six years ago, Gil Altschul was behind the burners.

"Mickey's pizza should quickly develop a fan base," wrote Chris Martell in a 2007 review in the State Journal. "It has a thin, crisp, yeasty crust and high-quality abundant toppings, which also happens to be very cheap."

His grandfather's recipe is the basis for Grampa's Pizzeria, which Altschul and his girlfriend, Marissa Johnson, opened to friends and family over Independence Day weekend.

At first, he resisted Capito's influence on his plans. Capito has a management style of "organized chaos," Altschul said, while he's very orderly. When Capito offered advice, Altschul didn't always accept it.

"Out of just being young and bull-headed, I pushed back hard," Altschul said. "I was so excited and gung ho ... this has been my goal for the 15 years I've been cooking. I have my own space, I can do whatever I want."

But when Capito saw the original designs, she pushed back, too. It didn't make sense, she said. Eventually, Food Fight's Schiro came in as an impartial mediator.

"By that point I had conceded that her design was better," Altschul said. "All the stuff she was saying was strictly because she cares about me and wants to see me succeed."

Altschul and his brother, Ben, are "night and day" in their personalities, Capito said. The younger brother is an idealist, a real estate investor with visions of creating a new community center/ neighborhood bar/ "spiritual place" for the north side in the new Tip Top.

"Pops jokes around and says I'm a 'big time operator," Ben said. He has worked off and on at the family restaurants, first at Lazy Jane's and then at Mickey's, since he was 13 years old.

"Mickey's, Lazy Jane's, the Tip Top when it opens — they're informed by the community," Ben said. "You can prepare them to release into the world, but it becomes the community's. That's how it stays living and breathing."

Ben is trying to emulate his mother and "check his ego at the door" while he works out a menu of "creative comfort food" with chef Durrell Williams, who has worked at both Lazy Jane's and Mickey's. Like Mickey's, he's hoping to have a full slate of music, too.

"If the music is alive and heartfelt, we're going to welcome it," Ben Altschul said. From "Afro-Caribbean music to jazz, to punk rock to the Metropolitan Opera live on Saturdays, blasting on 88.7 FM."

Each of the new ventures is a family affair — Capito owns the Tip Top property while Ben owns the business, and Ben and Gil own Grampa's together. Eventually the plan is to have the Tip Top be solely Ben's and Grampa's be solely Gil's.

"I'm grateful to be doing this with ma," Ben said. "When she offers her ideas, I invite and encourage them, even when I disagree. Most of the time her experience speaks for itself."

As for Janie, as her friends call her, Allen said that "it's her sense of place and space" that makes Capito such a powerful force.

"I have never known anybody in the restaurant business who can envision and so joyfully and organically make what is in her head happen," Allen said. "She passes that on to people in the food, in the atmosphere, in the service."

Capito has no plans to retire, at least not any time soon. She has talked tentatively about passing partial ownership of Lazy Jane's to Scott, but it's all very early — "we're going to have to wait and see about that," Scott said.

"She's the Energizer Bunny," Allen said. "She will keep going and going and going. It's in her blood.

"With Janie, it's always all there, she's all present. Her restaurants are and have been who she is. They are so very much a perfect expression of what she is good at and what she loves to do."

When asked about the future of Williamson Street's growing restaurant corridor, Capito imagines it "will become more of what it is."

But of course, Capito has her own vision.

"I want all of the businesses to get together," she said, "and I want somebody to volunteer to make window boxes that will match each of the businesses.

"And maybe teens (doing community service) are given one side of a block, to maintain those during the summer. They would be beautiful, gorgeous flowers. All along, the businesses would have these wonderful window boxes. I think everybody would love that."

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.