I can’t vouch for the giant “kosher-style” menu at Madison’s Ella’s Deli, but I’ll vouch for its chorus line of dancing mutant feet. Last Saturday we’d already had dinner and escaped from the crowded, overrated Old Fashioned, and headed east from downtown, ostensibly for ice cream but really more for Ella’s lysergic, animatronic head trip.

I have a friend who remembers the original Ella’s in downtown Madison, when it was a small deli serving passable food that gradually declined over the years. That spot is no more, and the second Ella’s, located east of the capitol on Washington Street, is more frequently recommended as a place to take the kids rather than a desirable spot to get your fress on. But I can’t help but imagine that its real service to the community over the decades has been as a port of call for tweaking U. of W. students looking to enhance the disruption of their neurotransmitters. 

You can spot Ella’s fully functioning restored 1927 merry-go-round in the parking lot from blocks away, and inside it’s a paralyzing sensory overload of blinking lights, superheroes, clowns, cartoon characters (and a deranged anthropomorphic honeybee) coasting near the ceiling from wires, glass-topped tables with  magnetized games, and the incessant buzzing, whirring, and clacking of Rube Goldberg-style gadgetry (photos attached). The appealing thing about it all is its careworn cast, with everything looking like it’s been around much longer than 32 years. We happened to be sitting next to the staff table and chatted up the world-weary manager on his break, eating a roast beef sandwich, who said he started working there two days after it opened. Originally it was primarily done in fern, but gradually the owner, a wind-up toy enthusiast, began to amass the displays.

Obligatory food note: the blueberry grilled pound-cake sundae was awful–the vanilla custard overaerated and freezer burnt, the cake dry and stale. But I almost didn’t notice.