Know Your Madisonian: Architect/designer has put her stamp on many Madison restaurants

January 20, 2019 GMT

Architect and designer Melissa Destree is responsible for the look and feel of many of Madison’s most distinctive and high-profile restaurants. But when it comes to eating out, her regular, weekly spot is Nick’s Restaurant on State Street, a place that looks much like it did when it opened in 1959.

Growing up in La Crosse, Destree remembers knowing early that she wanted to be an architect. Her parents were supportive of her dream, and bought her drafting kits starting at age 6.

Destree, 48, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from UW-Milwaukee. Before opening Destree Design Architects in Downtown Madison in 2000, she worked in Madison at Flad Architects and Kahler Slater.

Her father had an organic farm near Spring Green, which brought her to the area after college. Destree had also worked for Kahler Slater in Milwaukee when she was a student and worked on the restoration of the state Capitol during her summers.


Destree, who has a 15-year-old daughter, lives in an apartment near Hilldale Shopping Center. Her company has been in the 10-story building at 222 W. Washington Ave. since 2004.

She’s a past president of the Wisconsin chapter of the International Interior Design Association, and is the group’s vice president for advocacy, keeping members updated about legislative and regulation issues and promoting licensing and registration.

Destree’s recent projects have included work on the UW System president’s house on Madison’s West Side; the Lake Edge Park shelter on the East Side; and single-family affordable housing at Mosaic Ridge, part of the city of Madison’s redevelopment of Allied Drive. She’s working to restore the Belleville train depot.

Do you think of yourself as more of an architect or more of a designer?

I guess I consider myself an architect with a design focus.

You’re lucky to have Casetta Kitchen in your office building.

We were their architect. We did the space.

You do all kinds of projects — corporate, residential, retail and historical. Where does restaurant design fit in? Because it seems like a strong suit of yours.

Yeah, we do a lot of restaurants — a lot. But it all kind of depends. We do work for the owner of all 54 Applebee’s in Wisconsin. So we have relationships with corporate owners of restaurants, as well as doing concept restaurants.

What was the first restaurant you designed?

The first project, I wouldn’t call it a design, but the Timbers in DeForest burned down. And the contractor called and said, “We need you here right now.” And they had to rebuild it ... And the next thing you know, that contractor had us do four or five more restaurant projects ... Probably the first more exceptional restaurant we did would be Samba, very quickly followed up by Bonfyre on the Beltline.

More recently you did Graft on the Square.

Yeah, that’s probably the best one.


And then, you also did The Post on the Square, in the Park Hotel.

So we did the whole Park Hotel project.

Wow. That’s a huge accomplishment.

That’s the largest project we’ve ever done, the Park Hotel.

You’ve also done Brickhouse BBQ, The Cooper’s Tavern and Prairie Cafe.

That’s a very good one, Prairie Cafe.

But you’d say you’re most proud of either Graft or the Post and the hotel?

I’d put Prairie Cafe way up there, too. The building, the Prairie Cafe building, is exceptional looking. That’s a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired piece.

So, when you go out to eat, do you try to eat at restaurants that you’ve designed?

The answer is yes. You always want to support your clients. There are so many good restaurants, though, in Madison. I like to make a point of trying someplace new about every other time.