Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Mar 31, 2012
01:57 PMSmall Dishes
The Pub is a British institution. It is the club of the proletariat where dues are the price of a couple of pints. It’s short for public house and the mere mention of it conjures up images of thatched roofs, quaint names, cozy inglenooks and polished horse brasses. Traditionally, many of these establishments were owned by breweries, exclusively dispensing their product, while others known as “free houses” served different brands of beer and ale.
I got my own initiation into The Pub while a student in London. Ye Olde Spotted Horse on Putney High Street became my local where each night I’d hang out with my mates. Built in 1809, it was a Young’s house, and my drink of choice was a pint of best bitter.
But the pub has always been an intrinsic part of our culture as well. I’m not talking about those trompe l’oeil, Olde England-styled creations more inspired by Disney than Dickens, but rather the local tavern or corner bar. Regardless of where it may be, a pub is more about people than architecture. Like it said in the theme song from the popular 80s TV show, Cheers, it’s a place “where everybody knows your name.” Scruffy takes precedence over spruced-up; idiosyncrasy is an attribute. The best way to identify the real thing is to observe the patrons: They should look like they’re enjoying themselves and not just passing time until they move on to someplace else.
A pub can be as much about eating as drinking. Most recently, our country has witnessed the invasion of the European gastropub—bars serving more upscale and creative fare. I’m betting that the tried and true—burgers and fries, fried appetizers and the home-style specials—will remain perennially popular at the neighborhood watering hole.
Madison has more than its share of old-fashioned pubs that incongruously remain as popular as Facebook and iPhones. Here are but a few.
Weary Traveler Free House. The name is quintessential pub. The comfortably shabby interior gives the impression that little has changed here over the years, though previously it was gourmet restaurant, and before that, a bike shop. Of all the Berge brothers’ endeavors, Weary Traveler is the most soulful. Despite it hipness, it’s laid back and a fun hangout. Local ingredients go into a menu that features the likes of West of the Andes Sandwich and Hungarian Goulash. Everyone agrees that the reason to eat here is Bob’s Bad Breath Burger—a sloppy half-pound of organic ground beef with cream cheese, green goddess dressing and obiously lots of garlic. The splendid old wood bar dispenses an enthusiast’s selection of beer on tap and microbrews and imports by the bottle.
Laurel Tavern. Another indubitable characteristic of a pub is you can’t take it out of its neighborhood and have it fit in anywhere else. Opened in 1969 by Peter and Diane Zilly, the Laurel is at home on Monroe Street and one of its best known addresses. Nearwestsiders and Nakomaites flock here on Saturday night for prime rib. The third-pound Laurel Brewmaster Burger recently caught the fancy of the New York Time’s Frugal Traveler. If the Brewers, Bucks are Badgers are playing anywhere, they’ll be on the big screen here. The most revered house tradition is free drinks when the Packers score a touchdown!
JJ’s Top of the Swamp. The unusual name hints at what is in store at this out-of-the-way roadhouse. It doesn’t have a website or Facebook page and they don’t take credit cards. It’s not the place to order Grey Goose straight up with a twist. The décor is accumulated stuff that wouldn’t look good anywhere but somehow seems appropriate at JJ’s. The clientele look like they might bite, but are actually harmless and entertainingly eccentric. Burgers named Killer, Ryno and Hank top the list of mostly sandwiches with nightly specials, including a very respectable fish fry on Friday.
Shamrock Bar. Location aside, just off the Square, the Shamrock mimics so many small town Wisconsin taverns. It’s the place to be on Friday night, after the softball game on Saturday, to play darts and euchre come Monday or pool anytime. Its mantra is “cheap drinks and friendly bartenders.” Downtowners in the know rendezvous here for lunch Wednesday through Friday and the hearty weekend brunch is one of the best deals in town. Surprising to some, the Shamrock is a gay bar.
Genna’s Cocktail Lounge. Don’t be deceived by the name, Genna’s isn’t pretentious and is as much about beer as martinis with 12 on tap and over 60 different bottled brews. Its most faithful habitués are post graduates to thirtysomethings. The bar’s roots go back to the 1960s and University Avenue and what was then called (since people were to become lost there for days) the Bermuda Triangle: Genna’s, Jocko’s Rocket Ship and the Black Bear. But today, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been where Main meets Hamilton at the Square. Their outdoor tables with postcard views of the Capitol are much prized during fine weather, especially during happy hour. Inside is a large display of Lawrence Welk memorabilia though the bar no longer tunes him each Saturday night to sing along as it once did. Unlike its next door neighbor, the Shamrock, Genna’s doesn’t serve much food, only occasional small snacks on the bar.
Mickey’s Tavern. It has the three Ps of pub perfection: a past, a pool table, and a patio. The same family owned this tavern for a century, and when Jane Capito took it over the only change she made was to add food—“good food” as the sign in the window honestly states. Every generation has left its mark … an art deco back bar with it peculiar neon hound head … 1960s light fixtures … an Emerald Ice jukebox circa 1992. Mickey’s may make a virtue out of its shabbiness, but its eclectic menu is serendipitously sophisticated. The Sexy Fries—homemade potato chips slathered with truffle oil and grated parmesan—are famous all over town. It does have a small parking lot, but most of its regular customers arrive on foot or by bike.