A full house is a good sign. A packed patio on a late September night is even better. Welcome to the Free House Pub, which makes a convincing argument for being the place to be in Middleton. The Free House warmed me in many ways. I was already in love with the historic brick building when I walked up. A garrulous group of outdoor diners broke the ice.
"It's kind of cold outside," said my dinner companion as we wove through the tables to the entrance.
"Internal heaters," I said, smiling at the hands clasping glasses raised to lips.
I couldn't wait to join the ranks. The Free House succeeds in a pre-dining feat: creating anticipation for the next course, and the next.
A "Free House" is basically a pub that doesn't limit itself to selling only one brewery's offerings. If you want to warm up the old-fashioned Wisconsin way, the drinks menu offers an ample variety of microbrews, whiskeys and mixed drinks using spirits from Wisconsin distilleries like Old Sugar and Yahara Bay.
But a good drink will only carry me so far, particularly if I'm hungry. Luckily the food stacks up well. The service was so casually seamless and the food so solid that diners will get something a little special: the opportunity to enjoy each others' company without the distraction of buzzkills.
For those desiring more solitude, there are opportunities to find it in one of the adjoining dining rooms. We found ourselves in a lovely nook by a spiral wrought-iron staircase and a glossy, heavy-set wood bar that practically begs to have a snifter of whiskey on it.
The locally driven pub fare gets equal billing with the ale and whiskey. And at no more than $10 for any item, it's a great value for the quality. (Similar menus are probably a few dollars pricier a few miles closer to the Capitol.)
The Free House's burgers, sandwiches and salads don't get too crazy, but they don't really need to. They are less about gimmick and more about substance. Familiar food, tweaked with a gentle hand. The charbroiled jalapeño poppers are just a flame's kiss away from fresh, which keeps them green and just crunchy. Dip them in the chipotle ranch sauce for a doubly pleasant burn. Or keep it tame and tasty with cheese curds. While they can't edge out Blue Moon's in my heart, they are wholly satisfying and not too greasy.
The ABLT, a BLT with avocado, wins on both counts. Most things are improved with a) bacon and b) avocado.
More on the avocado front: The avocado salad teems with kalamatas, chickpeas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, which, despite being on the edge of out-of-season at the time, were bee-sting red and sweet. Mysterious black olive stragglers were also in the mix, but hardly disconcerting.
The burgers are compact but thick and cooked to medium by default. "The Big Tex" with barbecue sauce, sautéed onions, lettuce, tomato and cream cheese fell on my tongue like a marriage between the Weary Traveler's beloved Bad Breath Burger and a Western burger. The beef is local, though the menu doesn't cite the source.
The sweet potato fries are a hit. The garlic-Parmesan fries are a tasty upgrade, too, though the shavings of cheese tend to fall off when the fries are picked up. Consider a finer grate, perhaps? They'd be decadent if the cheese were melted on a bit.
The Jail Island salmon is available on a sandwich and as an add-on to salads.
"Where the heck is Jail Island?" is the question. It turns out Jail Island is not the where, but the what: a Seafood Trust eco-certified aquaculture company operating out of the North Atlantic. The filet was cooked to a cautious medium. It's a great red-meat alternative, especially on the sandwich, with caper and lemon-dill sauce. And I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't have to go on a Friday to catch the fish fry - the cod fish fry is also a Wednesday special.
The dessert menu is just one selection per night, but the turtle cheesecake from Jordan's Big 10 made a splash. The caramel reminded me of dulce de leche. I couldn't find any pecans, but if there's caramel and chocolate, it's okay to forgo the nuts, anyhow.
The Free House makes no lavish attempts to impress. It simply does well what it professes to do: ale, whiskey, pub fare. Yes, yes and yes, please.