Pastrami reigns in the well-filled Reuben.
The Badger Tavern is built on the bones of the justly revered Tony Frank’s, an old-school Madison tavern for 86 years.
That era began with Tony Frank’s conversion of a farmhouse in 1929 and ended only in June 2015, when the business closed after construction and other woes crimped the bar’s cash flow.
Mike and Mark Franklin, who own a number of other Wisconsin pubs, have cleaned and painted. Vintage Budweiser posters, Packers photographs, a neon Coors sign and four flat-screen televisions have replaced the esoteric assortment of framed art. Otherwise, the Badger Tavern doesn’t look very different from its predecessor. It’s all as familiar as a comfortable baseball mitt. The stereo plays “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol and “Sausalito Summernight” by Diesel. Old-timers sit at the bar for happy hour. “Hey, Doc!” everyone says, as one septuagenarian comes in at lunchtime.
On a recent Thursday night, the place was packed with Badgers-gear-wearing, Wisco-through-and-through personalities. “Miller Lite, Bud Light, Busch Lite, Miller Lite, Bud Light, Miller Lite, okay,” a waitress says, reciting a drink order back to a table of six. But Spotted Cow, Capital Amber, Capital Maibock (seasonal — alternating with Bell’s Oberon), Goose Island IPA and Hopalicious are also on tap, and there are more craft beers in bottles.
Always try the cheese curds in a Wisconsin tavern. These turn out to be heavy but good, battered white cheddar straight out of the deep fryer and served very hot. Onion rings are excellent and addictive, crisp and properly proportioned (batter to onion). As with many appetizers here, there’s no accompanying sauce, but rest easy — there’s a condiment caddy at each table with ketchup, mustard and Tabasco.
Side salad is basic: lettuce, diced tomatoes and, in a bit of a twist, white onions, diced. Vegetarian options are thin here — and forget about it if you are vegan — but you can get a solid grilled cheese sandwich, and Swiss on rye is ideal comfort food.
A cup of chili arrives, searing hot, with a smoky, mildly spicy attack. Adding crumbled Saltine crackers is the right move here; soak it up.
The 1/3-pound cheeseburger is a beast, with lightly seasoned fresh beef; the Bucky Burger (with cheddar, bacon and barbecue sauce on a wheat bun) is saddled with a bit too much sweet barbecue sauce.
On Fridays, the place is reliably swarmed for fish fry, which features fluffy filets of battered, deep-fried cod with fries and coleslaw (there’s a small upcharge for cowboy potatoes, aka cheesy hash browns). Deep-fried or grilled shrimp is also on the menu, or order a combo plate. The cod is available as a sandwich every day, and it, too, is really tasty.
The Reuben is a towering stack of pastrami on marble rye, hit with just enough Thousand Island dressing to add tang to the smoky meat. Tart sauerkraut tumbles out the sides. This sandwich is an edifice of food, nearly as tall as it is wide.
This is bar food in the Wisconsin tradition, with few concessions to the last five decades of health admonishments, and sometimes that is exactly what a red-blooded Wisconsin resident wants. A Bloody Mary with a beer back of Lake Louie Warped Speed Scotch Ale, or an Absolut and tonic with fresh-squeezed lime might not impress the mixologists downtown, but here they’re correctly prepared and liberally dispensed.
Like a veteran band deploying a new singer on old songs, the Badger Tavern hasn’t done much more than tweak the arrangements — a wise decision. The patio is approved by the city for food and drinks, and Badger is just waiting for the paperwork to clear, which is expected at the beginning of May.
May the new era last another nine decades.
1612 Seminole Hwy., 11 am-10 pm (food service) daily; bar open later., $4-$12.