Stay classic, Avenue! The oversized Bubble Burger is the best thing on the menu.
Once upon a time in Wisconsin, our hardy forebears would brave fierce rains, howling winds and freezing temperatures for the reward of grilled steak, pickled vegetables, a brandy Old Fashioned, conversation and community at the local supper club. Madison’s Avenue Bar & Grill was part of this heritage, a place where old-timers would eat batter-fried bluegill and walleye chased by pitchers of beer on Fridays. Some would return on Saturday morning for a Bloody Mary and plate of corned beef hash and fried eggs. After the Zach family sold the venerable bar to the Food Fight restaurant group in 2011, the interior and menu stayed mostly the same for four years. But this summer, a major overhaul took place. The bar reopened in August with a new look and a new menu as the Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar.
The bric-a-brac and rusted farming implements adorning the walls are gone (probably a good thing), and the wall that used to separate the bar from the main dining room now has three large inset windows to connect the rooms. Specialty mixed drinks showcase champagne and sparkling wines — “Bubble & Bitters” matches sparkling rosé with a cherry bark vanilla-soaked sugar cube, for instance. Manhattans are made from scratch with Jim Beam bourbon and kegged, thereby available on tap. The retro-styled “Bubble Up” sign, wrought of metal and wire with sparking inset light bulbs, oversees the curved blond-and-auburn wooden bar that snakes through the south side of the room.
While the new bar is a step up, the main dining area has become drab and dispiriting.The color scheme is a flat and lifeless deployment of beige and gray, unimproved by muted ochre and teal blue accents. But the service brightens the experience considerably with uniformly excellent performance.
Brunch is packed, so call ahead for a reservation — and that’s true in general, as the new Avenue is seemingly always busy. Eggs are fluffy and light, chunked potatoes are firm and sparingly seasoned, slightly crisped bacon is seared but not charred. Strawberry jam comes in a pot and pairs winningly with toasted white bread. A cinnamon roll could have been more generously slathered with frosting and felt doughy in its interior; still, it disappeared in minutes. Pancakes and French toast with butter and maple syrup always please kids. Here the Avenue wisely sticks to its brunch history.
For a light lunch, the iceberg wedge salad snaps with red onion, bacon, radishes, chunks of blue cheese and cherry tomatoes. It’s flanked by two dressings: smoked paprika-French and buttermilk blue cheese. A fine turn on a classic.
The Bubble Burger may be the best thing on the menu. It’s an oversized patty of lightly spiced meat, dressed with red onion, tomato and lettuce and served with a splay of salted french fries, thick-cut skins on.
On the downside, a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich further overloaded with a large seared salmon filet is not a great idea. And the seared salmon entree, topped with wilted spinach, limp bacon and far too many mushrooms, doesn’t do much better. The fish is oddly tasteless, and the potato pancake anchoring the plate is doused in too much butter (it’s possible). The riff on beef Stroganoff features rich moist short ribs, braised in red wine and splashed with crème fraiche, but the egg noodles are soggy and the shiitake mushrooms dusky tasting.
The Avenue is perhaps best known for its fish fry, and here the new incarnation delivers. On Friday nights, the dining room is furiously busy, with every table booked as well as the bar. The beer-battered cod yields easily beneath a crunchy exterior. (Cod is also available baked, and there’s fried and pan-seared walleye as well.) As with the other recipes, the fish fry is not an exact replica of the original Avenue Bar fare, but it’s close.
It’s probably true that the Avenue was overdue for a reinvention, sad as it is to say goodbye to a local icon. But this may not be such a good trade. While the supper club-by-way-of-Mad Men concept is sound, the execution simply isn’t there when the menu strays from such mainstays as eggs, hamburgers and the fish fry. That’s a shame, as East Washington is the hottest avenue in town, and this could have been spectacular.
The Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar 1128 E. Washington Ave., 608-257-6877, avenueclubmadison.com, 11 am-midnight Mon.-Fri., 8 am-midnight Sat.-Sun., $7-$30