There is something refreshingly soulful about the Fountain, especially as the chain-ification of State Street continues apace. (And why not an actually decent chain, like maybe a Maoz Vegetarian or Le Pain Quotidien or, if we have to swallow one more cupcake, at least a Sprinkles, which doesn't pile its cakes with mounds of lard-like frosting?)
The oddly under-the-radar place, which looks like a Hopper painting, evokes the beauty of desolation. There is a vintage circa 1910 oak and mahogany bar parked on one side of the room, facing a big mirror framed by orange and yellow neon bands, like a jukebox. The mirror throws back the reflection of a manic mural of everything Wisconsin (the Union Terrace to state pioneers, including a Native chief) that takes over the facing wall, and running down the sides of room are chunky wooden tables. Ignore the two flat-screen televisions mounted on either side of the bar and you get a whiff of old-school heartland tavern authenticity.
The authenticity, thankfully, infuses the menu as well. The Fountain, a casual comfort-food diner, could get by with standard-issue sandwiches and burgers. But it thinks a lot bigger than that, and its culinary patriotism is proudly announced on the busy menu, which reads like a map of Wisconsin. The kitchen's local suppliers include everyone from Harmony Valley, Renaissance, Alsum and Flute Family Farms to the Alcam Creamery, Roth Käse cheese and Black Earth Meats. Plus 30 Wisconsin beers. And all that elevates a restaurant that deserves more attention.
If you're going to give it the attention, start with two purely satisfying Dairyland appetizers. The kitchen's Wisconsin cheese curds are hand-breaded, served with buttermilk ranch, and as perfect as cheese curds get (until they cool down and turn, inevitably, into cheesy gumdrops). I'm not a fan of curds, but these pop in the mouth; they are all delicate crunch wrapped around a creamy, very yellow, sunny center. The house spinach artichoke dip, based on a family recipe from Montello, Wis., is another seductive starter. The big bowl of Wisconsin Parmesan and cream cheese is studded with chunks of marinated artichokes and thick with fresh spinach. It's as good as it sounds, though the oven-toasted crostini served on the side are too greasy and dry. Spread the dip, instead, on the fantastic crusty sourdough bread fresh-baked in the Fountain's bakery, sitting just across the hall.
Then move on to your own version of dinner. There are three basic genres at play here: sandwiches, burgers and down-home entrees. Among the sandwiches, the best we sampled was a first-rate BLT, distinguished by strips of sweet brown sugar-smoked bacon, herb aioli and thick-sliced grilled bread. The Wisconsin grilled cheese was almost as good, although the stack of seriously sourced cheeses (Lynn Dairy cheddar, Decatur Dairy Stettler Swiss and Cady Creek Muenster) sort of canceled each other out. The cheddar won.
The red lager brat, dressed with apple bacon kraut, did full justice to the state's signature dish. The vegetarian "Isthmus" was the only real flop, done in by a big tongue-like slab of portabella that, like all portabella mushrooms, proved resolutely tasteless.
Among the burgers, the signature Fountain burger can compete with some of the better renditions in town. The beautifully charred half-pound wad of meat came stuffed with Lynn Dairy cheddar and topped with that brown sugar-smoked bacon and caramelized onions, all exploding out of a pretzel bun.
How do you top that? Not with the turkey pot pie, which wore a rakish little hat of a cheddar-and-herb biscuit, but then went way too starchy with an excess of mashed potatoes. You can't really call it a pie. Though that may be the only real note of inauthenticity you'll find at the Fountain.
See Raphael Kadushin's latest in the February issue of Conde Nast Traveler. His food posts and travel features appear regularly on Epicurious.com and Gourmet Live.