Sixteen years after the original Great Dane Pub and Brewery opened its doors downtown in the old Fess Hotel, the successful franchise has opened a branch east of Madison's isthmus. It joins newer iterations at Hilldale, in Fitchburg and Wausau, and even an outpost at the Dane County Regional Airport.
The Dane-East has moved into the space formerly occupied by the Cloud 9 Grille and Jovian Taphaus. The view has always been a draw - from the high hill east of I-39/90 in the Grandview Commons development, diners see the lakes, the Capitol, the whole city sprawled below them, and there isn't another restaurant around where the whole city is available at a glance. But the view alone hasn't made the site a success. The sprawling menus of the former two restaurants, as well as that of the new Dane, could have been written by Rand McNally - little allegiance has been paid to any one national cuisine at 876 Jupiter Drive.
But where Cloud 9 and Jovian failed, the Great Dane seems primed to succeed. A perfect storm of brand recognition, financial security and a reliable kitchen - to say nothing of beer, beer, beer - makes its somewhat out-of-the-way location worth seeking out. The few risks taken on the menu help, too.
For many area diners, there's so much familiarity with what the Great Dane offers that it's easy to miss its tendency to feature cuisines situated between, say, Albuquerque and Zacatecas. An outsized Big 10 vegetable burrito here, a fusiony Southwest tortellini there. The nuevo enchilada caballeros is tartly dressed with salsa and peppers; three enchiladas would be plenty even without the capable black beans and Spanish rice.
Modest prices mark the selection of main courses. A 12-ounce sirloin is a touch pricey at $22, but a healthy pile of tail-on shrimp with bacon-studded dirty rice hits closer to the target at $15. The dish seems a respectful take on New Orleans-style cuisine, though perhaps not gospel-authentic.
Chicken pot pie is a fine way to spend a snowy evening, and you should definitely stop by this one. The crust is flaky, the chicken is ample, and the core temperature approaches magma. It'll keep you going well into a second pint of beer. Indeed, anything served in a crockery bowl at the Great Dane is worth trying. Both the potato soup with bacon and the brown ale (née French) onion soups are comforting and flavorful.
Of course, a few games of pool or shuffleboard (popular activities on every visit) would be best served by a low-impact regimen of snacks or sandwiches and beer. Light and crunchy, the fried calamari come in a fine portion for sharing but not too much for one. The soft pretzels are at least as good as those at the Coopers Tavern, though the mustards get a little tiresome. Despite its goofy name, the "Bambleuzle" is a decent sauceless demi-pizza with steak and plenty of blue cheese; the prosciutto, however, is completely unnecessary.
The Sustain-A-Burger is as virtuous as it is delicious, made with locally raised grass-fed ground beef or buffalo patties. The Cuban sandwich (pulled pork and ham, grilled with Swiss cheese) is another great find. For the vegetarian, a Capitol falafel wrap with a side of excellent Israeli couscous should satisfy; or go for the Inner Warmth peanut stew, which comes a little spicier than you might expect for a mainstream pub.
A couple dishes on the menu feature sweet fried plantains; in almost every application, they're too clunky and candylike. But in the Great Dane's take on bananas Foster, they're the centerpiece, and they're great. Beer-dosed chocolates from DB Infusion Chocolates are also available for dessert - or skip the solids and drink any number of sweet after-dinner cocktails.
There's nothing you can get at the Great Dane East that you can't get at any other Dane (at least, not until the new exclusive beers arrive from Hilldale's tanks), and there are a few items not available at Dane East. But there's a lively crowd almost every night, servers who remember your face after two visits, and, of course, a view you can't find anywhere else.