Those who dine on the isthmus and in parts adjacent have become aware of certain trends at neighborhood restaurants. Some might notice an upgrade in beer offerings. Others might recognize a more sophisticated - but not pretentious - feel to the menu or the atmosphere.
Foodie types will tell you that what you're seeing is the rise of the gastropub in Madison.
But how to define gastropub? It may be easier to name examples. One spot that is universally agreed upon as a gastropub is April Bloomfield's New York hotspot the Spotted Pig. You may have seen it on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations program on the Travel Channel. Chef Mario Batali is a key investor. It has all the culinary bona fides you could ask for; it just so happens to be, more or less, a bar. It's no Le Cirque, that's for sure.
So what makes a Madison gastropub? While certainly there's nothing so high profile as the Pig, Natt Spil (211 King St., no phone) comes to mind. So does the Weary Traveler (1201 Williamson St., 608-442-6207). Restaurant Magnus (120 E. Wilson St., 608-258-8787) could even fall into the gastropub category.
All, not so coincidentally, are owned and operated by the brothers Berge: Christopher, Prentice, Finn and Bowe. I asked Prentice whether this was a style maintained consciously.
"I like the public, local feel to the term," Prentice told me. "I like the idea of a space being a living model of the intersection of food and culture. What I don't like so much is this idea that a gastropub as coming to be defined as something like 'a step above regular pub grub.' It sounds too foreign and uppity to me. It sounds elitist, and in some places is probably exactly that."
But "a step above pub grub" is how the concept is playing out. Mickey's Tavern (1524 Williamson St., 608-251-9964), for example, made a move towards gastropubdom in the fall of 2007 by adding a full menu including lunch, dinner and brunch. The food is, in fact, a good two or three steps above the usual frozen pizza and nachos with cheese product. Mickey's used to be "just" a bar. It's now something more. A destination.
Elsewhere, the Monroe Street neighborhood has developed into a destination in its own right, with new shopping, residential and restaurant spaces opening at a brisk pace. The end of summer 2007 saw the opening of Brasserie V (1923 Monroe St., 608-255-8500), a Belgian-themed eatery with an ample selection of beers from the Low Countries and an ambitious and authentic brasserie-style menu. While the brasserie and the gastropub have somewhat different definitions (just ask Wikipedia), their blurring makes pinning down the Madison gastropub challenging.
The Monroe Street Bistro is soon to open less than a mile down the road from Brasserie V, at the site of recently shuttered Papa Phil's (2611 Monroe St.). Neither "gastropub" nor even "bistro" (yet another subtle distinction) seems completely right for the place, but according to co-owner Jennifer Anne, there's a good reason for that.
Gastropub is, she says, "a name that was actually tossed around for a while when we were deciding what to call Monroe Street Bistro. We love the concept and what the gastropub represents: unpretentious atmosphere, yet sophisticated in selection and quality. Clayton [Scherer, executive chef] is still sad the new place isn't called a gastropub."
So go back to what Prentice Berge said about gastropubs, and you'll get the picture of why it's so difficult to assign the label. Some find the term charming, an implication of low light, flavorful food and well-paired beers. Others envision an upper-class clientele posing as earthy, trying to look like they're slumming it while staying in a familiar neighborhood.
It's hard enough for restaurants to settle on how they want to be labeled. What's a new bar to do when faced with a competitive arena that features great beers being served alongside great food? What if that bar just wants to be a really great bar? Bill Rogers, no minor player in the Madison beer scene, is in that position.
Rogers has just opened the Malt House (2609 E. Washington Ave., 608-204-6258) in the space previously occupied by the Union House Tavern. The place is too small for a full kitchen, and Rogers, festival chairman of the Great Taste of Madison, is a beer man through and through. He has no ambitions to run a full-fledged restaurant.
"We will add a food-prep area in the back, so we can offer more finger foods like cheese and sausage plates, but I do not anticipate putting in a kitchen for cooking anything."
Rogers is firm on the subject.
"I want to run a tavern, not a restaurant."
But the pressure exerted by the market trend can't just be a mirage, can it? Again, Rogers has a clear vision of the distinction between bar and restaurant.
"I appreciate the gastropubs and restaurants that feature craft beer, and patronize them when I can, but at the end of the day you're still drinking in a restaurant," he says. "There is a place in the market for neighborhood taverns catering to beer drinkers with adventurous palates."
So maybe we don't need to embrace the gastropub concept whole-cloth. It seems like Brasserie V and Monroe Street Bistro, Weary Traveler and Natt Spil, Mickey's and the Malt House can all coexist in Madison without a crowning of "Most Gastropubby."
If no one agrees what "gastropub" even means in this community, then maybe all these spots can just be what they are and focus on quality.