The continuing saga of an intrepid Wisconsinite and newly-moved Madisonian, exploring his new home... with some foodie goodness and some political/religious observations thrown in to boot.
Monday, September 29, 2008
The Malt House
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun. - Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. - Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3, William Shakespeare
There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger. - Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29, Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell translation.
When I was a young and angry man, I liked quite different things than I do now. I appreciated fast cars. I listened to fast music. When I went out of a weekend, my main desire was to put myself in the vicinity of pretty girls, loud music and a reasonable amount of peril. Like many people that age, I didn't want to actually lead a dangerous life, I just wanted it to look like I did.
I have never been a BIG fan of bars or clubs, but when I did choose to go to one, it was usually loud, raucous and hopping. A lot of people like bars like that. A vast majority of people in fact. When they go out, they want their drinks cheap and their music loud. The kind of bar where one can easily get drunk and stupid. Thoughts on quality of drinks or conversation are tertiary at best. It actually makes me wonder about the state of our social society when we apparently seek to avoid talking to people by frequenting establishments where the music is to loud to hear people talking.
As I grow older, what little love I had for the loud bars has evaporated completely. I'm a Words Man, a student of the human condition. I make my way via my command of the language and my love of it. When I go out for social time, good conversation, that lost and elusive creature, is my ultimate goal. The enthusiastic exchange of ideas, the verbal sparing of a debate, the ebullience of a discovered shared interest, these are my bread and butter. All it takes is one loud band or one overblown DJ to ruin a wonderful evening.
And so, I began that search, years ago, for a quiet social venue where one may interact in a meaningful way with ones fellow humans. Luckily society has invented such institutions already. They call them "Taverns".
Actually, they call them any number of things. Pub, lounge and saloon are also used. The nomenclature is pretty hazy but in general, if you say "neighborhood bar", most people understand what you are talking about.
If that still doesn't do it for you, let me define the species.
In general, the creature will have most of the following traits: Dark wood, low lighting, bartenders with personality, above average drinks, lots of accumulated memorabilia and/or items of interest and a fierce local following who will happily bus tables and make a bouncer unnecessary (may the gawds help the stranger who bows up in a neighborhood bar, few things are more embarrassing than explaining to the cops that you got knocked the fuck out by a 65 year old ex-marine swinging a barstool).
Such establishments, once you have summoned enough testicular fortitude to brave the swivel factor, pissed a territorial circle around a bar stool and made the scene enough to earn the title "regular", are a refuge, a Sanctum Sanctorum and a home-away-from-home. I have been lucky enough to find such an establishment once in my life, and, unfortunately, I left it behind in FDL when I came down to Madison.
It's been a year and a half and I've used what little free time and free fundage I have to scour the city in search of a new watering hole.
There have been any number of failed attempts. Madison is a big city and has a lot of wonderful and not-so-wonderful establishments. Many of them are still in the running for my go-to bar but recently I found someplace that lept to the top of the list in very short order.
The Malt House was, for many, many years, the Union House Tavern, legendarily a waystop for Union soldiers on their way to Camp Randall for training and deployment in the Civil War. When Madison's East Side was the hub of Madison's industrial commerce, Union House was a beloved neighborhood bar whose fortune and fate became inexorably tied to the East Sides eventual decline. With the death of it's last owner, Earle Erhart, this local landmark boarded up and locked it's doors after 150 years.
But, Dear Reader, what may seem like a sad story is only the turning of a chapter. The only constant our weird and wonderful world offers is change. So it was that out of the ashes of an abandon Madison Icon, grew the dreams of a man named Bill Rogers. Bill is the head of the local Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild and in the old, boarded up tavern, he saw history and possibility. I didn't get a chance to meet Bill, but I'm looking forward to spending some time with someone who is probably Madison's #1 Beer Geek.
My trip to Malt House started with the Isthmus article and that familiar queasy feeling in my stomach. "A reasonably quiet place where you can sit and talk" you say? "150-plus bottles and 18 tap beers" you say? "Best whiskey bar in town" you say? All this and more adds up to potential. I love the historical backround of the place, I love the spirit of the owner. I have been known to do a little homebrewing myself so I love that it's one of our own running the place. Nobody knows beer like a homebrewer. Someone who loves beer enough to want to go through the laborious and smelly task of making it at home? There breaths the soul of a true Beer Man. I also love me some Whiskey. Irish Whiskey for preference (since it is THE BEST).
Potential like this makes me profoundly nervous. For every chance a place has to get something right, they also have a chance to doubly fuck it up. First because it's bad, second because it could have been so good.
And so, it is with great trepidation that I made my first visit to Malt House on a Friday night a few weeks ago.
The revitalization of the Near East/East Washington area is still an ongoing project whose future is still unsure. But, while this is not the best neighborhood in Madison (yet), it's weaknesses can also be it's strengths. I'm not sure if they tore something down next door to the Malt House, but they managed to get themselves a nice BIG gravel parking lot.
One of the things I hate about going to bars downtown is having to figure out where to park so I love me a nice big parking lot. I also hold that a big lot with no overnight parking restrictions is going to lead to a much safer clientele. If someone has had one too many they are far more likely to take a necessary cab home if they know that their automobile is safe and secure and someplace they can easily return to tomorrow.
I was suppose to be meeting My Bride and Lisa Who Eats Paste there at 11pm for some post-work relaxation but the ladies were dragging hindquarters and arrived in their own sweet time. This suited me however as it gave me an extended period in which to peruse the establishment and take in the setting.
I suspect quite strongly that former regulars at the Union House would barely recognize their old stomping grounds now. A thorough cleaning, refinishing and redecoration plan has left the interior cozy, strategically lit and comfortable. A large crew of enthusiastic conversationalists were gathered around 3 or 4 tables pushed together and were creating a pleasant background babble that I enjoyed.
150 beers does make for a daunting menu, 90 some whiskeys doesn't hurt either. Luckily, I'd been wanting to try a glass of Redbreast Pure Pot Still 12 Year since I'd first heard of it, so I got to indulge myself. At 6 dollars a glass, this delightful artisanal beverage is a very affordable luxury (and it was excellent, fiery with a lovely butterscotch aroma and a mellow finish). I sat and nursed my whiskey while chatting with Jaquie our charming bartendress.
From Jaquie, I learned a few entertaining facts about the establishment. Apparently the cleanup was quite a production. Many old men had smoked many cigarettes while enjoying many years of tasty beverages at the Union House and the walls and floor tiles were stained a deep nicotine yellow. The walls were scrubbed and painted but the decision was made early on to leave the famous antique bar in place, along with it's etched glass bar mirror displaying the historical Union House logo as something of a anchor to the bar's historic past.
Everything else in the bar has been redone. New fixtures, lots of tables and a truckload of exotic beer memorabilia covered the walls. The new barstools met the comfort test for my overlarge buttocks and the ladies reported the bathrooms on the girls side to be clean and comfortable. What music there was came from some kind of computerized electronic playlist that seemed to be hitting a lot of The Police's greatest hits at a tolerable backround volume that one could easily be heard over.
I eventually switched from Redbreast to Lake Louie Warp Speed Scottish Ale which was sublime.
Between the fixtures, the lighting, the crowd, the selection, the facilities and the parking, this bar has all the great fundamentals. While it has no kitchen, no grill and thereby no food, it does permit patrons to order in from any of the local establishments who deliver. As such, we ordered ourselves some dinner from another new Near East institution, Burrito Drive. Jaquie was even Janie-on-the-spot with a pile of paper plates and napkins to make our meal easier.
Now, those who know me also know that I have a deep and profound love of a good cocktail. A good mixed drink is a rare commodity in this town and honestly, the Malt House, from what I saw, is not the place to get one. Normally, I would complain about this but really, I don't think it would be fair. You might not be able to get a great mixed drink at the Malt House, but that doesn't mean you can't get a GREAT drink. 150 beers and a massive selection of Whiskey, Rum, Scotch, Gin and other exotics means that you will find something that you like, one way or another. Gawds forbid I'll just have to content myself drinking my way through their massive selection... damn my life is hard.
In the end, this is a comfortable, well appointed establishment with a proud history, profound potential for the future and a very solid foundation in both product and purpose. The Malt House is the kind of place you can call home; a catylyst in the lives of its patrons and regulars. A place where jokes will be made, tales will be told tall, eyes will meet across the room, friends will be greeted after long times apart and if they are lucky, a new chapter in the history of this place will be written.