One of my favorite places for dinner in Madison, Jac’s Dining and Taphouse, has been around for nearly a decade, but it seems not to get a lot of local attention.
Unless you’re one of its regulars, you might not know that Jac’s features 15 Belgian and craft beers on tap, or that its tight menu includes some fine eats, or that it offers terrific service in a lively, comfortable setting.
The restaurant/bar combo is located in a historic building on Monroe Street. It’s a small-to-medium-sized restaurant featuring a bar along one side of the room opposite a dining area with about a dozen tables.
Large windows along the front of the building provide a sense of spaciousness, and inside fans whirl below a tin ceiling installed with sound absorbers that do a nice job of muffling the din from a room full of people having a good time. Interior walls are lined with historic photos from the trendy Monroe-Dudgeon neighborhood.
Jac’s menu and overall vibe exude a European influence, both in the flavorful foods and also in the casual setting. It reminds me of the classic bistros that characterize so many Western European towns and cities. The place fills up with regulars on Thursday through Saturday nights, so it’s a good idea to call ahead and make a reservation.
The food here is reliably good, as is the service. Its French fries—or frites ($4)—are hand-cut and served with aioli (or you can add roasted red pepper ketchup, rhubarb barbecue or cranberry aioli sauce for an extra dollar).
Other favorites from the appetizer list include three types of hummus ($10) (garlic, roasted red pepper and beet) served with warm pitas and fresh vegetables and almond-stuffed dates that come wrapped in bacon and are served with a spinach salad ($12).
The kitchen offers five salads served in small or large sizes. The mixed greens ($4/$6) is pretty standard but comes with an excellent light vinaigrette, and the Brussels sprouts salad ($6/$11) combines greens with roasted apple, provolone, fried sprouts and candied walnuts with a warm bacon vinaigrette and a soft baguette.
Jac’s offers 10 sandwiches and eight entrees plus a “fresh catch” that’s sold at market rate. A smoked salmon BLT ($13) is about as tasty as they come, featuring Cherrywood-smoked bacon, a generous amount of smoked salmon, romaine, tomato and aioli on hearty bread. This is a filling, two-fisted sandwich that is “universally popular,” according to a server who might have slightly overstated the case.
Main courses range from $16 to $24, possibly more if you’re going with the catch of the day. Entrees are mostly built around a protein such as steak, duck, pork or chicken, but a delicious risotto ($16) is a rice dish featuring butternut squash, red onion, kale, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese.
Risotto can be a challenging dish to make, but Jac’s gets it just right. The rice is cooked in a broth to a creamy consistency. The flavors of squash, onion, kale and mushroom each stand alone but also work to make a sum tastier than its parts.
Beer aficionados will appreciate Jac’s tap lines, which provide a good representation of American craft beers from the Midwest along with some Belgian classics. The bar also has a good selection of fine wines and cocktails.
Desserts are also well represented here, with a choice of four: flourless chocolate cake, pretzel bread pudding, maple cheesecake and crème brulee, plus a daily sorbet. On the night of our visit, the crème brulee ($7) was a version that featured a crispy layer of caramel covering rich pumpkin-caramel custard.
It had been a few years since we visited Jac’s, and I’d forgotten just how friendly and accommodating the servers are. Their friendliness is not over-the-top, but servers were willing to go out of their way for a few of our requests and seemed to do so happily.
About the only drawback to the entire experience—a problem we’ve had at other restaurants recently—is that we were seated near the front door. Each time it opened, we were hit with a blast of cold air. It’s a problem that could be remedied easily enough.
The chilly air notwithstanding, Jac’s is an unpretentious gem of a restaurant that deserves more attention. On the other hand, it apparently has a dedicated following and is doing just fine at its near-west side location.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.