A large building in Middleton, near the entrance to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, has found new life after a local resident began transforming the place into a community center and family restaurant last year.
The building at the corner of Branch Street and Century Avenue had been home for many years to the popular Branch Street Retreat bar until it went out of business in 2014. A series of attempts to start new restaurants in the space failed.
Last year, Middleton resident Adrienne Hulburt-Stroud undertook a plan to turn the 6,500-square-foot building into a community space with yoga classes, painting groups and similar activities, all built around the Common Ground restaurant.
The restaurant opened in January, and Hulburt-Stroud has apparently found the right balance with locally sourced ingredients and a family-friendly atmosphere. The main dining room feels cozy with a mix of standard tables and booths, but there are also stuffed chairs similar to what you’d find in someone’s living room. There is also a stage near the back of the big room, where local talent plays live music.
Customers place orders at a combination food counter and drinks bar, and the food is served at each table. There were some problems with the timing of orders being delivered and similar mistakes. An order of fries had to go back to the kitchen to be warmed all the way through, and a server brought us another table’s order.
These mishaps gave us the sense the restaurant is a work in progress. Its menu suggests a neighborhood eatery more than a fine-dining destination.
Common Ground serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunches. Its menu is not extensive, but what’s there is generally tasty, served in large portions and reasonably priced. And a big part of the restaurant’s customer base is families with young children.
The emphasis here is more on breakfast and lunch, but the restaurant also serves dinner until 9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 p.m. Saturday. The dinner menu includes several soup and salad options, a half-dozen sandwiches and an equal number of burger plates. The restaurant also has a full bar with almost two dozen beers on tap and a good list of wines and mixed drinks.
A couple of friends and I visited Common Ground on a recent Friday night, when the kitchen turned out a good fish fry offering beer-battered cod, breaded perch and a salmon plate.
The Alaskan king salmon ($17) is grilled with a coconut-ginger glaze and served over rice pilaf with a side of steamed asparagus. The fish was nearly perfect, well-seasoned with a crispy glazed exterior and tender interior.
An order of beer-battered cod ($13.50) was also tasty. It consisted of three Alaskan cod strips lightly fried in a beer batter and served with homemade coleslaw, tartar sauce and rye or gluten-free bread, along with a choice of potato: baked, french fries, sweet potato fries or sweet potato baked.
Common Ground’s burgers are interesting, with a choice of patties: grass-fed beef from Madison-based Conscious Carnivore, grilled chicken, a vegan patty made with black beans and sweet potato, or falafel made of chickpeas and onion.
The delicious Southwest burger features beef with taco seasoning mixed into the patty, thick slices of avocado, chipotle-lime aioli and housemade pico de gallo ($12). We ordered the burger medium rare, and it was nicely done.
A Greek salad ($8) is served in a huge portion and includes spinach, Kalamata olives, red pepper, red onion, cucumber, tomato and feta cheese with dill tzatziki or balsamic vinaigrette dressing. For an extra $2, diners can add strips of chicken or falafel balls.
The kitchen’s creamy New England clam chowder ($4 cup, $6 bowl) is homemade and richly flavored with big chunks of carrot, potato, celery and clam. A friend said she’d go out of her way again for the chowder.
From the sandwich category, check out the caprese grilled cheese ($9), which features sliced mozarrella, tomato and pesto on Parmesan-crusted bread with balsamic vinaigrette. The Monte Cristo ($10) is made with French toast and filled with ham, Swiss cheese, caramelized onion and spinach, coupled with a side of spicy maple syrup.
We haven’t made it to the restaurant for breakfast or lunch, or for its Sunday brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. But the brunch menu in particular looks appealing, and our server mentioned the place typically is busier for breakfast and lunch than dinner.
Service here is friendly but spotty, but there is much to like at Common Ground. While it’s got a few glitches to work out, one of my dining companions was especially upbeat about the place, noting that Common Ground is uncommon in its approach to building community. The fact that it serves good food in a welcoming setting only adds to the positive vibe.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.