The Freiburg Tap Haus occupies prime real estate on State Street, just off the Capitol Square, after its move from a trendy Monroe Street neighborhood earlier this year.
Formerly Freiburg Gastropub, the upscale, German-inspired tap haus is now in a smaller space with a downsized menu.
The restaurant/bar combo’s new home is in a handsome room with a long bar on one side and dark-wood booths along the opposite wall. The narrow space has an attractive back bar, a black pressed-tin ceiling, and it features lots of exposed brick and wood.
Its classic Wisconsin tavern look and feel comes with a menu that offers a handful of starters or “snacks,” nine sandwiches that are good (but not necessarily of German influence), a bunch of Deutschland favorites such as wienerschnitzel, jaegerschnitzel and sauerbraten, and a couple of soups and salads.
For the most part, the food is reasonably priced, with appetizers starting at $7 and entrees between $12 and $18. The menu features lots of meat and potatoes, with sausages and cabbage playing lead roles. The previous restaurant offered several vegetarian options that were left off the new menu.
Freiburg’s kitchen has nightly specials including a Friday fish fry ($15) and a braised pork shank with “heaven and earth” potatoes (mashed potatoes and apples with caramelized onions and bacon) and mixed greens ($17) on Saturdays. Another special, a wurst platter, comes with three sausages, sauerkraut, a pretzel with mustard, and red potatoes ($17.95).
A friend and I stopped for a meal on a recent Saturday and were surprised at how few people were there. Most of the small group that was at the bar spent its time playing drinking games, not eating the food, which itself was a hit-or-miss proposition. We enjoyed some of what we tasted but noted the poor quality of other things, such as an order of sauerbraten that missed the mark in a few ways.
Our main complaint, however, was with the service. There seemed to be one fellow working as bartender and server, and he was more interested in socializing than serving food on a Saturday night.
That said, not everything at Freiburg was a bust. We were OK with the kitchen’s potato pancakes, a crispy appetizer that comes with homemade apple compote and lemony sour cream ($7). Brat stickers were another good starter: cuts of organic bratwurst with beer-braised onions wrapped in a wonton, then deep-fried and served with sweet and sour mustard ($8).
My friend was pleased with what she said was a great Reuben ($13), a thick sandwich of crumbly corned beef, Swiss cheese and house-made kraut with Thousand Island dressing on grilled marble rye. We also heard good things from a couple at another table about the house-made German meatballs ($13), which come with spatzle (German noodles) and mushroom gravy.
But the sauerbraten ($15) was a big disappointment. The vinegar-braised beef presented more as pulled pork and came with thick gravy—the opposite of the light gravy typically used on sauerbraten.
Also, the dish usually includes knoedel (German dumplings), but spatzle was used instead. The plate did include a nice version of rotkraut (red cabbage with apples and onion, cooked in red wine and vinegar), but the sauerbraten itself was so poorly done that there was no way to rescue the dish.
Freiburg offers a nice variety of beers including some German brews, with an emphasis on pilsners and lagers.
For dessert, there are apple strudel, Bavarian crème and Black Forest cake (all $7). The latter consists of several layers of chocolate cake with whipped cream and cherries between each layer. It is then topped with more whipped cream, maraschino cherries and chocolate shavings. It is the very definition of decadent.
Freiburg Tap Haus has lots of potential with its new location, but unless it can figure out a way to provide better service and more consistent main courses, it’s hard to see a future in Madison’s competitive restaurant market.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.