A friend and I found ourselves near the UW-Madison campus on a Saturday night in the mood for drinks and a sandwich. We wanted something fast and casual but better than what the franchises have to offer.
As we headed west on Regent Street past Park Street, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Sweet Home Wisconsin, an upscale sports bar that opened in March and bills itself as “a craft-casual public house.”
The restaurant/bar combo serves “craft cocktails, craft beers and craft pub food” in a handsome space with five TV screens that were all tuned to a Badgers’ football game.
The screens were too loud and bright, but the room had an energy that pulled us in. Before long, we were seated at the bar with a group of red-clad Badgers fans, lamenting the trouncing our team was suffering at the hands of Michigan.
The room was loud, but we were hungry, and one look at the menu told us we had come to the right place. We learned Sweet Home Wisconsin gets much of its food from local purveyors. Knoche’s butcher shop provides the kitchen with Angus beef patties and franks, and Bavaria Sausage delivers bratwurst, Polish sausage and landjager, while breads are freshly baked at Madison Sourdough.
Once our hearing adjusted, we ordered drinks from an extensive list of craft beers and cocktails, along with an order of cheese curds ($7). Before long, a server brought a basket of puffy, hand-battered white cheddar curds that had originated at Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in northwestern Wisconsin. They came with a tasty sriracha ranch dipping sauce and were close to perfection.
The curds head a list of appetizers that includes jalapeno poppers, wings, pub chips, hand-cut fries, potato wedges and Bavarian pretzels. The menu also offers two salads, a vegan chili (which can be amped up with grilled chicken or ground beef), and tomato bisque.
The rest of the menu consists of variations on the hot dog, a smoked Polish sausage, sandwiches from Italian beef to grilled chicken and Reuben, and a dozen types of burgers and melts ranging from $6-$13. The top price will get you an Italian beef and Polish sausage with hot or mild giardiniera on ciabatta bread with a side of gravy. (For another $1.50, it comes with melted provolone.)
The menu’s theme is filled with references to Chicago blues music, including a garlic guitar-lick burger and a B.B. King burger (a black bean patty with avocado, lettuce, raw onion and roasted red pepper aioli).
A vegan chili ($4 per cup/$6 per bowl) comes with black beans, corn, onion and chunky tomatoes. Spend the extra dollar to add cheddar and cilantro sour cream, or add grilled chicken ($4) or ground beef ($3).
From the burger section, the garlic guitar-lick burger ($10) is a one-third pound beef patty from Knoche’s on a brioche bun with whiskey-braised onions, Muenster cheese and garlic aioli. The meat is juicy and flavorful.
A Chicago dog ($8) had all it needed to succeed: a 100 percent Angus beef frank with medium-hot sport peppers, pickle relish, tomato, onion, celery salt, yellow mustard and a pickle spear on a poppy seed bun. That tender bun had a hard time containing all those ingredients, beginning with the supersized frank, and much of it spilled onto the plate in a delicious mess.
We also sampled the kitchen’s fish sandwich ($7 on Fridays and $9 the rest of the time), a deep-fried piece of cod in a brioche bun with red wine cucumber and zesty lemon tartar sauce. The fish was good, its flavor elevated by cucumber and tartar. It is served with a sweet and chunky house-made coleslaw that we agreed is better than average.
Service at Sweet Home Wisconsin is friendly and good, and the place is a couple of notches above any sports bar I’ve ever seen. Of course, its owners wouldn’t accept that label. Instead, according to their publicity, it’s a craft-casual public house with “craft cocktails, craft beers and craft pub food.”
It’s a description that makes sense and explains the pub’s broad appeal.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.