Of all the downtown restaurants, the Settle Down Tavern might just be the one that has navigated the travails of the pandemic most successfully.
Since opening its doors last May, owners Ryan Huber, Sam Parker and Brian Bartels’ compact eatery—tucked into a corner of an atrium next to the Majestic Theater—has done all it could to cater to the moment.
It was among those that honed and capitalized on the “streatery” concept that allowed downtown restaurants to use repurposed parking spaces for outdoor tables to seat customers. And even though December snow and plummeting temps should have put a chilly set of brakes on the streatery experience, the outdoor seating has endured. Thanks to outdoor heaters and potted evergreens, eating outdoors isn’t just workable, it’s appealing.
And so is the food you’ll find here.
The menu at the Settle Down, named for the First Settlement Neighborhood in which it’s located, also has evolved. It’s lean and mean and carefully curated, but the clear signature entrée here is the Good Idea Burger ($9), a sandwich that frankly, deserves an adjective that is a hell of a lot more superlative.
Flying out of left field, this is now one of Madison’s sneaky-best burgers—a compact smashburger that combines two thin beef patties with grilled onions and locally-sourced butterkase cheese, topping things off with house pickles and a smooth tomato-mayo Settle Sauce that smartly doesn’t try to overwhelm the burger’s crafted balance.
Usually, restaurants try to upscale their burgers by going vertical and piling on the ingredients (enormous fried onion rings! A bratwurst!). The Good Idea burger keeps things simple by packing its compact frame with eye-popping flavor.
If you’re in the near-downtown Madison area and opt for delivery—a service the Settle Down just launched and plans to expand—you can score an Apple Smash ($9), a burger that subs in mustard, two-year aged Hook’s cheddar and pickled apples. It’s a nice nod to variety.
The Settle Down caters unexpectedly to a vegetarian crowd as well with its Prit’Near Burger ($9) and its seasonal grain bowls ($12). The one that’s currently on offer is a mélange of squash, pickled apple slices, kale and leeks, topped off with a jammy egg.
Hitting the Settle Down toward the end of the week is yet another good idea. On Fridays, you can score both a fish sandwich ($12) and a fish platter, both made with Alaskan cod.
At nearly $20, the platter feels a little pricey—especially since my order came accompanied only by a luminous purple coleslaw. But there’s no denying the solid flavor.
The pieces of cod are as large as doorstops, and the lager-based beer breading is thick and flavorful—plenty strong enough to hold together from plate to mouth.
The appetizers here run the gamut from artisanal to tavern-esque.
If you’re a fan of locally produced Potter’s Crackers (and if you’re not, you really should be), you can pair them with a big ol’ cheeseball made with 2-year-aged Hook’s Cheddar ($7) or slather them with a piquant smoked herring spread ($10).
The cheese puppies ($8) are advertised as if they’re the type of breaded and spiced item you’d find rolling around your plate at a seafood or barbecue restaurant. In reality, they’re cheese curds gussied up with spiced breading. Ordering the ghost fries ($4 or $7, depending on the size) is a better choice. They’re solidly dusted with paprika to generate a fair amount of heat.
Taverns aren’t typically known for their dessert menus, but the Settle Down takes a couple of well-intentioned swings in that direction.
The Grandma’s Pudding ($8), for instance, is a sweet, cocoa-malt confection leavened with, of all things, candied potato chip crumbles. It’s less exciting than it sounds, adding some texture to the experience but not much in the way of flavor.
If nothing else, it’s something to help cool down the experience of the ghost fries.