Call it a Friday evening treat: a ruby-brown concoction of craft rye whiskey, cognac, liqueur and sweet vermouth, built in a rocks glass around a large cube of ice.
At least, “treat” is how I’ll explain the debit card charge when my wife asks: “Twelve dollars at Lark? What’s Lark?”
I’ll likely spare my wife a description of how Billy Burg, bar manager at Lark, an upscale restaurant at 60 S. Main St., used an eye dropper to carefully measure bitters to splash into the serum that would become my happy-hour drink—a New Orleans-style Vieux Carré.
Also cool: Burg’s flick-wrist stirring of my drink with a long steel spoon. And Burg contorting a citrus peel between his palms, then gently placing the rind in my drink glass as though it were a precious, gilded feather. It all came with a wink as Burg set my drink in front of me on a paper napkin and straightened his necktie beneath a dark-colored bartender’s vest.
This kind of bar-rail alchemy is unfamiliar to me. I’m a Jack Daniels bourbon-on-ice guy. But now I’ve sipped this new bit of … well, something else entirely.
Downtown Janesville is reveling in the freshness of it, too.
Among the 27 licensed downtown food establishments, some newcomers have begun to turn the corner into more diverse—even cosmopolitan—territory.
Those who visit or work downtown now can take their pick from a growing variety of food and drink in the city’s center. On Main Street alone, diners can try smoked barbecue with a side of craft whiskey at Whiskey Ranch, Thai cuisine fused with Americanized steak and seafood at the new Sandee’s Thai Fusion, or fresh salads and health-conscious, protein-heavy breakfasts at the Bodacious Shops of Block 42.
They’re all newer neighbors to downtown’s bar and grills and tried-and-true eateries.
Christine Rebout, who leads the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the downtown entertainment district is entering uncharted territory when it comes to its range of dining atmospheres, experiences and flavors.
“I work downtown, and I try to find lunch here about every day,” she said. “Anecdotally, I can tell you that we are seeing more and more varied offerings downtown. When I invite a guest downtown, I’ll hear them say, ‘Let’s try this new place, or let’s try that new place. I haven’t eaten there yet; I haven’t eaten here yet.’”
Macaroni with a twist
Rebout said her tourism group counts about 159 food and drink establishments in Janesville. That means the downtown is home to almost 20 percent of the city’s eateries (and drinkeries).
That doesn’t include a growing number of mobile food trucks that also ply the downtown area.
Rebout’s tourism group, which promotes downtown as a destination for both locals and travelers, keeps a list of “check boxes” that inventory the breadth of downtown’s retail and dining offerings.
“As far as fine dining, places where you can have a dinner where you’d propose to someone, even places to get a fresh-baked cupcake … in the past few years, we’re starting to check off those boxes downtown. We’ve got some new check boxes to fill, too,” Rebout said.
On the cutting edge of the new swing toward “different” are dishes such as Lark’s mac & cheese, which features Jamaican-style jerk shredded pork. It’s a Wisconsin staple with a twist—and a dish that likely is not available anywhere else in Janesville.
Last week, I tried lunch at Sandee’s Thai Fusion, 12 S. Main St. The restaurant, one of the newest in the city, opened Feb. 1.
At the noon hour, the dining room held about 20 patrons, including a couple of guys wearing SHINE Medical Technologies T-shirts. They must have strolled over from their company’s office across the street, as I had from my own downtown office.
Beer Fitzgerald, proprietor of Sandee’s, said the restaurant welds accessible American fare, such as steak and seafood, with traditional Thai recipes, including different types of curry. The menu is based on recipes Fitzgerald’s mother, Aree Saksukkulsiri, developed in restaurants she ran in Thailand.
Aree now manages Sandee’s kitchen. Fitzgerald formerly worked at several Asian restaurants in Beloit and Janesville.
Speaking of macaroni meeting the unexpected, I tried out Sandee’s Pad Thai Macaroni. It featured stir-fried fresh vegetables with a spicy sauce on top of—you guessed it—elbow macaroni.
Fitzgerald talked to me about her Pad Thai Macaroni, a fusion dish forged by her mother years ago in Thailand.
“It’s simple, fast and good,” she said. “My mom made it for me at home lots of times. It was a comfort food that made me happy when I was young. I remember that feeling, so I put it on our menu.”
A ‘tipping point’
Bekki Kennedy operates the Bodacious Shops of Block 42, a quadruplet of newer shops in slick, renovated space at 119 N. Main St. The block includes salad restaurant So Chopped Salad Bistro; coffee, wine and eatery Bodacious Brew; Bodacious Olive, a specialty olive oil and vinegar shop; and Sweet Velvet Cakes, a specialty bakery.
Kennedy believes the growth in the downtown’s restaurant scene is still in its early stages.
For her, the challenge is still getting the word out—particularly with a dominant chain-restaurant area on the east side that blankets the Interstate 90/39 corridor and the city’s busiest retail center.
“Janesville can be hard for restaurants because it’s a word-of-mouth city,” she said. “Some people might not have been downtown in a few years to see what kind of progress has been made here. But it’s really reached what I’d call a ‘tipping point’ downtown. Businesses and storefronts are seeing renovations and looking nicer. It seems like there’s a grand opening here, a new business there, all the time now.
“These places, the restaurants included, aren’t just popping open the door. They’re thinking about what we are lacking downtown, and how do we fill that. I think for some, people coming downtown to eat is no longer just a second choice or a third choice,” Kennedy said.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Lark’s chefs and kitchen staff brought out a first sampling of the night’s special: pan-seared Alaskan halibut atop sweet potatoes with a salsa sauce.
Lark’s proprietors, Richard and Joan Neeno, summoned their happy-hour guests to circle around with forks and carve away a taste or two as kitchen staff explained the dynamics of the dish.
Burg, the bar manager, said patrons have embraced the restaurant’s quirky, locally sourced fare since the place opened last year. But it’s experiences such as the impromptu huddle over a brand-new menu item that might spark something in people.
“Bottom line is we want to try to get people to branch out, but that comes with people feeling comfortable, like they’re included in the process. You’re patient and you educate them. That’s the biggest thing,” Burg said.
He is seeing more visitors who say they’re hopping around from place to place downtown instead of hitting the road and going to Madison or Milwaukee.
“It makes great sense. They don’t have to drive 45 minutes or an hour. They can hang out here. It’s close to home,” Burg said. “They can have a couple of cocktails and stay downtown for an hour instead of burning gas driving an hour-and-a-half round trip.”
On the other hand, Kennedy and Burg said they’ve seen a growing number of return patrons who are from Beloit and Madison, with a handful of customers from Chicago.
Enough to go around?
Rebout said an uptick in the economy has made it easier for some restaurant entrepreneurs to move forward on new business plans, and it’s made consumers more willing to spend on dining out.
Local restaurant spending is trickier to quantify, but overall, tourism spending in Rock County rose 4 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to state data.
Rebout believes emerging investment in downtown, including the public-private ARISE riverfront revitalization, is bringing a spark that locals, visitors and business owners can see.
“A resurgence downtown is something people have talked about for years, but now people are actually starting to see real changes. The resurgence is more believable if it’s physical, and you can touch and feel it,” she said.
Burg said downtown merchants are abuzz about a developer’s plans to break ground on a hotel on the West Milwaukee Street riverfront. That will bring overnight guests downtown and create the potential for more foot traffic.
“It’s really nice to be new, and look out the window and see you’re part of the new things that are going on down here,” Burg said.
It might be harder to ask longtime restaurant and bar owners about whether the increased variety downtown is welcome.
Rebout said it’s natural for small downtowns to have a wariness about new competition or the specter of saturation in a growing dine-and-drink market.
“Restaurant owners all worry about the dollar share. It’s hard to think about a little competition for market share,” she said. “If it’s a renaissance downtown, it’s still early in the renaissance. You might be unsure. Is it going to break open? Is it real?
“After all, we’re Midwesterners. We put our heads down and work. It’s always a little hard for us to celebrate.”
Rebout said she had a recent experience, though, that might be heartening for any downtown business owner—new or otherwise.
“Yesterday, I had the awesome problem of not being able to back out of my parking space along Main Street. There were too many pedestrians coming in and out, so I had to wait for them. People with shopping bags, music instruments.
“I didn’t mind it,” Rebout said. “If it means things are more hopping downtown, it’s a good problem to have.”