Cottage Grove was once a rest stop for the stagecoach or trains heading into Madison from the east. Today, it's more of a bedroom suburb, about a 15-minute drive east of the isthmus. Recently, its downtown has undergone a bit of a renaissance. The trailhead of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail starts (or ends) right in the middle of town. And right next to the trailhead, the 1855 Saloon and Grill is establishing its own place as a local dining spot that attracts visitors who like to venture out of Madison.
Located at 218 South Main Street, the 1855 Saloon celebrated its one-year anniversary this past December. While the name "saloon" and reference to 1855 are meant to appeal to nostalgia, this four-story brick and brownstone building is new and vibrant. Inside, walls are decorated with large black-and-white photographs of Cottage Grove locations and former residents dating back to the mid-1800s. While the restaurant is a new gathering spot for residents, the 1855 is also a special destination for the beer drinker looking for a solid selection of American grill classics, wood-fired brick oven pizzas, all matched with a variety of local and regional microbrews.
"We view beer like wine -- in that many people don't have the opportunity to try many different ones," explains Owen King, the 1855's general manager. While patrons can stick with Miller Lite or Bud Light, they can also sample many other varieties. "We want to give them some options, to create a fun beer environment," King adds.
The 1855 comes off like a small-town public house that thinks seriously about how the food experience is enhanced with a good beer selection. Beer aficionados won't find the beer list exhaustive, just well done. "We look for complexity, some diverse taste profiles, something that isn't just the most well known, maybe even a little different," explains King.
The 1855's menu features familiar Wisconsin favorites like steaks, ribs, chicken and Friday fish. As one expects from a local Wisconsin hometown tavern, those entrees make good companions for tap beers like New Glarus Spotted Cow and the latest seasonal from Capital. Yes, you'll find those on tap at the 1855, among eight to ten different tap beers.
King's beer selections reflect his belief that Wisconsin restaurant patrons like things local. He makes room on his tap for brews from Capital Brewery, Ale Asylum, and New Glarus. In addition to those local mainstays, King maintains a rotating house beer tap reserved for what patrons and staff suggest to him. That house tap has has really caught on among the regular visitors: "We love to put something on that is different, we'll have staff meetings and talk about what we're hearing and what patrons are asking for," says King.
Over the past year, beers that rotated through the house tap have included Harbor City's Amber Ale (from Sand Creek Brewing of Black River Falls); Flying Dog Amber Ale (Denver, Colo.); Dirty Bastard, a Scotch ale from Founders' Brewing (Grand Rapids, Mich.); and the current offering, an India Pale Ale from Lagunitas Brewing (Petaluma, Cal.). On a recent Sunday afternoon, the hoppy and assertive bitterness of the Lagunitas was a great companion for the restaurant's stuffed onion rings, packed with sausage, pepperoni, tomatoes, spinach and sprinkled with parmesan. (It would have been a perfect afternoon, had the teams I was following in the NCAA tournament brackets could only have delivered as well as the beer and appetizers.)
Not that I didn't enjoy the Lagunitas IPA, but I would like it if the rotating house tap were reserved for locally made favorites. A disclaimer: I'm a Cottage Grove resident who on more than one occasion has asked for a beer the 1855 doesn't serve.
Other brews not to miss at the 1855 include Bell's White Winter Ale (Kalamazoo, Mich.) and Lakefront's Cream City Pale Ale or Riverwest Stein Beer (Milwaukee), and any seasonal from Capital Brewery (currently it's Maibock). Even patrons looking for the big brewery beers will find a dozen or so selections from among Miller, Pabst, Bud and Corona.
It's also worth mentioning that the 1855 is voluntarily smoke-free, perhaps reflecting a growing trend among bars and taverns that sit on the outskirts of smoke-free Madison.
Like the bike trail it's next to, the 1855 is changing the nature of Cottage Grove, contributing to its downtown as a destination.