Capitol Square and its immediate environs have seen an explosion of restaurant openings over the last year, belying the general torpor of the economy while offering downtown diners a culinary playground. One of the newest additions to the scene is the Capital Tap Haus, a pub on the 100 block of State Street in the space formerly occupied by Wisconsin House of Cheese.
It opened just before Thanksgiving. Staking out a middle ground between the traditional campus grills and the more haute approach of the gastropubs fronting the Square, this Haus distinguishes itself by serving only Capital Brewery beers from its bar taps.
The Tap Haus is the creation of Jack Sosnowski and Julie Stoleson, who are also the founders and owners of the Ivory Room, the piano bar located in an adjacent space on the otherwise forlorn 100 block of East Mifflin.
Though it is an homage to the tied houses once ubiquitous before Prohibition, the Tap Haus has no official affiliation with Capital, the Middleton-based microbrewery that was a trailblazer in introducing palates to craft beers upon opening in 1984. "We approached them with the idea," explains Stoleson. "We're just another bar serving beer, but our taps are all Capital."
The House of Cheese was small, and it was hard to imagine how a tavern with a full kitchen was going to fit into the space. The transformation is striking. The Tap Haus sports a full-length bar, a wall of booths, and a handful of small tables, all in warm, gleaming dark wood. The centerpiece of the room is a ornamented metal chandelier acquired at auction, previously hanging from the ceilings of both the Turner Hall and County Courthouse in Milwaukee. "We wanted to do a turn-of-the-century beer hall," says Stoleson, "being in one of the oldest buildings on State Street."
The owners reject the "gastropub" label, but admit their intention is to serve comfort food that's a step up from typical deep-fried and griddle-crisped pub grub. Devised by Chef Randy J. Mellentine, the menu starts with a nucleus of traditional Wisconsin tavern fare, and builds upon it with forays into other regional American cuisines, inclining to nurturing beer bellies. Its single page is split into four primary sections, and most items accompanied by a suggested beer pairing.
The starters are certainly capable of soaking up their share of brews, literally so in the case of the Island Wheat-steamed mussels. Also featured are Reuben egg rolls, grilled veggie antipasto, and "Supper Club Beer Battered Bites," an array of deep-fried options. Not to be overlooked are the American Frites, a pile of skin-on fries -- inspired and informed by the chef's two-week sojourn at a Belgian culinary school.
Salads come in two sizes, and trend towards piling on the ingredients, particularly proteins. Highlighted among the selections: "The Wurst Salad Ever," which piles chilled, diced bratwurst, knockwurst, and weisswurst atop chopped greens.
Then there are the sandwiches. Headlining the list is the pulled pork, served with a Capital Dark barbecue sauce, which has drawn the most attention so far from the online commentariat. Also featured are a chicken spiedie (a hoagie variant native to Binghamton, New York), an oyster po boy, and salmon, portabella, and burger options. The prices for all look like a steal, but it's an additional $3 for a side of the frites.
A half-dozen entrees round out the menu, including flank steak with frites, pot roast, a haddock fish fry, and another bonanza of wursts, among others. The kitchen also serves an expanded Friday fish fry, and is starting to roll out specials. Food is currently served until midnight, but the owners are looking to extend the kitchen hours to bar time once the staff is settled in.
The Tap Haus currently offers most of the brewery's annuals on tap, including Amber, Island Wheat, Supper Club, U.S. Pale Ale, Dark, and the Pilsner, as well as Winter Skal (the current seasonal), Autumnal Fire, and Tett Dopplebock. A few macrobrew bottled options are also kept on hand at the bar, which is also stocked with a full array of wines and spirits.
Capital brews can be ordered to-go, either bottled or in growlers. The prices for the former are a fair bit higher than those at most liquor or grocery stores, though, running $12-$18. Half-gallon growers are a better deal, at least for the annual and seasonal brews, with refills costing barely more than half as much as those at the brewery's own gift shop; the limited releases are likewise a few bucks cheaper.
Capital Tap Haus also hosts a Mug Club, another attraction for fans of the Middleton brewery's creations. For an annual fee of $35, membership offers a numbered 23-oz. mug, full pours in it for the price of a 16-oz. Of all Capital annual and seasonal brews, $1 off all Capital limited release and specialty bock brews, a 10% discount on appetizers, and other enticements.
Come spring, patrons will be able to lounge on a State Street sidewalk cafe. The owners also hope to procure a permit for more al fresco seating outside its back entrance. "We're trying to make it work with both entrances," says Stoleson, noting that the Ivory Room and the Silver Dollar are the only draws in that block of West Mifflin.
Though that block's future remains up in the air, given the recent real estate acquisitions by Jerry Frautschi and speculation that some of these properties will be demolished to improve Overture Center lobby sightlines, it isn't a dead letter yet. Capital Tap Haus is a reminder that there is life yet on this overlooked arm of the Square.