To get the most out of a visit to DLUX, pack your bags. Then dress as though for an uneventful business trip and wheel your luggage into this latest Food Fight iteration.
Because DLUX, despite its downtown location, is an airport bar.
From decor to food, there is that fast-paced, generically presented, canned theatrical quality recognizable to anyone who has spent time stuck between connecting flights.
And you can be sure it is a Midwestern airport bar, because in a testament to just how toxically sheltered Madison millennials can be (DLUX is foremost a collegiate spot), a sign at the door asks "Have you taken your girlfriend to DLUX yet?"
I was hopeful that this was cheeky, indicating it was a gay bar and I could bring my florist. But instead, it's the work of coeds taking their first clunky marketing steps.
Let that sign bend your mind for a moment. It's Mad Men without any cultural awareness or irony, reduced to mere grotesque caricature. To confirm the point, note that the wine list is divided between "Fiery Redheads" and "Buxom Blondes." Welcome to retrograde.
However, on its own terms, DLUX is something of a success. The burgers, despite being served exclusively medium-well and on fast-food-like buns, are tasty for $8; the Sassy Cow Creamery shakes can be good, even great, for $5 (especially if you add booze); and cocktails, while unbalanced and often too sweet and/or watery, are mostly drinkable for $5-$8.
There are other bright details: Staff, although young and somewhat green, are competent and gregarious. The decor is modern and bold, with pop paintings vaguely reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein. There are handsome booths around the edge of the room. The bar stools pleasantly have backs - although there are no hooks under the counter for jackets and purses. And there's an unassuming TV tuned to sports for the loners.
Wines by the glass are marginal, but there are better-than-expected beers like Hennepin Ommegang Saison and Wittekerke. Cocktails are divided between "Kegged," "Shaken and Stirred" and "Soda Cocktails." These are not advertised as craft cocktails - and they are certainly not - but some of them are good. Like the Double Fina margarita: 100% blue agave tequila, blood orange juice, orange liqueur and lime for $6. Or the refreshing whiskey smash for $7 -Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, turbinado syrup, mint and seltzer.
House-made sodas here are often too sweet, but making pop in-house is an idea long overdue in Madison, and the drinks are a welcome addition.
Starters are dips. Most fun is the Alsum Farm spicy sweet corn with Fritos, a big bowl of cheesy corn dip with large Frito scoops. Exactly the kind of thing no one would ever eat in a restaurant that looked like this in a big city; but forget that and revel in the goo and crunch.
Salads are green goddess, chimichurri and 9 layer. They are enormous, well composed and, as long as you request dressings on the side, good options.
Burgers are cooked to one temperature only, and have a bun similar to Mickey Dees. But that simplicity is what works. The additional flavors become the draw; the burger is just the vehicle. The Farmhouse, for instance, contrasts the floppy bun with a thick slab of fried green tomato and bacon. In the Carnegie, all of the elements of a Reuben make for a delicious mess. The Sunrise has both soft and crunchy components, with an egg and shoestring potato fries. The DLUX - port wine and onion marmalade, creamy blue cheese spread and arugula -is a downright great ingredient combination.
If you're beef averse, a California chicken club is moist chicken joined by butter lettuce, tomato, bacon and avocado-ranch spread. A touch of salty soy makes the sandwich burst with umami.
There are a couple of vegetarian options, and while a portobello caprese sounds overplayed, DLUX's version is surprisingly gratifying. A toothsome portobello cap with a thick round of mozzarella plus greens, balsamic reduction and basil mayo make it a star.
For sides, the house-made chips are crispy and not greasy, although they could use salt. Coleslaw is a great choice; the cabbage is fresh and tart. Fries are medium thickness and fine, but stick with plain sea salt; the "sharp cheddar" is gloppy.
The shakes are prepared by the servers and the bartenders, which can gum up the restaurant's flow. But the salted caramel pecan is mightily rewarding, as is the chocolate espresso (a special), doctored with Kahlua.
A reasonably priced, mall-trendy, downtown restaurant with a lively atmosphere has a shot at being popular, and indeed DLUX has been packed. The upscale fast-food burgers are a fun twist; the shakes are addictive. If DLUX focuses on honing concept instead of getting mired in sorority-girl baggage, it could even become a repeatable hit and, well, take off.