Less than a decade ago, this expansive space was filled with long lines of steamers and boilers and automated machines that separated sweet corn from its cobs, peas from their pods. Enormous steaming kettles prepared these and other vegetables for packing into the cans of Stokely USA, destined to line the pantries of countless American kitchens. This was the Oconomowoc Canning Company, which, for a hundred years, anchored downtown Sun Prairie.
Now, instead of turning out La Belle June peas and Buddy Brand peas and carrots, this space, on a Friday night, is turning out food and fun for hundreds of patrons. Canning operations ceased in 2001, and the Cannery Grill opened in June 2007, part of Veridian's Cannery Square project.
Cannery Grill features a long, gleaming cherry wood bar, where we waited happily (it was still happy hour) for a table. There are 10 martinis (including the Cannery Martini, with blue Curaao, apple schnapps, Midori melon liqueur and cranberry juice), along with an impressive selection of tap beers, including Stella Artois, Newcastle and Spotted Cow. We were promised a table in 45 minutes, and exactly 45 minutes later, our little gizmo buzzed and blinked. How often does that happen?
The large dining room is beautifully lit, with historic photos and colorful posters lining the walls, paying tribute to the building's industrial heritage. (There is also a huge outdoor seating area, but since it was below zero outside, we decided to eat indoors.)
The menu is as extensive as the building is large. This is always a warning sign to me (I like a restaurant that does a few things very well), but among the items we sampled, we didn't hit a sour note. Appetizers include beer-battered calamari, haystack onion rings, nachos, cheese curds, chicken wings and several flat breads with various toppings, one with baby shrimp, andouille sausage, mozzarella and jalapeño blue cheese cream sauce. This is all good happy-hour food, but we went straight to the dinner menu.
There are several steaks, barbecued baby back ribs, chicken Alfredo, beef stroganoff, lemon chicken and grilled salmon. There are also several dishes served with RP's fresh pasta. The shrimp diablo was excellent, with a generous number of jumbo shrimp sautéed with peppers and onions in a chipotle cream sauce, served over pasta. Likewise, the Cannery ravioli, filled with mascarpone, artichoke and spinach, was well served by a creamy marinara, topped with fresh Parmesan.
The Friday lake perch special was another winner. Lake perch are delicate things, easily ruined, but these were done perfectly, lightly breaded with cornmeal, served with the restaurant's homemade tartar sauce and lemon wedges.
Many hamburger versions are offered, with various toppings - cheese, barbecue sauce, bacon, guacamole, mushrooms, marinara and more. I went for a Black 'n Blue burger, blackened with Cajun seasonings and topped with blue cheese. This was a seven-ounce patty made from choice Angus beef, served on a substantial toasted bun. It was all right, but a good hamburger shouldn't be made with lean beef. A good hamburger should be presented with little pearls of fat clinging to its edges. In a burger, fat carries the flavor.
The Cannery menu includes 10 sandwiches and nine salads, most involving chicken or steak. The only vegetarian item is the garden salad, which is good enough, with fresh greens and lots of onions. But vegetarians will generally be happier elsewhere. There are also several soups, which vary from day to day. Sides include fries, steamed veggies, mixed fruit, rice pilaf and baked potatoes.
I cannot end without a word about the service. It was, without exception, prompt, efficient, helpful and cheerful at every step. The Cannery Grill is a welcome addition to the Sun Prairie scene, and only a stone's throw from Madison's east side.