Following on the heels of the first insanely successful Wisconsin-food-themed restaurant, the Old Fashioned, the top of State Street seems to grow by one similar business every few months. The result is a cluster of tavern-like establishments that, if this were New York, would already have a clever name attached to it. Should we call it Squavern, Square plus tavern? Or maybe Sqwisco -- our extra dose of Wisco just off the Square?
It is a formula that seems to be working, perhaps because of proximity to the Overture Center. Or maybe it's Food Network fatigue. Watching all those iron chefs just makes us hungry for something familiar.
Whatever the reason, the focus is on big, unhealthy, flavorful bar fare. Curds are a must. Bacon appears frequently, and there's something for everyone -- which means chicken sandwiches, Reubens and mostly afterthought salads. Of course on Fridays, there's fish fry. In short, menus that wouldn't have been too out of place 20-some years ago.
A few of these attempts to offer a slice of state fare in the state's capital, in the shadow of the Capitol, are better than others. Clearly, there's clientele for the Wisco-centric formula.
The latest addition to Squavern is 608 Restaurant and Bar, a spot that, like the Fountain before it, is pushing local ingredients hard.
Set in the former Paul's Club space (which moved, due to high rent), 608 won't win awards for originality, but will be noticed for having some heart. It is an independent business that aims to serve real food with a number of from-scratch, in-house components.
The menu has all the usual suspects: soups, burgers, paninis and salads. But there are a few welcome twists. A corn chowder was so fresh there were still strands of silk mixed in with the popping kernels. It boasted a zippy tomato-y base with textbook-perfect chunks of potatoes.
The house-made beer-battered onion rings are gloriously light and crunchy; they're not greasy, and the Vidalia onion is thick and sweet. Unlike most renditions of this appetizer, the sour and hops from the beer in the batter is actually detectable.
The monstrous, messy 608 burger with a fried egg on top also isn't run-of-the-mill. It arrives at correct temperature (medium-rare was right even though it sports a super thick patty) and is accompanied by spot-on french fries.
The tap beers are decent, and the cocktails employ almost exclusively area boozes like Old Sugar. Surprisingly for a business on State, the bar could, if anything, use more liquor behind it. Hopefully they don't run out when it gets busy.
The space has a steady, unhurried feel. The spare room has been outfitted with a few tin-ceiling accents, and there's more tin behind the bar, cut with openings to hold wine bottles. The chalkboard wall with the beer menu is next to the bar in the same spot Paul's Club had it.
Tables seem a bit lonely away from the bar, but there's a dartboard in the big picture window that gets heavy use.
608 feels more like a classic small-town joint than something in downtown Madison, and somehow the ginormous flat-panel TV tuned to sports works. The spot will make an ideal game-day destination, and if you like classic bars like Main Depot, you'll enjoy the feel here.
Entrees, available in the evenings, are not exactly successful. A mustard chicken dish was heavy-handed on the mustard, although the chicken was moist. There was too much sauce over the meat and mashed potatoes.
Instead, stick to sandwiches like the chicken and watercress panini. While the bread was overly greasy, the chicken had been charred enough to make the spicy watercress and sweet caramelized onions jump. It's an example of a great attempt that hasn't quite come together yet.
Among the lighter offerings, the grain salad is a star. With a base of Israeli couscous, it features cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, zucchini, arugula and feta. For $7 it eats like a full meal, and vegetarians can put it on their list of available edibles downtown. It's also available on 608's abbreviated late-night menu, which otherwise relies on appetizers and a couple panini.
Desserts are a list of boozy shakes that should be an enormous draw. Unfortunately, they're a bit thin. The ice cream drinks are maybe an idea lifted from DLUX, but they need work to compete successfully.
608 also offers brunch on weekends, which includes filling breakfast burritos.
Service on all visits, however, was superb, the work of extra-friendly and chatty staff.