A decade or so ago as a young resident of the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, I nearly got into a fistfight with a drunk man at J.T.’s Friendly Tavern when he insisted, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that I had stolen his beer. Feeling nostalgic years later I returned to Pug Mahoney’s. As I left was asked to buy some methamphetamine. I declined.
So, when I read the previews about Baldwin Street Grille and the labor pains it was having coming into existence I did so with a knowing smirk and much eye-rolling. Yet, when I walked into the renovated space at 1304 E. Washington Avenue a few weeks back my cynicism softened considerably. By the end of the visit the bartender had recommended that I “Like” the joint on Facebook. This, I accepted.
That’s not to say the Grille (the spelling apparently means it’s fancy), is a home run. It’s more like a double. Despite a few hiccups in service and quality I didn’t have to flee the bar to avoid an ass kicking and I had a fish fry that ranks with some of the Madison’s best for value and quality. The Tenney-Lapham neighborhood now has a place to congregate that is appropriate for families and puts together some well-intentioned pub fare as well as boasts a vastly improved selection of local taps. In other words, it’s a place the neighborhood needs and deserves.
The most stunning improvement is the Grille’s physical space. Somehow owner and operator Scott Ehrlinger has managed to cram a lofty open interior into a squat eastern block exterior and create a space that begs for patrons to, er, linger. The wood panels, soft lighting and upgraded tables are a hit as are the unobtrusive (and essential in this type of establishment) HDTVs. On the two occasions I visited, the Grille was crammed with clientele that reflected the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood: families, academics, longtime locals and a few barflies.
Madison has seen the opening of numerous kitchens that exist on the “gastro pub spectrum” lately. The Grille lands solidly in the low middle, a few spaces to the right of Shenk-Atwood’s popular beer-foodie-jammy-townie bar Alchemy. After much hullabaloo, Ehrlinger finally installed his wood-fired oven and is now successfully utilizing it to make pizzas Tuesday-Thursday as well as a variety of other entrees. Ehrlinger is also a UW-trained cheese maker and is now supposedly including homemade cheeses in his recipes, though it wasn’t immediately obvious. The fish fry was a highlight. The two large pieces of lightly battered cod were paired with a crisp, tangy slaw and a generous helping of standard-issue but well executed fries. The now ubiquitous sweet potato option was less successful. The burgers are hearty and tasty, made with fresh ground chuck delivered daily from Jenifer Street Market. The salads were fresh and tossed with a garlicky house vinaigrette. All the food is priced reasonably (you’d be hard-pressed to spend more than $15 minus drinks) for its quality. Constant specials help round out what initially looks like a sparse menu.
The beer list includes local favorites as well as some more exotic choices including dark Scotch Ale from O’so Brewing, an up-and-coming craft brewer based in Plover. A personal favorite, Crispin Cider, is flowing now. Crispin is a Minneapolis-based craft cider house that produces several serious brews that make that woodchuck stuff seem like fizzy Kool-Aid. The wine list lacks courage and I wouldn’t trust the amateur bartenders to make much more than a Jack-and-Coke. Plus, it’s hard to beat an iced Crispin Cider in a tall glass on a 90-degree day.
Unfortunately, the service didn’t rise to the promise of the other improvements. The bartenders were inexperienced and inattentive. One was downright testy with patrons that were curious about the differences between available beers. Both my dining partner and myself had to aggressively flag down a bartender to get refills, something that makes me feel awkward and demanding and should never happen, especially on a moderately busy night. On one 8:45 p.m. visit we spent ten thirsty minutes while the waitress smoked and talked on her cell phone outside (in clear view of our table). Then, after a trip to the bar we were told the only food available would be from the fryer. We ate down the way at the Weary Traveler.
The Baldwin Street Grille will hopefully have time to iron out the wrinkles in the coming months. Rather than pooh-poohing the enterprise I now regularly recommend it if mostly to ensure that the good folks in Tenney-Lapham have a place to steal away to that won’t include a knuckle sandwich or a misdemeanor arrest.
Posted by Ryan Billingham on