Last winter I had a short blurb about a quick stop at Madison’s Coopers Tavern. Late last year I had a chance to come back and really experience the place. We grabbed a seat at the bar and started perusing the extensive drink and beer menu. The Coopers Tavern has an awesome and eclectic beer selection. I started with a Great Dane Imperial IPA, an impressive beer with an interesting and complex hop profile, kind of pine-needle (Simcoe hops, perhaps?) and citrus with a nice amount of alcohol that really opens the beer.
The Coopers Tavern has been described by some as a Gastropub with and Irish accent and while items from the British Isles dominate the menu, there are occasional nods to other familiar places like the Middle East (a beetroot hummus) and Wisconsin (the Sconnie Egg, Acorn Squash with cranberry wild rice).
The menu is frustrating, but in a good way. The frustration settles in when you realize that just about everything sounds delicious and you have to figure out what you are going to order. Go with a group so you can try more stuff. My first visit was solo, later at night so I only had the Sconnie Egg. This time I was with two friends so we got to try a couple of appetizers and each of us ordered a different entrée/sandwich.
I wrote a short blurb about my first visit early in 2010. At the time I raved about the aforementioned Sconnie Egg, which is a deep-fried hard-boiled egg encapsulated with a locally made Bratwurst patty and some breading. Served with a healthy pool of delicious tangy Stout mustard and a side of some house pickled vegetables this might be the perfect late-night bar snack.
We decided to try the Poutine, which is really a basic concept that any chef can add their twist to. Its pretty much french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. While I haven’t had a Poutine as good as one I had in Canada many years ago, this was an impressive version in its own regard. A heaping pile of crispy Belgian style frites is topped with melted cheese curds and a lighter brown gravy. There truly is something magical about this strange combination of ingredients. Drunk, sober, or in-between (about where we were at) this dish is excellent bar food.
We also tried the beer cheese pretzels, which was three large, thick, soft pretzels and a very good Dubliner cheese and Belgian beer sauce. This dish could be improved by adding some of the incredible stout mustard served with the Sconnie Egg, an idea that occurred to me a 2 days after our visit. I am sure if you asked nicely they’d give you some as the bartenders are very helpful and extremely friendly. Their beer knowledge is quite impressive and is not condescending, something I once experienced at another unnamed restaurant on the square.
The Pork Belly mac looked enticing; Lake Louie’s Tommy’s Porter glazed pork belly with Dubliner Cheddar mac and cheese and a sourdough bread crumb exterior. However I kind of had a burger on my mind so I tried the signature “Cooper’s Burger.” It features local beef sourced from Black Earth Meats. The burger was perfectly executed, medium rare with a nice slice of sharp cheddar cheese melted on top. That was topped with some pork belly, lettuce, onion, mayo, and pickles. I don’t like pickles on my burgers so I ate them separately. The burger was delicious and kind of messy, in a good way. Probably the a contender for best burger I ate in 2010. The burger comes with a salad or house made chips. You’d think that after scarfing down 1/3 of the poutine plate and a giant pretzel roll that choosing the salad would be a no-brainer but I had to try the chips because I am a sucker for house made chips. I also had a nice buzz going on by this time so fried food sounded more appealing. Salads can be great but drunk-food they are not. These chips great but probably would have been better if they had some sort of dipping sauce (more of the Dubliner cheddar stuff from the pretzels, perhaps)
I also got to try the beef brisket, which was very good (I would have preferred thicker cut brisket) especially with the bacon aioli. The biggest surprise however was the exceptional Chicken Curry. Even though I only had a couple bites of it, I am still thinking about how good it is. It seems like an odd fit among the other dishes but Chicken Curry is a huge dish in England and Ireland so it fits right in here. It was so good I would probably order it as my entrée the next time I visit.
While the food was superb, Coppers Tavern would still be a great spot if it didn’t serve food at all. In addition to my Great Dane Imperial IPA I checked out an Ale Asylum Big Slick Stout. Bold and complex, this was a tasty beer designed to warm you up on cold winter nights. I also was able to have a taste of a couple Christmas seasonal brews, thanks to the awesome bartenders who will let you check out a brew before you order it; a practice more bars should embrace. It’s no wonder this place is packed even hours after the dinner crowds have left. Service and hospitality do matter.
Cooper’s Tavern joins the ranks of the Old Fashioned as one of my favorite restaurants not only in Madison but in the entire state of Wisconsin. It is a warm and inviting space with inexpensive food and great beer and should be on the radar screen anyone seeking awesome food and beer with outstanding service.
The Coopers Tavern
20 West Mifflin Street