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Snug as a Bug

January 24, 2010

Rule 1 is that you never try to visit a hot new dining spot during the first month it’s open. Finding a table is usually a futile enterprise.

Rule 2 is that sometimes it’s worth taking a chance in breaking Rule 1. We exercised our Rule 2 option and visited The Coopers Tavern on the Capitol Square Friday night right after work. In this case, we beat our own odds, but not without some help from owner Peter McElvanna.

For those who haven’t heard, Coopers is the latest endeavor for Food Fight Inc., one of Madison’s leading restaurant enterprises and already owner of 10 area restaurants. Coopers is the first of the group’s establishments that is a bar before it is a restaurant, and the arrangement with McElvanna is slightly different that it is with the company’s other employee-owners.

Food Fight stepped in with financing when McElvanna, the former manager of Brocach Irish Pub just across the square, saw his funding dry up after $70,00-worth of initial investment, the owner said. Renovations to the space that formerly house Le Sucre and, before that, McDonald’s were completed last fall. Coopers opened its doors earlier this month.

As expected, it has a charming atmosphere, friendly staff and one of the most exceptional craft and imported beer menus in the city. According to McElvanna, it also has the area’s only “snug,” a private room with its own door and direct access to the bar through a little service door at the other end. As a way to combat the average Friday night din, nothing could be better for those who don’t want to see or be seen.

Our party of four was backed up against a 45-minute wait with an Overture Center curtain time looming when McElvanna took pity on us after one in our party explained that she was Irish. (Three of the four of us have some Irish ancestry.) He hoisted the pair already in the snug and showed us to our own private dining area. The roughhewn interior of raw brick and polished wood is charming in the same way a wine cellar may be charming, with an attentive bartender at our direct disposal. (Snug, where have you been all our dining-out lives?)

The menu might be described as “bar food,” but that would be doing the kitchen a disservice. The preparation of our dishes was exceptional and the prices remarkably reasonable. Our appetizer of Belgian frites served with malt vinegar aioli ($3.95) was very good, as were the beer cheese pretzels served with a spicy dip of Belgian beer and Dubliner cheese ($3.95). We could have used another or two of the long, soft pretzels, but what was there was good.

Two of our party ordered a dinner salad of Boston lettuce, blue cheese, bacon, croutons and, of all things, halved Brussels sprouts tossed with a creamy garlic dressing ($7.95), a dish that earned rave reviews from the diners. The turkey sandwich served with Gouda cheese on marbled rye and apple-pear slaw ($7.95) was also popular.

McElvanna did a hard sell on the Reuben sandwich ($8.95), which doesn’t usually require a hard sell for me. The house cured corned beef and Swiss cheese was served on coal-black rye bread with sauerkraut that had been soaked in Lake Louie Warped Speed Scotch Ale, a brilliant touch that neutralized the acidity and slightly sweetened the shredded cabbage. Served with house made chips and a pint of Belhaven Scottish Ale ($5.50), it proved to be exactly the right antidote to a stressful week.

If we hadn’t had show tickets, it’s likely we would have lingered longer in our cozy snug, but there is always next time. And that’s not something we’ve said about a restaurant in a long time.

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