Over the top: Madison's Tip Top Tavern elevates bar food
MADISON—The Tip Top Tavern for decades has been a staple of the east-side Madison neighborhood that's also home to the Oscar Mayer plant.
But the corner bar is drawing people from across the city thanks to a remodeling project that transformed it into a trendy gastropub—as trendy as any on Chicago's north side.
The place has been going gangbusters since it reopened in January. Part of its success is due to the new look and part to an amped-up menu devised by owner Benjamin Altschul.
The menu's contents don't appear very different from the usual pub fare. Burgers, sandwiches and salads are all there.
Upon closer inspection, diners will discover that the menu items have been elevated. The kitchen's mac and cheese ($6.95), for example, pops with a spicy green chili flavor.
The menu describes the dish as “classic cheddar mac with a twist” provided by roasted poblano and jalapeno peppers, cilantro and parsley. That's definitely a cut above the mac and cheese that I ate as a kid.
The same is true for most of the burgers and sandwiches, although there is the occasional misstep.
The waffle-cut sweet potato fries ($3.25), served with a bowl of jam on the side, were disappointing: overcooked and somehow devoid of much flavor.
A catfish sandwich, in a Guinness batter topped with fire-roasted remoulade, lettuce, tomato and red onions ($9.50), missed the mark and suffered from too much sauce and not enough fish.
Just about everything else our party of four tasted was a hit, however.
A highlight was the Reuben sandwich, which featured a savory blend of pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and homemade Thousand Island dressing on sourdough rye ($7.95).
We also loved the green chili carnitas ($7.95) from the starters list. This is a bowl of richly flavored pork topped with feta cheese, cilantro and two over-medium eggs, with tortillas. I could eat this virtually every day.
The chicken burlesque ($7.95) is another starter that hit high notes at our table. Served in a generous portion, these house-battered chicken fingers were tender and especially tasty when dressed up with barbecue sauce.
The Tip Top burger is a classic: ground, aged sirloin grilled medium rare and served with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles and a dollop of Tip Top's special sauce ($7.95).
The Little Oscar ($5.95) was a delicious surprise: fried bologna topped with kettle chips, yellow mustard and mayo on white sourdough bread. It might sound ordinary, but the sandwich featured a crispy, butter-fried sourdough holding bologna slightly browned around the edges and complemented with mustard and mayo.
Tip Top's service is friendly and good, although our server had trouble keeping up with the crowd on the night of our visit.
I wouldn't call the tavern a destination for visitors to Madison, but the food is good and affordable, and the setting is comfortable and relaxed.