West Bend Tap + Tavern puts dining first
Pan roasted duck breast is served over braised red cabbage and honey-roasted root vegetables with an orange-fennel sauce at West Bend Tap + Tavern, 315 N. Main St. in West Bend. The restaurant makes its own sauces, ketchup, mustards, pickles and fresh mozzarella cheese and serves craft beers in addition to the big brews.
The line between restaurant and bar can be a blurry one.
A great many bars serve food of some sort, just as a great many restaurants have bars. Unlike the establishments of old, where the drinkers and the diners often got down to business in separate rooms, they typically share real estate these days in a single room.
What separates the bar from the serious restaurant isn’t just a menu bigger than a burger and a liverwurst sandwich. It’s a matter of ambition and of finesse.
West Bend Tap + Tavern, which opened in the fall in downtown West Bend, puts the tap foremost in its name, but really the focus is food, with far more ambition than the typical corner bar and grill.
Brian Culligan (co-owner with his wife, Monica) called the menu “elevated bar food” when I spoke to him by phone after the opening. Certainly, a basic bar wouldn’t make its own spiced ketchup, grainy mustard, barbecue sauce spiked with Milwaukee-distilled whiskey, pickles and fresh mozzarella, but West Bend Tap + Tavern does.
It had some stumbles, but it also served one of the better duck breasts ($15) I’ve had: browned skin and perfectly tender, rosy meat that was sliced and fanned over roasted root vegetables, braised red cabbage and orange-fennel sauce, a very good seasonal plate indeed.
It also served an excellent hamburger. The breakfast burger, one of two on the menu, is a thick half-pounder on a shiny brioche bun, topped with a sunnyside-up egg, bacon, cheddar and the restaurant’s own potato tots. With it come fries and a nicely spiced, crisp pickle spear that’s made in house. And at $9.75, the burger’s an absolute bargain. The menu altogether is quite moderately priced.
That burger was so juicy and delicious, I couldn’t have been more surprised when an appetizer of mini burgers ($8) on another visit arrived overcooked and dry, down to the rolls.
That was a busy Friday night, when tray after tray filled with fish fry was ferried from kitchen to table. After a couple of other hiccups, I wondered if an abbreviated Friday night menu might serve the restaurant well.
The tavern wisely keeps the menu fairly concise to begin with. Among its appetizers are deviled eggs ($6), appealingly spicy and garnished with crisp shards of bacon. Hot, fresh pretzel sticks ($7) are served with the house mustard and cheese dip, each spiked with a different craft beer; a pretzel in another form is filled with tasty layers of house-made mozzarella, roasted yellow tomato and red pepper, olive tapenade and spinach.
Thick onion rings, available as an appetizer ($7) or an extra with sandwiches ($2, or $3 as a side), looked great but tasted flat; they were in dire need of seasoning. Mediterranean flatbread ($7) fell short, too, through no fault of the toppings; it arrived tepid, on a crust that was soft instead of crisp.
Daily soups were a must-try — clearly made from scratch and reliably delicious, as in the spicy-sweet carrot bisque ($3 or $5).
Roasted beet salad ($10) was a gem, with chunks of gold and red beets, goat cheese, pistachios, mixed greens and honey-vanilla vinaigrette. It was a spot-on mix of tangy and lightly sweet.
With Brian Culligan and his brother, chef Michael Culligan, being natives of Buffalo, N.Y., a Buffalo chicken sandwich ($9.50) was a matter of destiny. Theirs is good and spicy, a crisp chicken breast sauced and topped with blue cheese coleslaw. Filet tips make another delicious sandwich ($11.50), in a thick stack with brie, onion ring, demi-glace and a blue cheese spread. All great flavors, even if the tips were well done instead of the medium-rare ordered.
In addition to the lovely duck entrée, the kitchen turns out well-made mushroom risotto ($13), creamy without being overdone. The slender slices of pork tenderloin over it were cooked longer than requested, though.
Other entrées evoke comfort foods, among them deep-fried cod tacos in flour tortillas ($12) and barbecue mac and cheese ($13.50), mild and creamy below a topping of pulled pork with a splash of barbecue sauce. Blackened salmon ($13) could have used more heat in its coating, but Peppadew peppers mixed with smashed potatoes perked up the dish, and so did mango salsa and cumin crème fraîche.
Grilled hanger steak ($15 for 8 ounces) was prepared just right. Served with roasted potatoes and broccoli with herbed butter, it was a pleasant but rather simple plate; I couldn’t help thinking some of the restaurant’s demi-glace might liven it up. I also had a flash of envy when I saw a flier with details of an upcoming beer dinner I wouldn’t be able to attend; I’d love to see some of those more adventurous dishes on the regular menu.
Dessert for a long time was limited to ice cream. When one server forgot to offer it, I could hardly blame her. Fortunately, the restaurant recently began expanding its sweets menu.
After the first couple of visits, I knew I could expect staff to be hospitable, starting at the door, and each time, an owner made the rounds at tables. There was a longer than usual wait for food when the restaurant was busy, which can be expected, but a server had trouble with pacing one night, bringing out entrées while we were still eating appetizers.
It’s my least favorite restaurant game, Which Course Should I Allow to Grow Cold? (Second only to How Do We Rearrange the Tabletop to Fit Two Entire Courses on It?)
The restaurant did get loud when it was busy (and it was mobbed or close to it each time I visited). A downside was servers’ twice making mistakes because they couldn’t hear our orders clearly. To the restaurant’s credit, the staff made it right each time; they’re eager to please. Since my visits, acoustical ceiling tiles have been added to tamp down the sound, and more are coming.
West Bend Tap + Tavern is a streamlined remake of the former Tastings bar, with a polished-concrete bar top and floor, a communal table and industrial-look lighting; the wooden tables are branded with WB in their corners.
An old exterior sign declaring “BAR” now hangs inside; a vintage neon clock advertises WEMP radio. Both were found in the building’s basement during renovations. I wonder if others are tempted to run their fingers over the cool large wall hanging in the shape of Wisconsin, made from wine corks by the staff.
Mirrors on the wall behind the comfortable banquette are a thoughtful touch. Too often restaurants leave that space bare, giving the diner facing the wall nothing to look at. Except for their companions, that is.
West Bend Tap + Tavern understands the importance of thoughtful details — most vitally, in its food. Some honing here and there could put it among Washington County’s best restaurants, even if the tap comes first.