Off Broadway Drafthouse: Neighborhood Bar Serving Up Local History

Drafthouse Mussels
Photo by Eric Tadsen

Craft beer, great food, and highlighting the historical significance of the area were Joe and Rita Klinzing's intentions for Off Broadway Drafthouse in Monona. Their slogan, “Come for the beer, stay for the food,” has people continuously raving about the food, beer, and service, and it keeps getting better.

This historic location has changed ownerships and names over the years. It was known as the Airway Tavern in the early 1900s for the Royal Airport, located across the road. Inside the restaurant, there are murals provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society portraying the area history from 1905 through the 1960s. Most famously, one of the murals depicts the Royal Airport, which is also where Charles Lindbergh landed after his transatlantic flight. The bar was located on the edge of Penco Field at the Royal Airport as depicted in one of the murals at the restaurant.

Uncovering history is a natural thing that happened during construction of the old South Bay Lounge. Joe remembers the South Towne Lounge being “a little seedy beer-and-shot bar.” Joe and Rita purchased the bar and the lot next to it in 1999, and reopened as the South Bay Lounge & Grill. When removing the old signs, they discovered the Airway Tavern sign underneath, posted it on Facebook, and had an amazing response from the community. Joe remembers looking at Rita and saying, “I think we found our theme.” After this serendipitous discovery, they decided to use the history of the surrounding area from the early 1900s, which included Penco Field, Royal Airport, and Airway Tavern. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Joe and Rita undertook considerable efforts making the aviation history a focus and theme for their restaurant. From the detailed murals to the dishes and drinks prepared daily, it’s clear a lot of thought and research went into this project. They also incorporated repurposed materials from the old building—the roofing was used for wainscoting, the old chimney is now the brick fireplace, beams and shelves are used throughout, and the bar top is from a tree on their property. People also enjoy the four-season room, which has great southern exposure and views of the gardens. Joe says, “The reception has been unbelievable, and the neighborhood support has been overwhelming.”

Food and service drive everything, and Joe and Rita know this. One of the main components to providing innovative menu items is having an excellent and dedicated staff. Head chef and kitchen manager Alexandra Nicoloff finds ways to celebrate the everyday and seasonal aspects through an evolving menu. Friday Fish Fry, a Sunday Fried Chicken Special, seasonal dishes, Drafthouse Mussels, and the Tres Carnes Sliders (made with ground pork, bison, and lamb) are only a sampling of what Off Broadway offers.

While Joe and Rita helped create some of the ideas for the kitchen, such as the weekend game day menus and the Saturday night BBQ Ribs, they leave most of the menu creations to their exceptional kitchen staff. The game day menu consists of shredded pork or chicken tacos, nachos, bacon fat popcorn, and classic game day wings. Unique, distinctive flavor profiles are created in house and made fresh with locally sourced products when available. Also, fresh house-made soups are served daily.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

A current and future endeavor is expanding their on-site vegetable gardens, which they utilize in their kitchen. Joe’s passion for gardening and incorporating more seasonal, fresh-picked items to the menu has been very popular with patrons. Guests are always excited to see the freshly picked vegetables brought in from the gardens. Farm to table has been a common tagline associated with local restaurants, but they hope to create more a garden-to-table atmosphere as they expand the gardens. Joe thinks an expansion will be “really exciting when the whole property is living and sustainable.”

Service is what brings the great atmosphere and food to the table. And let’s not forget about the bar, which features 24 rotating craft beers on tap. Chad Kersey, operations manager, handles the weekly promotions and rotation, and promotes infused craft beer nights and beer dinners along with a nice selection of craft cocktails.

Off Broadway Drafthouse offers local and regionally sourced craft beers that are favored by women and men alike. With such a large selection and variety of craft beers, and the ability to sample flavors before choosing one, it’s not hard to find a new favorite craft beer. Many patrons find themselves trying a style of beer they normally wouldn’t have, and are glad they did.

Mindful of local events in Madison, such as the World Dairy Expo, Joe and Rita often include menu items, like additional steaks, to attract people that are visiting the Alliant Energy Center, which is located right around the corner.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

There are ongoing efforts to bring in more local events and gatherings to pair with the menu and beverages. For instance, they feature beer pairing dinners, which are four-to-five course meals with different beers for each course. The brewers are normally on site, representing their brewery, along with the chef to explain why the dishes are paired with the different beers. This is a great alternative to your typical dinner and a movie date night.

Joe and Rita hope to expand on the history by displaying more historical photos along with the existing murals. They really want the Drafthouse to become a destination for locals and visitors alike, and for diners to be able to view some area history while enjoying a delectable meal and distinctive selection of craft beers and cocktails.

Eventually, they hope to feature acoustic music in the later evening, providing a warm and relaxing environment for their guests. “[This place has] Always been a neighborhood bar, and right from the start, one thing we wanted to do is make our neighborhood proud to have a great place to bring their family and friends,” Joe says.

Krystle Engh Naab is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and likes to think and wonder, wonder and think in Baraboo, Wisconsin.