Growing up in Wisconsin, I always felt I was afforded this fantastic opportunity to connect with the worlds around me—to nature, to neighbors, those I struggle to understand, and those I bond with straightaway. And I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when I’m not reminded of the importance in maintaining the connection I have with the food I eat—food that presents opportunity for community fostering.
Heritage Tavern, on Webster and Mifflin, is a Madison restaurant focused on bringing in all sorts for an inclusive bar or dining experience. “We purposefully built a comfortable, approachable restaurant,” says owner Dan Fox. “Wooden tabletops. No tablecloths. Servers are kind of dressed down. A place where I want people doing business of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds. To people coming in for special occasions to someone just coming into the bar and enjoying a ham sandwich and a beer. It’s a come-as-you-are establishment.”
Their “Old Fashioned” Ham Sandwich, aged gouda, stone ground mustard, chili aioli, and pickled red onion, is testament to Dan’s work toward involving everyone in the farm-to-table movement, highlighting his hands-on familiarity with pig farming. Patrons can expect staff and servers to be knowledgeable on where all ingredients used in their sandwich, or any food item, comes from, sort of like the scene in Portlandia involving Colin the chicken, where a couple of foodies ask their server everything concerning the history of the chicken being served short of whether it was hatched under hen or heat lamp.
“We try to develop relationships with farmers. I get excited about a pig, and they might get excited about a green bean. Or they get excited about a tomato, and they’re telling me about 50 types of tomatoes and all the different uses. Then we take that aspect and bring it back to the restaurant to create dishes around these beautiful ingredients.”
Dan works hard to ensure everything on your plate was grown or raised by someone who cares a whole awful lot about what went into its production. It’s the same with his own pigs. “Nine years ago, I bought seven Mangalica pigs; they’re a specific breed of heritage pig. It was an idea for a farming project just to learn to raise pigs and see what the experience was. So we did that, it went pretty well. Met a few folks who had some underutilized property. We bought a few more different breeds of heritage pigs. We were just continuing the hobby farm. The hobby farming turned into one pig getting delivered that was pregnant. Then we had breeding stock.”
If you’ve ever heard of Willow Creek Farms or Fox Heritage Farms, that’s where Dan raises his pigs using “grandpa’s way of farming. If you think of an heirloom tomato, it hasn’t been genetically modified or altered in any sense. A heritage pig is the same way. It hasn’t been genetically modified or altered in any way, and we use its natural characteristics. It’s getting back to what pigs used to taste like before confinement farming. … Sustainably raised. Pasture raised. No hormones. No antibiotics. We let them create their own natural habitats in a sense, so there’s not really a lot of stress on the animals.”
To further help out other local farmers, Dan has created a menu built around utilizing the whole animal. Choice cuts are nice, but a lot of resources went into raising that animal. “We’re not just tenderloin, tenderloin, tenderloin. We try to balance that out with different cuts and get creative with different cuts of protein.” As I see it, this is much more respectful to the animal and the farmer raising it. Much more in tune with connecting patrons to process.
And Heritage Tavern is much more than pork. Market fish and shellfish star in their Bouillabaisse along with fingerling potato, roasted fennel, tomato and shellfish broth, and garlic sabayon. It’s a dish from southern France that goes back to Dan’s culinary education. “I worked at a French restaurant while I was going to a culinary school called Everest. They gave me an opportunity to work with some folks in Provence, France. I worked in France for a short period of time. Worked in Austria for a short period of time. Then came back to Chicago and worked in another Asian-influenced restaurant called Spring.” That also starts to explain why their schnitzel is so popular, braised red cabbage, sour-cream spätzle, pickled aronia berries, mustard cream sauce, all in a red-wine reduction.
Schnitzel aside, I could see myself stopping by just to have their assorted deviled eggs. “We’ve done fried-rice filling to everything-bagel salmon filling to a turmeric curried egg.” That and a German pilsner, something Dan always has on tap due to it being something his father loves that he’s also become a huge fan of, and I might be booked for the evening. If beer isn’t your thing, they have a fantastic array of seasonal craft cocktails—some variations created on the spot if you’re so spirited.
The need to punctuate sense of place is what really ties every ambiance and dish together. “The restaurant is very personal to me. It’s definitely an expression of the heritage of Wisconsin. My background, my cooking experience, and my team have a lot to do with bringing the vision of Heritage Tavern together. … We have tempura bacon-wrapped cheese curds, you know, it’s Wisconsin, so you gotta have cheese curds.” You’ll be enjoying those curds on Wisconsin Amish-made furniture.
What Heritage Tavern really captures is this idea in Wisconsin and the Midwest that we’re often more impressed with your character than your bank account. They consciously raise their animals and produce before they’re harvested, and value their journey all the way to your plate. Upon entering, you’ll feel welcome no matter what you’re all about. As Dan says, “If you like good food, good beverage, and good service, then you’ve come to the right place.”
Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.
131 E. Mifflin Street
Madison, WI 53703