The Tip Top Tavern, once an unsavory north side spot with a nasty reputation, has been reborn.
More than a year ago, Ben Altschul, the youngest son of Jane Capito (Lazy Jane's, Mickey's Tavern), bought the bar with a vision of turning it into a neighborhood hangout.
The new Tip Top opened Jan. 28 and began serving a short menu soon after. Every day, Altschul or his managing partner, Alfred Rasho, greet each person who comes in the door at 601 North St., introducing them to the redesigned space.
"It's been such a whirlwind," said Altschul, whose brother, Gilbert Altschul, opened Grampa's Pizzeria on Williamson Street last summer. "We're all catching our breath at this point."
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The décor of the redesigned 80-seat Tip Top is understated and elegant, with dark green floral wallpaper in the late-19th century style of William Morris and upturned light fixtures on the wall that look vintage. According to Rasho, beautiful stained glass windows installed above the bar were salvaged from a garage sale.
"My mother and I designed the place together, and our relationship survived," Altschul said.
Well-made cocktails created by Josh Swentzel, whose new bar is set to open on Williamson Street this summer, respect both the Tip Top's past and future. (When cleaning out the bar, Altschul said he found paper ephemera from the 1930s and 40s — "it felt like a time capsule," he said last summer.)
Unlike the extensive tap and bottled beer list, the cocktail list is short. Notable are a fine take on an Old Fashioned with Four Roses bourbon and ginger beer ($7), a colorful, very strong Tip Top Sunrise ($7) made with reposado tequila and Campari, and a fantastic bourbon sour ($7), frothy with fresh egg white.
In the kitchen, Durrell Williams turns out bar staples like burgers, fried cheese curds and sandwiches. The execution is inconsistent, but at its best, the quality is on par with similar food at Alchemy Cafe and Avenue Bar.
The Tip Top Burger ($7.95) was solid, with a sturdy bun and a juicy, pink patty. The "special sauce," mayo-based with a spicy kick, worked better on the house burger than with disappointingly greasy tempura-fried dill pickle rounds ($4.95).
The title character on the Catfish Rich-Boy ($9.50) was as good a piece of fried fish as you'll find anywhere in Madison, served over lettuce, tomato and a toasted hoagie slathered with remoulade. So long as you don't mind eating a sandwich with a fork, it totally works.
Among the entrees, the two best options for vegetarians are mac and cheese with cilantro and green chile peppers ($6.95) — not as spicy as it appears, but comforting and creamy — and an enjoyable riff on a Philly cheesesteak made with sweet marinated seitan ($8.95). With a fresh side salad and rustic fries ($1 on the side, $3.25 as a starter), it made a great tavern-style dinner.
A few dishes may need more work before they join the tavern's permanent rotation. The Vedge Burger ($8.25), made with brown rice, walnuts and mushrooms, promptly fell apart when it arrived at the table. With too much dressing and not enough 'kraut, the Reuben ($7.95) can't compete with better options nearby. It fell apart, too.
Chips ($3.25) came from a bag, and some of ours were stale. An appetizer of green chile carnitas ($7.95) had a nice texture and mild heat, but they needed some kind of textural contrast — tortilla chips, maybe, or salsa.
Luckily, the white cheddar cheese curds ($5.95) are just fine, with or without ranch. Some won't need to look any further.
"We're improving our recipes all the time, listening for requests from the neighborhood," Altschul said. For future specials and menu additions, "we're going to be working closely with the Northside Farmers Market."
The Tip Top has positioned itself as a neighborhood bar, and requires a little patience. Service was fun and near-instantaneous one night, slow and inattentive another. The Tip Top's tight space can get crowded quickly, and there's not much room if the bar stools are full.
Like at Mickey's, music at the Tip Top is loud, whether it's Stevie Wonder or Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" — diners have to shout across the small tables to be heard. The bar accepts cash or checks only, something Altschul doesn't plan to change. (An ATM in the corner charges $2 per transaction.)
Altschul's next move will hopefully be a warm weather patio out back, something he says the neighborhood supports. When that opens, ideally in the next six weeks after approval by the city on March 19, the Tip Top will start serving weekend brunch.
"This was an abused space," Altschul said. "This is really a renaissance for the Tip Top."