When Nate Lake tells people he works as a bar manager at The Lounge in the Madison Labor Temple, confusion follows.
“My friends still think I work at like a Masonic cult temple,” Lake deadpanned. “The majority of them are very unsure about where I am and what I do ... ‘You work for like a cult right?’”
The bar on the first floor of the Labor Temple at 1602 S. Park St. is not a center of malicious spiritual activity, but it’s admittedly not the easiest venue to pin down.
For the past eight months, the bar has been under new ownership. The vibe, clientele and what’s on the menu depends on the day.
Walk in after a big union meeting and hob nob with tradesmen at a packed bar over tall boys and cheeseburgers. Stop by on a slow night, chat with Lake and sample his specialty chicken wings. Or show up on a Friday with neighbors and dig into an adventurous fish fry menu.
Laila Borokhim, who also owns Noosh at 1431 Regent St., took over the bar in January. Layla’s Persian Food, her first restaurant at 141 S. Butler St., was briefly Ruthie’s and is not currently in operation.
Today, there are still plenty of regulars and union folk in the divey, eclectic space. Borokhim emphasizes that the bar is open and welcoming to all, and although she still offers standard bar fare like burgers, wings, mozzarella sticks and onion rings, she’s spicing up the menu with specials.
But the course of restaurant revitalization does not always run smooth. The past several months in The Lounge have given Borokhim some interesting stories.
After Borokhim let a group of women hold Zumba classes in the bar on Mondays, a man in an American flag shirt loudly used expletives to tell the group to turn their music down. He was banned from the bar.
Another man, not a regular, screamed in Borokhim’s face that she was turning The Lounge into a “pseudo-hipster douchebag bar.”
Others left less dramatically. When Borokhim took over, drinks like a double vodka soda made with rail vodka cost $3.50 — an untenable price. Today, The Lounge’s rail drinks cost $4.50 and top shelf jumps to $5.50. She still got flack.
“It’s amazing how like 50 cents can just horrify people,” she said.
Food-wise, Borokhim has been punching up the food options. She has brought the bar through about eight different menu iterations and trying out specials like Saturday roast lamb dinners.
That lamb was “beer-braised coffee lamb we let sit in honey for a whole day,” Lake said, and “the whole thing was breaking down before it hit the oven. It was tender, juicy, fall-apart.”
Lamb specials do come back occasionally, check The Lounge’s Facebook page. She’ll also be switching up the fare at this year’s LaborFest on Sept. 3 from a typical brats-and-beer affair to “delicious vegetarian yummy things,” bloody marys and mimosa specials.
Ultimately, Borokhim said she’s “trying to get people to not order the cheeseburger.”
This doesn’t always work. Customers still order the burger about 90 percent of the time. Still, she upgraded the burger from frozen patty to 1/3-pound fresh ground beef burgers on a brioche bun ($6 for the basic burger).
Don’t skip the chicken wings ($7), which are blanched in beef or lamb broth and graced with a five spice dry rub and Frank’s RedHot Rajili sauce (a sweet ginger hot sauce). If these wings were cartoons, they would have enticing smell lines wafting off of them. I was planning to take them to go, but instead ate them immediately in the style of a hyena attacking her prey.
Borokhim’s not quite sure which direction she’ll take the menu in the future, she said. Lake has no doubt she’ll keep innovating.
“Working for Laila is one of the most confusing things ever, but in the most positive way possible, because you don’t know what’s coming,” Lake said. “One day she walked in, she was like, ‘Let’s make lamb tamales.’
“It was ridiculous and I was so confused,” Lake added. “What insomniac hour were you up at? Corn and lamb is not something I think of, ever.”
They were incredible, he said. Those curious about her latest experiment can taste and see what she whips up for weekly fish frys at The Lounge.
“If you really want to know what Laila’s up to? Come on Fridays,” he said.
A recent Friday menu included mussels made with shishito peppers and coconut broth, as well as barbecued chicken grilled with ginger barbecue sauce. The chicken was “sitting in its own fat for damn near a week so when you hit it on the grill it just fell apart,” Lake said.
Fish frys are also a fun time to chill with a “totally different crowd than the rest of the week,” Borokhim said. That includes neighbors from Bay Creek/Lakeside, the owners of “half million-dollar houses” and people “born and raised on the south side of Madison.”
In some ways, the bar may not seem like the natural fit for Borokhim. She doesn’t drink much and doesn’t like typical fried food, she said.
But her grandfather was a union member, and there’s a picture of him on strike in the bar. She has respect for unions, she said.
“I’m well known for this Persian restaurant,” she said. “But the other half of me is very blue collar American.”
That double worldview might be just what The Lounge needs as it continues to evolve. While Lake wouldn’t be upset if The Lounge turned into “the coolest hipster dive bar on the south side,” he appreciates the history of the steady union customers.
“That’s why I really love working here,” Lake said. “No matter how diverse the crowd gets, no matter how many people we pull in, there’s always going to be the base people whose family’s family’s family has been coming to the bar since forever.”