Mitch Feiler doesn’t miss the gravel pile, exactly. He’s glad it’s gone. People can actually see his restaurant now. Still, it was a conversation piece.
“A couple stopped by on a Friday night, and wanted to climb up and take a picture,” Feiler recalled this week.
Feiler didn’t tell them no. It wasn’t his gravel pile. More than a few people wanted to climb it.
“I climbed it once or twice myself,” Feiler, 50, said.
The 40-foot-tall gravel pile that stood majestic for many weeks next to Feiler’s restaurant and bar, on Verona Road at the Beltline, was an early remnant of a six-year, $175 million reconstruction project that began last spring and includes work on both Verona Road and the Beltline.
Feiler said construction workers told him the gravel was the residue from crews digging up the inside shoulder lanes of the east-bound Beltline. They had to put the gravel somewhere.
The pile went away earlier this summer, and now Feiler, like other business owners in the area, is hoping the worst is over, at least in the immediate vicinity of his front door.
Feiler said he was told that the first stage of the Verona Road construction — stretching from a pedestrian underpass near the Beltline up to Raymond Road — will be done this fall.
Media coverage of the construction may have led to a perception that it is worse than it is, though the reality is — or was — bad enough. I drove to the restaurant one morning this week, and it was easier, less of an obstacle course, than it was a month earlier.
I may have contributed to the perception myself in the spring, resurrecting a song I wrote a decade ago — Peter Leidy recorded it, Triple M radio played it and put it on a CD — called “Verona Road Construction Blues.”
Feiler said his business is down — especially lunches — but they’ve done their best to deal with it, employing humor when possible. The restaurant had 150 bright orange T-shirts made up that say “Feiler’s” on the front, with the back emblazoned, “Conveniently located on Verona Road at the Beltline: At the Barricades; Behind the Gravel Pile; Next to the Bulldozer; By the Water Pipes.”
“I wish I had a nickel for every dump truck I’ve seen,” Mitch said, the other day. “People say, ‘It’s horrible what they’re doing.’ But what can you do? It’s a government project.”
Feiler appreciates the loyal regulars who have braved the construction and kept coming in. A group of women who play bridge at the restaurant Tuesdays at noon have ignored the dust, forklifts and orange cones, and played on.
Maybe they share my soft spot for supper clubs in general, and Feiler’s in particular.
I love supper clubs. When I first saw the gravel pile next to Feiler’s, I remember thinking it reminded me a little of the design of another classic Wisconsin supper club, the Pyramid of the Nile, near Beaver Dam. It was built in the shape of a pyramid, and owned — when Madison attorney Jeff Scott Olson and I stopped in 2007 — by someone who had managed the State Street Rocky Rococo’s.
There was a story behind the Pyramid (which, alas, does not survive), just as there are stories associated with most of the great and enduring Wisconsin supper clubs. It’s like what “Hamburger America” author and filmmaker George Motz said about the best burger joints: the burger needs to be good, but it should be accompanied by a history.
Feiler’s has history. Mitch’s grandfather, Peg Feiler, bought the restaurant in 1966 from Henry Ballweg, who ran it as Ballweg’s Restaurant, starting in 1947. There is a photo of Peg at the bar with a group of regulars on a wall near the current front door.
When Peg died, Mitch’s parents, Jerry and Mary, took over. Since Jerry’s death a little over a decade ago, it has been Mary’s, with Mitch and his sister Jenni working alongside.
Feiler’s is such a classic Wisconsin supper club that when Capital Brewery launched its popular Supper Club beer in 2010, it shot the commercial at Feiler’s.
Given its status among Wisconsin supper clubs, I laugh recalling that I once had to talk Mitch into admitting Feiler’s was a supper club at all.
“We’re not a true supper club,” he said, pointing out that Feiler’s is open for lunch, unlike most Wisconsin supper clubs.
But what it offers — a wonderful Friday fish fry, prime rib on Saturdays, onion rings, terrific soups — pretty well shouts supper club. The bar is cozy, the kind of place where on a cold winter night you might overhear the famous Wisconsin line: “I think I’ll have another brandy while Doris heats up the car.”
Even the Feilers now admit their place is a supper club. From their website: “Let Mary and her attentive staff show you the true meaning of Wisconsin Supper Club Dining.”
The gravel pile is gone, the twice-baked potato lives on.