John Kavanaugh III has been hearing from his kids that he’s not “with it” anymore.
“They tell me I’m old,” said Kavanaugh. “I get that once in a while.”
Yet his family restaurant, Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club, is about to turn 70 this spring. Clearly Kavanaugh is doing something right, even if he’s is not quite ready to swap whole wheat sandwich bread for ciabatta.
“You have to have your core business and your core values,” Kavanaugh said. “But you have to be willing to change and add new stuff too.”
All businesses must update and innovate, but change for a beloved Wisconsin supper club can be a tricky thing. Kavanaugh’s north side restaurant and bar has succeeded by keeping many things the same, like oldies music and an old school jukebox, strong Old Fashioneds, classics like liver and onions and a variety of steaks and seafood.
“They ain’t making any new cows,” Kavanaugh said. “There’s only a certain number of steaks you can add.”
The Esquire Club of the 21st century looks a little different than the restaurant John (Jack) Kavanaugh, Jr. and his wife, Jane, purchased and reinvented in 1947.
Over the years, they’ve added a dining room and put in a ramp for wheelchairs. There are options for gluten-free and vegan diners, and recent menu additions like coconut shrimp ($19.95).
Kavanaugh’s offers more craft beers on tap now, pulling pints of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and Karben4 Fantasy Factory alongside Miller Lite and Spaten Oktoberfest.
“People are drinking more different styles,” Kavanaugh said. “They don’t seem to have that loyalty. A number of years ago, if you drank Miller you drank Miller, and if you drank Bud you drank it every time.
“Now it’s, ‘What do you have on tap?’ and (they) pick from what you have.”
Kavanaugh senior still oversees the menu, running the restaurant with his two daughters, Bridget and Jackie Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club has four dining rooms, three on the main floor and one on the lower level that seats about 100. Some 300 people can dine at Kavanaugh’s at the same time, thanks in part to a renovation five years ago that added 3,000 square feet of space to the kitchen including storage.
What’s coming out of that kitchen ties Kavanaugh’s to the rest of the state, one fish fry at a time.
Across the aisle
Lately, Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club has been in the press as a gathering place for Dane County Republicans. Kavanaugh helped start a northside business group and said he leans conservative himself.
“Madison is a liberal city, no question about it,” he said. “There’s been a few issues that have come up lately that have divided the people. They’re a little more opinionated sometimes.”
He’s nostalgic for the days when state legislators would cross the aisle more often, many of them at his bar. Back then, he said, “there wasn’t quite the divide there seems to be now.
“They’d do their business up town and argue, and at night they’d get together.”
While Kavanaugh and his daughters have made some updates to the menu, Kavanaugh senior has no use for organic meat or vegetables (“I don’t find the value in it”). He feels no pressure to cater to millennials, though much of his clientele is aging.
“You want them to feel welcome,” Kavanaugh said of younger patrons. “The younger customer ... isn’t looking for something brand spanking new. They like to step in and find the nostalgia of a ribeye steak and baked potato, too.
“They’re not always looking for the three-ounce cheeseburger with feta cheese on it.”
As for Kavanaugh himself, if he had to choose a favorite thing from his own menu, he’d go for a Porterhouse ($30.95).
“I’m a huge steak fan,” he said. “I love a sirloin, a ribeye. We work hard at making it well. I like to think ... if you like a sirloin, we have a great sirloin. We’ve got a good ribeye, New York Strip, 26 ounce Porterhouse. We’re using certified Angus beef.
“You don’t go home hungry from the Esquire.”