After days of gray, midwinter sunlight feels bracing. That intensity, even before the first snow sticks, seems to energize everything it touches.
On the best afternoons, Longtable Beer Café in Middleton floods with that pure natural light like a benediction. Garage doors, shut snug until spring, enclose an open-format dining area with — of course — very long tables.
“We were really focusing on trying to make a communal dining experience,” said Longtable chef Josh Chavez. Tables “force people to group up and interact with people they might not normally interact with.”
With Longtable, Brasserie V owners Matt and Andrea Van Nest set out to make a self-contained indoor version of a biergarten. Approachable and relaxed, Longtable opened in mid-October on the ground level of a new apartment building in Middleton Center across from Village Green Bar & Grill.
Outside Longtable, work continues on Middleton Center — if those garage doors opened now, diners could hear as well as see piledrivers pounding soil in the adjacent pit.
But inside, the piercing winter sunlight at lunch and a boisterous beer hall vibe at night make everything feel warm.
Longtable loves beer, and there’s always something new here. A dozen taps change constantly. Approach the open cooler with a tentative look and someone will slip out from behind the counter to offer advice.
The style of service is casual and communal, with metal buckets on the tables for silverware and serve-yourself water carafes. After placing an order at the counter, diners cluster around wooden boards of cheese and charcuterie ($16 small/$25 large) at wooden picnic tables.
Most of the menu is meant to share. Groups of friends dip into honey-drizzled pastry pillows stuffed with goat cheese ($7.50) or cones of Belgian style frites sprinkled with cracked black pepper ($5.50, a Brasserie V specialty done just as well here). Dips, like a citrus-y green goddess and creamy beer cheese, were scrape-the-bottom-with-your-finger good.
Chef Chavez, recently a general manager at L’Etoile, has a background in barbecue and Southern food (Big Jones in Chicago). Longtable has enough vegetable-focused dishes to feel contemporary, but Chavez has embraced the meat and beer theme.
There are snacks like pork rinds ($7), nubs of bacon in cider-glazed brussels sprouts ($9) and spicy lamb meatballs ($12.50), weighty as fists. A sandwich of brisket ($13), not as fatty as some, carried a kick from crunchy, spicy giardiniera. A standard issue hoagie ($10) brought me back to college on deadline days, when a Jersey Giant sub with Italian dressing was all I needed to get through the day.
Yet when (some of) the beer is Belgian, the sausage should really be better. Among four links slathered with onions, peppers and mustard on a sausage board ($25), two from Knoche’s — a “spicy” Italian and a hefty bratwurst — got cottony inside, with enough salt to make us sweat. Mellow yet meaty boar from Missouri and a Polish sausage from Chicago with great snap set the bar higher.
Longtable does comfort food, but like many of Madison’s new taverns, it’s comfort food for now. Grilled cheese with cheddar ($8) added interest with horseradish havarti and thinly sliced apples. Hearty spinach salad with smoked trout and mild goat cheese ($11 small/ $17 large) had a good mix of textures and sturdier greens than the ubiquitous spring mix.
On the fish board ($21), cured sockeye salmon, mildly creamy whitefish rillettes and smoked trout stood up to all that malt and hops just as well as the sausages.
A side of chickpeas ($5.50 a la carte) could have used more preserved lemon and I’d have added feta to the neutral orzo salad ($5.50). But I’ll allow that maybe there was plenty of salt already on the table.
I wish more Wisconsin restaurateurs looked at wine the way the Van Nests look at beer. The lovingly curated tap list is full of German-style dark lager from Metropolitan in Chicago, Belgian tripels and intense dark ale from 3 Sheeps in Sheboygan.
And the cooler at Longtable is some 300 bottles strong. Even those rotate so fast that the lemonade-y “neo-Berliner weisse” I grabbed before dinner, Dogfish Head Festina Peche ($5.50), was gone when we returned for lunch the following week.
Let go of the worry that you’ll choose wrong (you might, so what?) and it’s fun to experiment here. Among stouts and porters, we found a 750 mL of Une Anee’s Airing of Greivances ($16/750 mL), a holiday-ish imperial stout with roasted flavors of chocolate and dried fruit.
A Flanders Oud Bruin called Cuvee Freddy ($9), a sour ale aged in oak, was a dead ringer for wine and I loved it completely. Untitled Art’s coconut coffee barleywine ($7.50) packed a sweet, boozy punch.
As I happily sipped another Untitled Art beer, a blackberry Berliner Weisse as tart and cloudy as fruit juice ($4/ 9 ounces), my husband searched among meads and ciders to find an intensely autumnal cider from French calvados maker Domaine Dupont (2016 Cidre Bouché Brut du Normandie, $12).
Longtable looks made for parties. In the new year Chavez said the restaurant plans to expand weekend hours. Even now it can get loud, and that seems right
Lean in. Ask your neighbor what she’s drinking. We’re all friends here.