Just before 10 p.m. most every Friday and Saturday, the basement of Tornado Steak House bubbles into a lively bar scene.
The Corral Room, which opened for weekend bar business in mid-December, feels swanky and nostalgic, a comfortable extension of the dark elegance upstairs.
White half-moon banquettes line one wall, leading to a small, standing-room-only bar.
Blanche DuBois would love the lighting, tucked into the low ceiling and augmented by candles. Antique maps on the walls give the room a vaguely nautical look.
When 116 S. Hamilton St. was home to the supper club Crandall’s, the Corral Room was used for business lunches and fish fry overflow.
Tornado has occupied the space since 1996. The Corral Room has been open intermittently since then, offering a space for both punk bands and private events. For several years, owner Henry Doane kept it closed to allow for plumbing work.
In spring 2011, Doane and Tornado manager Bob Hemauer decided to reinvigorate the Corral Room, “a beautiful space,” Hemauer said, that had been neglected.
“We have a popular bar crowd,” Hemauer said. “To have a slightly less formal style of service late night(s) on the weekends made sense.
“One thing we don’t have upstairs is a lot of space for bigger groups,” he added. The Corral Room “is less formal by nature. It’s a free-flowing extension of our bar.”
Still, the Corral Room retains an air of refinement. The lounge menu, also served nightly in the upstairs bar starting at 10 p.m., is ideal for when the symphony’s over but you’re still sporting a fresh manicure and heels.
Reflecting the menu upstairs, Corral offers an 8-ounce sirloin ($13), Coquilles St. Jacques (poached sea scallops in heavy cream, $12.95), escargots ($8.95) and cold shrimp cocktail with horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce ($11.95).
Upholding Tornado’s beefy reputation, the steak sandwich ($8) was flawless — meaty and salty, tender and moist, with a slight kick from horseradish sauce on a soft white bun.
An enormous bacon bleu cheese burger ($9) could compete with the best in town, fat and pink in the middle topped with crispy strips of bacon, red onion and creamy sauce.
But the elements in a towering salmon sandwich ($8) — a thick slab of pepper-crusted fish, too much remoulade, flavorless hard-boiled egg — never came together.
Opportunities for indulgence abound, from a 6-inch wedge of iceberg swimming in French/blue cheese dressing ($5.50) to French onion soup slicked with oil, dotted with chives and heavy with melted Swiss ($5.50).
On the side, obligatory Wisconsin cheese curds ($7.50) were meltingly perfect and steak fries ($5.50) tasted pleasantly like fat wedges of baked potato.
And arguably no one outside the Capitol Square can compete with Tornado’s cocktails. The James Madison (created for 77 Square’s cover story on Madison-themed drinks) was simply excellent, herbal Death’s Door gin balancing sweet spiced cider and cherry gastrique ($9.50).
The days of loud music under low lights are gone, and a new kind of bar has taken its place. The Corral Room may sound casual, but this is no saloon.