The Ohio Tavern on Madison’s East Side has reopened after seven weeks as improvements were made inside while the street in front of it was torn up for utility work and updating.
“It was like, ‘Well, if we’re going to fix the things we want to fix and take care of the things we want to take care of, this is the best time we’re going to have to do it. So, I got a little carried away fixing things and ended up gutting the room,” said owner Josh Swentzel.
Before the renovations, Swentzel said, a cocktail glass might fall off the bar if it was wet since it wasn’t exactly level.
“It’s an old place that had been Band-aided so many times that it was like, ‘Okay, we can really improve our service and our life behind the bar, if we fix these things.’ And obviously, it was never a restaurant before. So now we have a little more kitchen space. We gave the cooks a little breathing room back there.”
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Before he bought the bar at 224 Ohio Ave., off Atwood Avenue, seven years ago, there was a beer cooler in the corner the he removed and installed what he referred to as essentially a tiny food cart to make the bar’s tacos. While it’s still a tight space, he said, employees are able “to dance around the bar a little better.”
Now, in addition to the prep kitchen in the basement, there’s a taco station and a space to prepare oysters, which the bar started serving this week. Oysters on the half shell are available by the half dozen, with three varieties per day.
The bar was opening at 4 p.m., but now it’s opening at 2 p.m. and selling oysters from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and then tacos and oysters from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., with tacos available until midnight.
“We’re just feeling it out,” Swentzel said about the oysters. “It’s a tight space back there. It’s new, it’s a weird idea… We’re just making sure, because the tacos are so busy, we want to make sure we can handle both and do both of them properly if we’re going to pull ’em off.”
He said it’s a weird idea after temporarily laying off staff and shutting down a successful business to completely renovate it. “Everywhere that is currently rocking oysters is fantastic, but a more casual place to get ’em seemed like a good addition.”
The Ohio has also become a late-night food spot when it wasn’t previously, he said.
“COVID changed that a whole lot,” he said. “We noticed that we were always getting off work and there was nowhere to go eat. So, we started opening until midnight. It was pretty slow for a while before we closed, but we stuck it out and now we get some pretty good late-night business.”
The bar added six new types of tacos, going from 10 to 16. In addition to lentils, pork, brisket and chicken, now there’s also braised black beans.
The hot sauces are temporarily unavailable. Since the remodel, the space looks different and the caddies Swentzel had on the tables to keep the hot sauces organized and clean, don’t match the room anymore. He’s in the process of having new ones made.
The room was repainted, and the local artist, Audifax, painted a mural on the back bar wall after Swentzel had the plaster removed and took the wall down to its original brick. Audifax also did a mural in the vestibule into the bar.
During the renovations, the mahogany-topped bar and back bar were rebuilt and Swentzel added lighted floating liquor shelves.
Swentzel said street construction started in mid-April and went a lot faster than was anticipated.
Ohio Avenue is now one-way going north with a single parking lane. “The city very graciously, without us asking, gave us eight extra feet of concrete terrace for a patio, which is absolutely amazing,” Swentzel said.
Once he figures out new city licensing for the terrace, he’ll be able to add about 24 seats in front. He already has about 20 seats on the back patio.
The new terrace will be “a lot safer, nicer, more comfortable,” he said.
Swentzel said the city reached out to him and the owner of Revolution Cycles around the corner, for input on how to make the bike path intersection safer.
“It was so wildly dangerous and they really listened to all of our feedback and they made so many changes,” including speed bumps that make the bike path a raised lane and separate it from car traffic.
“So, people can’t rush in there at 30 miles an hour and almost kill somebody every five minutes, which was what it was like,” Swentzel said.
39 Madison-area restaurant, bar and coffee shop openings in 2021, including more on the way
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