The Essen Haus is one of the more highly regarded German restaurants in the Midwest. Since 1983, the restaurant has served up some of the finest German fare along with American favorites. They feature nearly 20 German beers on tap and offer well over 200 other types of bottled beer from all over the world. I took one of my dealers out to dinner there on a recent trip to Madison. It had been years since I'd last been in the Essen Haus and I was really looking forward to it.
Local entrepreneur Bob Worm opened the Essen Haus in September 1983 - just in time for their first Oktoberfest celebration. The building in which the Essen Haus is located dates back to the early 1860's in a historic area in downtown Madison known as the Old Settlement neighborhood. Part of the building contained the Germania Hotel which was said to house German immigrants as they arrived in Wisconsin.
In the 40's and 50's, the very popular Hoffman House - which, at the time, was THE fine dining restaurant in Madison - was in the building in which the Essen Haus is in today. Seven Hoffman brothers ended up running a total of 18 Hoffman House restaurants in Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. In the mid-70's, they sold the restaurants to Green Giant - the same Green Giant vegetable company - and Green Giant was, in turn, bought by Pillsbury. Pillsbury ended up selling off all the restaurants and the original Madison location was closed.
For a while, Hoffman House became the Wilson Street Dinner Theater, but that didn't go over all that well. Bob Worm came in and decided to put in an authentic German restaurant/beer hall complete with large tables for group and family-style eating. In addition to the Essen Haus, Worm also owns and operates the Ruby Marie Hotel next to the Essen Haus, as well as the adjoining Come Back In and The Up North Pub, two smaller pub-style places.
The Essen Haus is located on the Southeast side of the downtown area not far from Lake Monona (see map). There's a large parking lot behind the restaurant and it was nearly full from all the people in the establishments in and around the Essen Haus. The restaurant was pretty full, but we were able to get a table near the front of the restaurant on a step-up landing that provided a good view of the German band playing on the stage.
As we looked over our menus, we enjoyed the German Polka music provided by the Steve Meisner Band. People were dancing and the music was very good. And it wasn't all that loud, so we were able to carry on a conversation with no problem. Even with the ornamental dark wood trim throughout the place, it was easy to hear my guest talk from across the table.
Like I said, it had been years since I was in the restaurant and I forgot how large the main dining room at the Essen Haus. And there is an adjoining dining room to the side that can easily seat over 100 people. The Essen Haus is a popular place and has brisk business nearly every evening.
In addition to the Essen Haus being decorated in authentic German decor, the restaurant features one of the largest collections of ornamental beer steins in the U.S. They also have a shop of beer steins, glasses and "boots" called The Germania Collection that is located in the corner of the old Germania building. They also have porcelain figurines, decorative plates, nut crackers and other assorted items tied to German heritage.
Of course, we had to have beer. I ordered a Spaten lager. A LITER of Spaten lager. And another waitress brought out a basket with a couple large homemade, piping hot pretzels with a side of horseradish and this outrageously great German mustard. It was sort of mixture of sweetness, a sour flavor and some spiciness to the mustard. My guest told me, "I usually don't like mustard all that much, but I love this stuff!" I asked our waitress if any were available for sale and she said she didn't think so. But she did give me a small container of it before I left. (Even keeping it cool overnight, it had lost some of its taste sensation. It wasn't as good as when it was originally served.)
I was really torn between a number of items at the Essen Haus. From the Sauerbraten to their Huhner (chicken) Schnitzel, everything sounded so damn yummy. I'd gotten the Rahm (pork chop) Schnitzel on a prior visit and I was tempted to get that again. But this time I ended up ordering the Schweinelendchen in a Pfefferam Sauce - pork tips sauteed with mushrooms and onions, then topped with a spicy pepper cream sauce. I ordered spaetzle and red cabbage as my side. A small dinner salad came with the meal, but I was more interested in trying their liver dumpling soup. I got that as a substitute for my salad.
My guest was equally torn between a number of items. He said, "I usually get the sampler when I can't make up my mind (smoked Thuringer sausage, Schweine Braten and a smoked pork chop). Or I get the Rinder Rouladen (I almost got that - strips of beef wrapped around smoked bacon, mustard, onion, ground veal pork and a pickle, then topped with a mustard gravy). But I'm gonna go with something different tonight."
He ordered up the Weiner Schnitzel - breaded veal cutlets pan-fried in a butter/lemon sauce and served with a side of sauerkraut and German potatoes. "My wife likes the Weiner Schnitzel here," he said. "I've never had it, so I guess I'm gonna try it now."
My guest got a salad with ranch dressing and that was brought to my table along with my cup of liver dumpling soup. There was a nice large ball of ground liver in the cup - I'm not big on liver, period. But I do like liver dumpling soup. Go figure. And the Essen Haus' liver dumpling soup was very good. I made quick work of the soup and it wasn't long after I finished that our main entrees were brought to the table.
My Schweinelendenchen was absolutely fabulous. The pork tips were moist and tender. The taste of the pork hadn't been cooked out of it, either. The mushrooms were more prevalent in the sauce than the onions and they were very fresh, as well. And the sauce, well, it was just out of this world. It had a nice little spiciness to the taste and was very good when I dipped a piece of the rye bread into it.
My guest liked his Weiner Schnitzel. He said, "I normally don't get veal all that much, but my wife loves it. I've had bites of hers in the past and this is very good." There was a nice coating of breading over the veal, but not enough that it overpowered the taste of the meat.
In addition to regular German fare on the menu, the Essen Haus features prime rib on Thursday and Saturday, and fish on Wednesday and Fridays. They also have a number of steaks on their menu including a whisky peppercorn steak that my guest told me was "to die for". He said, "If you like the pepper sauce on your pork tips, you really need to try the whisky peppercorn steak." I'll have to try that on my next visit.
With a large German-heritage population in Wisconsin, I certainly do like the Germanic style beers that they brew in the handful of breweries around the state. But there are also some great German restaurants, as well, and the Essen Haus is one of the best in the state. Heck, it's one of the best in the Midwest. We had great service, great food, wonderful beer and listened to some pretty good German music. Everyone has a good time at the Essen Haus. It's no small wonder why it's packed nearly every day.