Bar food /bahr fud/ noun
- an animal-based conglomeration of meat and grease washed down with a pint of beer.
- a creative mix of locally produced ingredients, ethnic cuisine, and vegan-friendly dishes offered alongside local brews as well as non-alcoholic beverages, including kombucha.
While the second definition seems wildly unplausible, the Weary Traveler Freehouse proves its rare occurrence. A longtime institution of Madison’s East Side (and right next to my second home, the Willy Street Coop), the eclectic pub beckons a crowd of all ages, sports wacky decor such as lamp bases made of old rotating dial phones, and has a tendency to hire some of the most attractive waiters who have ever served food to me. Speaking of food, the Weary menu includes its share of meaty sandwiches (all locally sourced and organic, though does there ever exist a “humane” method of animal slaughter?), but also boasts a bounty of vegan options including their spicy, hearty Ramblin’ Vegan’s Chili with vegan cornbread; refreshing Sweet Corn, Quinoa, and Black Bean Salad topped with avocado; and their Mediterranean Platter of hummus, tabouli, marinated artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and pita bread.
I hadn’t paid a visit to old Weary since last February, and decided on a gorgeous and uncharacteristically warm March day to introduce my eating buddies Mira and Maria to the hip restaurant.
Upon seating ourselves, a tall, handsome, thick-rimmed-bespectacled waiter filled our water glasses, over whom we all promptly swooned. After calming ourselves, the two M’s and I dived into the menu to decide our lunch’s fate, giggled our orders to the suave server, and eagerly awaited our food. And awaited. And awaited some more. Verging on annoyance at the thirty-minute mark of our wait, I interrupted our animated conversation to demand “Where on Earth is our food?” Mira and Maria assured me that the pub seemed adequately crowded to merit the wait (we had chosen to dine there at noon in the wake of Saturday brunch, after all), but an extra ten minutes without a sign of our order left me wary of Weary’s service until it can prove me wrong at my next visit.
Finally, our somewhat flustered waiter arrived, deliciousness in hand, and apologized for the hold-up. I flashed him a dazzling smile (about which I’m sure he still dreams), and promptly attacked my two dishes. Stricken by the brightly colored plate overflowing with vegetables, I immediately fell in love with my Roasted Veggie Salad—separate piles of tender red beets, juicy bell pepper strips, crunchy carrot slices, succulent marinated artichoke hearts, and creamy sweet potatoes surrounding a mountain of gorgeous mixed greens drizzled in an orange-serrano chili vinaigrette and sprinkled with sunflower seeds. Often disappointed at the unsatisfactory size of salads at most restaurants, I was quite pleased that this beast almost equaled my daily lunch box salad behemoths for a vegetable-laden, filling meal.
Underestimating the generous portioning of the salad, I also ordered a cup of the Tom Kha Tofu—a Thai stew of coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galanga, cilantro, mushrooms, green beans, tomatoes, and extra-firm tofu. Even though the soup left my tummy a bit more stuffed than I would have preferred, I would have missed out on an absolutely delectable bowl of pure joy. The creamy rich broth, the luscious mushrooms, the tender-crisp green beans, the springy tofu—each component, lovely on their own, combined into a comforting amalgamation of Thai flavors and contrasting textures. I may even consider this Tom Kha superior to that of Ha Long Bay, an actual Thai restaurant.
Meal Checklist: Protein—tofu, sunflower seeds. Whole Grain—none. Vegetables—beets, bell peppers, carrots, artichokes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, green beans, cilantro. Leafy Green—mixed salad greens.
Maria verily enjoyed the vegetarian version of the West of the Andes Sandwich—avocado, pico de gallo, and roasted veggies piled high on a bun and smothered in Chipotle mayonnaise. As per usual, the bigger-than-her-head sanwich left Maria utterly covered in mayonnaise and other various foodstuffs, but she insisted that our eating excursion would not be complete without her messy antics.
Mira, eyeing the brunch menu, ordered a half-order (she’s got a stomach the size of a pea, that girl, I swear!) of “Le Toaste”—Weary’s haughtily named version of French toast. Lamenting over the fact that she hadn’t eaten the popular brunch dish in quite a while, Mira seemed to fill a sort of void in her heart with the thick slabs of whole wheat bread dipped in almond-spiced egg batter.
Though the Weary Traveler often becomes packed to the brim with hungry, slightly tipsy, hippie-ish East siders, potentially slowing down service, its quality of food and dedication to sourcing local products forever renders me a huge fan of the friendly tavern.
You can follow the Weary Traveler on Twitter at @wearychefjoey, where Chef Joey tweets his daily specials.
Until next time, Ali.