Let's begin with an obvious truth: Longevity is hard to come by in the bar business. For every rock-solid establishment with decades under its belt, there are many more nascent concepts hoping to execute a vision with staying power.
When that doesn't happen, for whichever of the many reasons these things fall short, there's a decision to make: Sell it and quit, or cook up another concept.
Lisa Markiewicz did both. After running the Mediterranean dining spot Waterstone Bar & Grill for six years, the Highlandtown native sold the business in 2014 to pursue her MBA. She has since purchased the bar back, and in mid-March opened the West Madison Craft Beer & Wine Bar, an operation focused on its bar program and providing a casual hangout.
The shift from three-course dining to a bar-focused haunt was deliberate, Markiewicz told me recently. Waterstone's focus was too narrow, she said, and patrons now would rather share small plates as they drink.
On a recent Friday, I saw newcomers on their first visit, and they quickly approved of the digs.
“You'll be seeing us a lot more,” a man in his 30s told the bartender. When she walked away, he turned to his companion to say, “It's so cute in here.” The friend nodded in agreement.
I visited West Madison a couple times recently, and it made for a low-key, comfortable setting. Sunlight filled the space via large, open windows as toothless music by David Gray and Bruno Mars played over speakers and groups of friends and coworkers mingled in the two different bar areas. Attached to the bar is a packaged goods shop selling beer and wine to go six days a week (Monday, the one day West Madison is closed, is the exception).
The bar's very name and concept nod to the sustaining trend, both locally and nationally, of craft beer and wine. West Madison does enough to justify it, too, with 50 types of beer (12 of which are on draft) and approximately 30 brands of wine. The beer list consists of roughly 80 percent Maryland beers, including Monument City and the Brewer's Art. There's an emphasis on Union Craft Brewing.
The cocktail list would benefit from more diversity. (Of the 14 choices, half were variations on crushes and mules.) It's a safe, somewhat dated list with items like an espresso martini ($11) and the rum-and-blue-curacao-based Undercurrent ($8). The Madison Mojito ($8) came straight from a textbook (Bacardi rum, mint-infused simple syrup, minto, cilantro, limejuice and club soda), but it was well-balanced and undeniably refreshing.
My two visits came during happy hour, which runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. each day with its own menu of discounted food, beer, wine and cocktails. My rail gin martini was probably the best $5 I spent that week.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Markiewicz how she wanted West Madison to build its reputation, and her immediate response was service. She considers it a major focus.
But on my first visit, I noticed a shortcoming — my bartender didn't seem fully trained. It was her third day, she said, and when cocktail orders came in, she asked for the menu to confirm the ingredients, or to confirm that the cocktail was even on the menu.
I ordered a Seton Hill Ol' Fashion ($12) and received two rather different tasting drinks. The first from the recently hired bartender seemed much less composed, and the Angry Orchard apple cider “float” had a too-heavy pour that overwhelmed the cocktail. When I went back, another bartender who seemed much more at ease with the menu made what seemed like the intended version (the float, for example, was a mere top-off), and the difference was striking. I still didn't love the cocktail (which uses Powers Irish whiskey, sugar, lemon slice, Angostura bitters and a cherry) but at least I felt like I was tasting what was meant to be on the menu.
Hiccups aside, West Madison — which also features live performances from jazz musicians and singer/songwriters — seems better suited for the neighborhood than a fine-dining eatery. Markiewicz said locals have embraced the new concept so far, and on my visits, there was steady foot traffic of people from all different ages and backgrounds.
From overhearing their conversations, many were there from simply stumbling upon the place while walking the street. Some hung out for hours, while others popped in for a quick drink and promised to return soon.
Cocktail menus can be updated and staff can be better trained, but the welcoming atmosphere at West Madison is an asset that can't be manufactured, and it should help in making this concept stick.